The Ethics Of Predator Drones Criminology Essay

Since its inception in 1995, the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator was initially intended for reconnaissance and forward observation roles, but the September 11 attacks changed that altogether. During February 4, 2002, the CIA deployed the first unmanned, armed Predator drone in an assassination attempt. The strike was to happen in the city of Khost, a province in Afghanistan. The target was Osama bin Laden, or at least someone who the CIA thought was him. Armed with a payload of Hellfire missiles, the drone attacked a group of would-be insurgents. Days later, local journalists and Afghan civilians reported that the dead men were civilians collecting scrap metal. What ensued thereafter was backlash from the public condemning its use. Using (UAVs) unmanned aerial vehicles to kill suspected terrorists marks a radical departure from the ways we have dealt with enemies before. Drones have unofficially become the weapon of choice for counter-terrorism. And over the coming decades, are expected to replace piloted aircraft. With the future of warfare pointing to the use of drones, legal and ethical issues surrounding their use must be explored. Since their deployment, armed combat drones have killed terror suspects as well as innocent civilians.

The Ethics of Predator Drones


From David’s slingshot, to the invention of bows and arrows, then guns, and missiles, major advances in military technology have revolved around the ability to kill from a distance. Just like a sniper able to shoot down an NVA commanding general from a mile away, the ability to shoot at your enemy from a greater distance than he can shoot back at you is one of the reasons why warfare continues to evolve. The MQ-1 predator drone is just a new tool in a new kind of war. A war waged in the 21st century, the height of technological advancement in weaponry.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were used by the US military as a test bed for their development of future weapons. The US military might is one of the greatest of the world. The US spends more money in defense than all of the other countries combined. The money spent is used in the hopes of lessening military casualties, and to help in accomplishing missions and tasks in a more effective way by using new technology. Their latest inventions include an assortment of robots that are capable of performing EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) and IED (Improvised Explosive Device) destruction missions. Some robots have even cross-trained to a more combat role. For example, the US military have deployed a robot called the Foster-Miller TALON. This robot’s mission ranges from reconnaissance to combat by employing a rifle mounted apparatus to its tracked chassis. Calibers from the M16, M249, M240 machine gun, .50 Barrett, and sometimes a six barreled 40mm grenade launcher have all been outfitted into its tracked chassis. These are just examples of the robots that are deployed on the ground. The most noticeable robot from this new generation of combat robots is the MQ-1 Predator drone. To this day, the Predator drone has flown more than 1 million flight hours.

Combat Capabilites

The CIA began experimenting with reconnaissance drones since the early 1980s. It was only in the early 1990s when they finally found a suitable prototype that could meet their intended mission needs. Before the production of the current MQ-1 Predator, most of the prototypes were so loud that their detection was inevitable. A chief designer from the Israeli Air Force immigrated to the US in the 1970s and started his own defense contractor business and called it General Atomics. The CIA secretly bought 5 drones from General Atomics and equipped with a more improved and quieter Rotax engine that is driven by a propeller. The Predator drone can fly a range of 770 miles and stay in the air for up to 40 hours, cruising at altitudes over 25,000 feet. Its top speed is 135 mph which is powered by a 115 horse powered Rotax engine. With a payload of 450 pounds, most of the equipment include: infrared tv cameras, and a ground-scanning Synthetic Aperature Radar. A variant was also produced to provide a more combat-centered role. This variant is armed with a pair of AGM-114 Hellfire laser-guided, anti-armor missiles. Another variant called the MQ-9 Reaper is their latest incarnation of combat drones. The MQ-9 Reaper is much larger and also capable of autonomous flight operations. It is the first hunter-killer UAV designed for long-edurance missions.

The Predator can be disassembled into 6 main components and loaded into a container which makes it rapidly deployable. Included in the Predator package is a 20ft satellite dish and other supported equipment. The satellite dish provides a link to communicate with the operators at a distant remote location. The ground station houses the multiple support staff from pilots to sensor operators. The remote link could be as far as 5000 miles away, which makes the predator a system rather than an aircraft. The advantage of using such a system is that it has all the advantages of a traditional reconnaissance sortie without ever exposing the pilot to a hostile environment.

Combat Record

Currently the US Air Force has over 190 MQ-1 Predators and over 25 MQ-9 Reapers in operation. Over 250 missiles have been fired in Iraq and Afghanistan alone since 2008. An estimated 70 Predators have been lost due to weather, equipment failure, operator error and an additional 4 have been shot down. With over 1 million flight hours, the Predator has maintained a 90 percent mission capable rate. With no US casualties related to operating a drone, this proves advantageous in combat operations.

The Predator drone first took flight over the Balkans. It provided reconnaissance during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. Then in 2000, the CIA and the Pentagon joined forces to locate Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. The first flights over Afghanistan were more of an observatory role which provided intelligence for the locations of suspected terrorists. It wasn’t until the September 11 attacks that the US started to seriously consider arming the Predator with weapons for combat purposes. After successful testing of the newly armed Predators, the US found more missions for the Predator to perform and more are used today in multiple combat zones.

With its newfound role as a combat drone, the US began to deploy the Predator on missions to Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, and other middle-eastern countries in which suspected terrorists are expected to be in hiding. During missions in Iraq, several Predator drones encountered Iraqi MiG-25s and participated in the first air to air combat between a drone and a piloted fighter aircraft. In fact, the US stripped multiple Predator drones of its sophisticated weapons and sensory systems and used them as decoys in the sky to entice Iraqi air defenses to expose themselves by firing. The most recent account of a Predator being used to kill high-profile terrorists was during an operation to apprehend deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Since then, several Predators have returned to Libya in support of the Benghazi attacks.

Civilian Casualties

Despite its combat effectiveness against suspected terrorists, reports suggest that far more civilians have been killed by US drone attacks than US officials have acknowledged. A new study by Stanford University and New York University contends that CIA targeted killings aren’t making America any safer and instead has turned the Countries that these drones have ravaged against the US. The study calls for the Obama administration to be more transparent and accountable for its actions, and to prove compliance with international law.

One instance in dispute involving civilian casualties occurred during a drone attack on March 17, 2011. An estimated 42 people were killed during a Jirga, a meeting of elders. According to reports, most of those killed were civilians with only 4 known members of the Taliban in attendance. The disparity of civilian deaths to militant deaths calls to question the legal basis for targeted killings by drones and the criteria in which an authorized strike is recommended against armed men who fit the profile of militants. The study says that the drone attacks violate international law because the government has no proof that the targets are direct threats to the United States.

The following graph displays the reported fatalities resulting from US drone strikes conducted in Pakistan. As you can see from the graph, fatalities have risen significantly since 2004. The dramatic rise in fatalities correlates to the frequency of use. Not only has President Obama’s administration embraced the CIA’s campaign of Predator drone strikes in Pakistan that began under President Bush in 2004. It has also continued an acceleration of the campaign that began in July 2008 during the last year of President Bush’s tenure (Woodward 2010: 25).

There is also evidence that the range of persons being targeted has expanded. In particular, it has been widely reported that late in the Bush administration, the CIA received permission to broaden the scope of targeting from an exclusive focus on high-value al-Qaeda and Afghan Taliban targets to include “low level fighters whose identities may not be known” and that this broadened scope has gradually come to include the Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP) or Pakistani Taliban (Kilcullen, Exum, Fick and Humayun 2009: 18; Mayer 2009; Entous 2010). More and more pressure has been added by the international community to stop these drone attacks, but top US officials have defended its use. A top US counter-terrorism official cited the benefits of its uses. Such benefits include reduced danger to US pilots and limited US military involvement overseas.


There were reports from the Wall Street Journal that revealed the Bush Administration’s and CIA’s plan to set up hit squads to capture and kill Taliban and Al Qaeda militants around the world. The anger from the public grew even more when the Times reported that the CIA planned to carry out these hits by employing the controversial private contractor formerly known as Blackwater. Members from both the House and Senate intelligence committees claim that these plans were hidden from them and demanded a thorough investigation of the programs created to carry out those hits. Although the program was never fully operational, many legal experts contend that if they were, it would have violated President Gerald R. Ford’s 1976 executive order in which it bans American intelligence forces from engaging in assassinations.

Although the targeted-killing program was never fully implemented, many consider the Predator program to be an extension of its intended creation. It so happens, that the Predator program also uses private contractors for maintaining the drones, equipping it with Hellfire missiles, and also flying it.

There are currently 2 drone programs in which the US government runs. There is the military version, for which it is publicly acknowledged and operates in recognized war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan. The military version is considered to be an extension of conventional warfare. Then there is the CIA’s version, which aims at killing suspected terrorists around the world, including in countries where US troops are not present. The latter is covert and not much information is provided to the public about how it chooses its targets, where the operations are conducted, or how many people have been thought to have been killed. The international community condemns these targeted killings and suggested that these attacks would encourage other countries to disregard long-established human rights standards. Some even suggested that these drone strikes may even constitute “war crimes”. Powerful countries such as China, Russia and other countries have publicly criticized the US drone attacks. The concern is mostly about the use of drones outside of recognized war zones and the secretive nature of such operations. Aside from the lawful use of drone attacks in which it is involved in armed conflict, some consider the secondary attacks on rescuers who are helping the injured after the initial drone attacks, those further attacks are suggested to be war crimes.

Ethical Concerns

One of the main concerns about using the Predator drone, despite its exemplary combat record, is that drones could lead us down the road to building fully autonomous weapons systems; machines that can make their own lethal decisions on the battlefield. It’s hard to distinguish which weapon system is considered ‘autonomous’, so for the purpose of making a quick distinction, I will refer to any weapon that makes a decision to launch a lethal attack as fully autonomous. So, a heat-seeking Hellfire missile that follows a target would not be autonomous because a human entity made the decision to push the button to launch it, but a Predator drone programmed so as to make the decision for itself to fire on a specific target of its own accord would be. So as long as the human element is present for each particular lethal decision, it would not be considered autonomous. Many consider autonomous drones to be morally impermissible and are afraid that the move to make current drones autonomous is just around the corner.

Another concern pertains to the drones’ decreased ability to discriminate combatants from noncombatants. The concern stems from the trust-worthiness of intelligence and also from the ability to discern different people from a video feed in which the operator is literally thousands of miles away from the battlefield. The examples given before in which the toll of civilian deaths were reported to be significantly larger than the combatant deaths attest to this concern.

Some are worried that the use of drones leads to psychological conflicts for their operators. A drone operator would go home or to a PTA meeting after a hard day’s work of killing suspected terrorists from the comforts of his work desk. Some argue that this places unjust psychological burden on them and causes cognitive dissonance in the mindset of the warrior. An even greater concern is that drone operators would treat warfare as if it were a video game; as a result from the cognitive dissonance which will weaken a warrior’s will to fight. This could ultimately lead to mental problems or even PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) which would likely affect the operator’s decision-making on the battlefield.

Another criticism is that drones create unjust asymmetry in combat. The objection follows: The use of technologically superior weapons such as drones by one force against another force that does not have the means to attain similar technology crosses an asymmetry threshold that makes the combat inherently ignoble. It’s considered to be morally impermissible to pit two opposing sides against each other whose combat abilities differ greatly. Imagine pitting a lion against a dog. The same principle applies when you consider jus in bello (Laws of war). This position is usually held because in such circumstances one side literally does not take any life-or death risks whatsoever (or nearly so, since its warfighters are not even present in the primary theater of combat) whereas the opposing side carries all the risk of combat. (Stawser, 2010)

A Moral Case for Drones

There are many advocates for the continued use of drones. Some argue that the US is not only entitled but morally obliged to use drones. Considering all the advantages, there is really no downside to using them. Drones are merely an extension of a long historical trajectory of removing a warrior ever farther from his foe for the warrior’s better protection. (Strawser, 2010) Predator drones have been credited with the removal of top Al Qaeda and Taliban members, the most recent being Al Qaeda’s No. 3, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid. Stopping these influential terrorist leaders proved to be valuable in stopping large scale terrorists plots aimed at destroying or even devastating US cities and their allies.


It’s only a matter of time when drones will rule the sky. Not only are drones being used in the combat zone, assassination plots, or just surveillance, there are plans in the future for them to roam in the sky of our own US cities. Plans to make drones an extension of law enforcement are inevitable. Before that happens, we have to be responsible citizens and look deep into the ethical problems that they provide and not be blinded by its technological superiority. As the drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere have demonstrated, we now have the ultimate in push button warfare. There is always an advantage to having military superiority over your enemies. However, I think it’s important that we not fall into the trap of thinking that just because our slingshot has a greater range than the other guy’s, we are morally justified in using it in every case. Military superiority brings with it a moral responsibility not to use the superior weapons we possess merely because we possess them. (Vincent, 2009)

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