Is the Use of Drones in Conflicts in Countries Such as Yemen and Pakistan Ethical?

Traditionally, ethics have been used to shape the entire identity and culture of the military regardless of the ideology or political system in which a military organization operates. The technology reconceptualization of warfare, as exemplified with the increased use of drones to conduct military strikes, has significantly changed the idea of military ethics. With drones now being at the forefront of high-technology warfare, the question of how people ought to make critical judgments becomes paramount. Military operations use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to undertake surveillance and attacks that are impossible with contemporary aircrafts. Additionally, drones have been viewed as less-risky as far as one’s forces are concerned. However, as opposed to organic military, drones cannot separate combatants from non-combatants, posing a serious danger to civilians. The pertinent question that this paper seeks to answer is whether the use of drones in countries such as Yemen and Pakistan is ethical.

Since the 9/11 attacks, the United States has endeavored to develop the use of drones to locate, target, and eliminate individuals considered to pose security threats to the country. Although the use of military UAVs was at first kept secret, the U.S. government has acknowledged the use of the program to fight members of Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations in conflict zones. According to Keene (2015), the use of armed drones by the U.S. had grown exponentially, by 1200 percent, between 2005 and 2013. By early 2012, the United States’ Pentagon reported being in control of 7,500 drones, representing a third of the entire U.S. military aircraft. Scary as it may seem, this trend is expected to continue, with most people viewing the use of military drones as the future of warfare (Keene, 2015). As technology advances and presents humans with new capabilities, it becomes necessary to adopt new moral standards and rules. The United States holds that the use of drone strikes is legal, effective, and ethical (Keene, 2015). However, the fact that the issue of ethics in drone use in military operations has been examined deeply exemplifies the moral ambiguity surrounding the issue.

The traditional military operations are largely guided by the Just War Theory. The theory formally provides the moral justification for war. Typically, the theory is a philosophical tradition fixed in the Western world that primarily seeks to answer to key questions regarding the justification for war; the question of whether the decision to engage in warfare is moral (jus ad bello), and whether the military actions during war engagements are moral (jus in bello) (Wright, 2015). Since the Just War theory concerns itself with violent conflicts, the typical analysis of the morality of military actions reference who should be killed in war. Usually, the distinction is given between combatants and non-combatants where combatants are regarded as military targets while non-combatants not targeted by military operations.

Just War theory largely applies the principle of discrimination, whereby only those engaged in conflicts should be the legitimate targets. Additionally, the principles of necessity and proportionality also surround the discussion on military ethics. Military attacks ought to be proportionate to the target value and any associated collateral damage (Wright, 2015). Consequently, targets that pose significant threats justify a greater response. These principles become very relevant when analyzing the issue of ethics of armed drone operations.

Since 2002 when the earliest drone strikes were recorded against Al-Qaeda in Yemen, covert drone strikes operated by the U.S. have hit Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. According to Wright (2015), between 2,400 and 3,888 people were killed in Pakistan between 2004 and 2014. Out of these numbers, it is approximated that between 416 and 959 were civilians. In Yemen, between 371 and 541 people have been killed by U.S. drone strikes, whereby 64-83 causalities were civilians. During these operations, there are reports in which children have been killed. For instance, in Pakistan, between 168 and 204 children were killed while seven were skilled in Yemen (Wright, 2015). Analyzing the number of children killed during wartime is specifically important. While it may be difficult to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants when dealing with adults, children can easily and safely be assumed to be innocent. Considering the number of civilian casualties in these operations and further acknowledging the fact that such causalities make up a high proportion of those killed makes the question of ethics in drone strikes paramount.

The U.S. government maintains its position that drones are accurate and effective and consequently, define the future of modern warfare. However, the high number of civilian casualties, including children, in Pakistan and Yemen, indicate that armed UAVs are largely unsafe towards noncombatants. In most cases, governments that largely use drones in military operations have been found to either cover up or deny entirely any cases of civilian casualties. Due to the classified nature of military operations, the problem of accessing affected areas, and the reluctance of civilians to talk openly about drone strikes due to the fear of retribution, few empirical studies record the quantitative impact of armed UAV strikes on non-combatants. According to O’Halloran (2019), it is estimated that the U.S. drones accounted for 2,200 civilian deaths between 2002 and 2013. Given these massive casualties on civilians and damage to infrastructure, the impacts of using drones in warfare are quite disturbing. Civilian deaths as a result of military drones in Pakistan and Yemen do more harm than good. For instance, such strikes create long-term economic and political instability, weaken the U.S. influence in the Middle East, and form the basis for radicalizing civilians, hence creating more enemies rather than eliminating the existing ones.

Those who support armed drone operations argue that the use of drones is easier, cheaper, ethical and effective. Advocates for drone strikes also view drones as a better alternative compared to airstrikes, which are often associated with greater collateral damage. Further, proponents of drone strikes argue that countries with drone capabilities such as the U.S. are not only legally entitled but also morally right to use them on the grounds of accuracy and safety (O’Halloran, 2019). As Boyle (2015) notes, former U.S. President Obama’s speech on drones, which might be taken as the American position on the legality and ethical use of drones in warfare, supported America’s actions as being legal. Further, President Obama indicated that the U.S. drone campaign in countries, such as Pakistan and Yemen, was part of a just war that was waged as a last resort, in defense, and proportionately. While the U.S. might not have explicitly broken any international laws as a result of their drone strike operations, it is widely accepted that the strikes are controversial. The advent of lethal automated weapons (LAWs) has raised several concerns, especially regarding military ethics (O’Halloran, 2019). While drones could kill many terrorists without endangering the life of military personnel, it is also likely that they could kill significant numbers of non-combatants, leave alone the structural damages they leave behind.

Despite the attacks conducted or just planned by terrorists, there is an international criminal law that provides for prosecution for those who deliberately target and kill civilians. However, proponents of drone programs are likely to argue that it is impractical to arrest many terrorists without risking the life of their own forces or bystanders (Boyle, 2015). Further, those who support drone strikes opine that terrorists are not likely to surrender without the use of force and the possibility of sheltering themselves among civilians is high. However, a more apt comparison between organic military and drone strikes can be made in relation to the 2011 raid by Special Forces in the attempt to arrest Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. Although the risks posed to the navy seals were higher than if the U.S. had opted to use a drone strike, much discrimination was achieved hence minimizing the number of civilian deaths (Boyle, 2015). While it may be argued that the process of controlling and commanding drone strikes is not fully automated, people opposing drone strikes argue that the technology automates killings. The ‘PlayStation mentality’ of drones to targeted killings remains a contentious issue.

The moral distance between the target and moral operator desensitizes the operators from the killing acts, making killings easier. In the use of drones, drone operators do not need any courage whatsoever. Similarly, soldiers engaging in drone warfare do not need to exhibit any form of sacrifice in their willingness to fight and defend their course. Typically, drone operations are costless in terms of risks to soldiers, making the financial aspect the only significant cost associated with drone programs (Keene, 2015). For most operators, drone attacks are just technological expertise, and much does not count when it comes to justice. From a humanitarian perspective, firing a missile from a computer cannot compare to launching a missile from the battleground. As such, decision making on the side of drone operators is not entirely informed by justice or injustice factors. In traditional military operations, there are moral virtues and disciplines that guide military personnel. Conducting offensive military operations by drones does not need such virtues, discipline, and humility, which are crucial in the military moral community.


After considering the two sides of the coin, this paper concludes that the ethical and moral setbacks of drone strikes surpass its perceived advantages, and as such, it is unethical to use drones in Yemen and Pakistan. The use of drones in military operations in countries such as Yemen and Pakistan has been added to a list of controversial counter-terrorism tactics by the U.S. The technological reconceptualization of warfare has promoted the use of drones in military operations. The debate on the use of UAVs in wartimes is a hotly contested topic. Those who support drone programs argue that drones are effective, easy to use, and less risky to own forces. Further, proponents opine that the use of drones is ethical and effective, especially when the alternative involves the use of airstrikes, which often result in greater collateral damage. On the other hand, drone programs have been heavily challenged on ethical and moral grounds. For instance, the inability of drones to separate combatants from non-combatants is a key issue surrounding the justification for armed drone operations. Civilian casualties create long-term economic and political instability, weaken the U.S. and the Western influence in the Middle East, and form the basis for radicalizing civilians, hence creating more enemies rather than eliminating the existing ones.



Reference List

Boyle, M.J., 2015. The legal and ethical implications of drone warfare. The International Journal of Human Rights, 19:2, 105-126, DOI: 10.1080/13642987.2014.991210.

Fatić, A., 2017. The ethics of drone warfare. Filozofija i društvo28(2), pp.349-364.

Keene, S.D., 2015. Lethal and Legal The Ethics of Drone Strikes. U.S. Army War College Carlisle United States.

O’Halloran, B., 2019. The Ethical Concerns Of Drone And Automated Warfare. Journal of International Relations. Sigma Iota Rho.

Wright, E.A., 2015. Of Drones and Justice: A Just War Theory Analysis of the United States’ Drone Campaigns. Richard T. Schellhase Essay Prize in Ethics. 4.