In defence of US drones

Stone the crows! Abhoring the arms race is fashionable again.

Ever since President Dwight Eisenhower warned against giving the military and their mates in industry too much political clout, opponents of armaments have criticised the US for defending itself – which was not what President Eisenhower was actually alarmed about. [i]

This nonsense reached a peak when President Reagan’s “star wars” plan for a missile screen to stop Soviet attack was condemned.[ii] Critics were less upset that it would cost a bomb (sorry), and not work, than it would upset the Soviets.

The argument went away at the end of the Cold War but it is back in the form of opposition to drones, which the US is investing in as a cheap and effective way of killing terrorists.

Last week the Crows came across a Monash University media release in which philosopher Robert Sparrow called on the “robotics community as a whole” to “just say no” to working on military robots.

“If robots are not defending our homelands against foreign invaders or ‘terrorists’ but rather killing people overseas in unjust wars then this raises serious questions about the ethics of building robots for the military in the current period,” he is quoted as saying.[iii]

The Crows were curious about the use of the word “terrorists” in inverted commas – it seems an entirely appropriate term, in no need of qualification, to use against fifth columnists who want to kill people at random for the high crime of holding political or religious opinions they do not agree with.

But they worked out where Dr Sparrow is coming from due to his description of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan as “immoral”.

Philosophers the Crows aren’t, so while invasions to remove a theocracy in one country and a kleptocracy in the other (both of which ignored human rights) don’t look immoral to them, what would they know?

But, however comfortable he is on the high ground, Dr Sparrow has lost the argument on the utility and indeed morality of combat robots.

From artillery to intelligence and on to transport, software runs a range of military equipment, which is programmed to act independently or in the case of kit with a capacity to kill, be piloted remotely.[iv]

The leader of the cyber squad is the USAF MQ-9 Reaper, (the replacement for the Predator) which is equipped to find and kill individuals and small groups.[v] The Reaper can stay in the air for 42 hours and will replace the 200 Predators.[vi] At $16 million or so each and with no risk of pilot loss, Reapers are the ancestors of the full-service, low cost air forces of the future. You can buy a Reaper for, what? A wing of the admittedly far faster and much more sophisticated F-35? The plane that will cost the RAAF $80 million each on average.[vii]

So what’s wrong with the Reaper, on duty, killing terrorists in Afghanistan? Critics say the people who push the fire button can see who they are about to kill via the drone’s cameras and yet non-combatants in Afghanistan have still died.[viii]

Fair enough. But Reaper pilots also have options not to fire, a capacity that the far away individual who launches a Tomahawk missile does not have. Nor does a fighter pilot, who has seconds to line up and hit a target, have any better idea whether he is hitting hostiles.

The real image-issue with the Reaper is that it is part of a new way of war hated by those who reject the idea of the US as a benign hegemon, committed to democracy and human rights around the world.

As The Economist explained, “the conduct of war is being transformed – and largely, it seems, to the West”s advantage.”

Twas ever thus. People who dislike the way democracy and capitalism outperform all other political systems will always find a reason to criticise the US way in war.


[i] As Mr Eisenhower put it in his farewell address, “Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. …. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.’ January 17 1961, @ recovered on August 25

[ii] Ronald Reagan, “Address to the nation on defence and national security,” March 23 1983 recovered on March 23

[iii] Monash University, “Call to boycott killer robots,” August 21 @ recovered on August 25

[iv] “Robots go to war,” The Economist, June 2

[v] US Air Force, “MQ-9 Reaper,” May 1 @ recovered on August 21

[vi] Aaron Saenz, “MQ-9 Reaper is the badass of military drones,” Singularity Hub, November 2 2010 @ recovered on August 24

[vii] AAP, “ First RAAF Joint Strike Fighters to cost $130m each,” The Australian,

[viii] Peter Beaumont, “Are drones any more immoral than other weapons of war?” The Observer, August 19