Drones Are a Challenge — and an Opportunity

Coauthored with Ritika Singh, Cato Unbound, January 11, 2012

David Cortright crafts his essay as a series of cautionary warnings about the rise of drone warfare, but his core argument goes far deeper than drones: Cortright objects to drones, which promise unprecedented levels of humanitarian protection of civilians, chiefly because they facilitate the effective use of military force, including in situations in which the United States has not previously used military force. “Any development that makes war appear to be easier or cheaper is deeply troubling. It reduces the political inhibitions against the use of deadly violence. It threatens to weaken the moral presumption against the use of force that is at the heart of the just war doctrine,” he writes. As a result, he contends, “The first and most important question is whether drone technology makes war more likely.” And lest anyone miss the point, he also complains that drones “perpetuate[] the illusion that military force is an effective means of countering terrorism. . . .We should know better by now.”


To lay the matter bare, Cortright objects to military robotics because the field offers effective weaponry that keeps our forces safer while enhancing their lethality and targeting precision with respect to the enemy—the combination of which invites use. In other words, he objects to precisely what any operational commander would find attractive about drones.

Drones are a weapon like any other weapon. Their evolution is the latest step in a very long chain of the development of lethal technologies—virtually all of which involve the attempt to augment one’s offensive capability while at the same time minimizing one’s exposure to risk during attack. Indeed, the entire history of weaponry is really a history of decreasing the value of distance as a defense and of creating ever more remote opportunities to attack. The first Australopithecus who picked up a rock to strike one of his fellows learned that he didn’t have to use his hand. The spear gave one of his descendants the ability to impale at whatever distance he could throw. The arrow extended that distance still further—and thereby increased the attacker’s accuracy and his safety even more. The gun, the artillery shell, the air strike, and the Predator drone all follow this basic pattern.

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