Lowy Institute

Debate: Remote-control warfare

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The Wikileaks video showing an American Apache helicopter killing a group of Iraqis has predictably reignited controversy over the close resemblance modern games have to actual warfare, which is conducted increasingly via pin-point strikes from aircraft safely out of range, or even using flying robots guided by 'pilots' on the other side of the world watching a screen and moving a joystick.

Andrew Sullivan's blog carries a video from a game called 'Call of Duty 4'. Level four of the game is named 'Death from Above', and it's eerily similar to the real Apache footage:

Sullivan also links to a very good interview with Wired journalist Clive Thompson which damps down some of the hysteria about this issue. But there are a couple of additional points worth making.

First, even if you believe that electronic war games can condition soldiers to kill more easily in real life, 'Death from Above' doesn't seem like a very good vehicle for that argument. I don't play these games myself, so this hardly counts as detailed content analysis, but the video above indicates that the game-play revolves around discrimination — killing the enemy but sparing friendly soldiers and the innocent. That seems like a really important skill for soldiers to have in order to reduce casualties.

Second, the concern with 'remote-control warfare' changing how soldiers fight crowds out discussion about technology affecting when nations fight. American casualty figures in its modern wars are extraordinarily low by historical standards, and that's in large part a function of technology — America can project immense power while putting very few service-members in danger.

That's good news if you're a soldier in a modern nation, and I'm not suggesting that there ought to be any less emphasis on troop safety. But these relatively low casualty figures do lighten the moral load for political leaders considering a military intervention. Personally, I worry much more about remote-control warfare encouraging reckless military adventurism than I do about video games turning soldiers into mindless killers.


Adam, a veteran of the Afghanistan war, writes in response to my post about video games that increasingly resemble real war:

My PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) is due largely to targeting decisions — my own in the heat of chaotic battle — offensive actions and battle damage assessments carried out in front of my own eyes on a laptop screen (and which I personally directed at times).

Make no mistake: the distinction between fantasy (gaming) and real-world remote warfare is very clear and profound. When you see limbs separated from a man's torso or a fellow coalition soldier dismembered by AQ (al Qaeda) allies on an LCD display, several hundred kilometres from the action, I can assure you that the real human cost weighs heavily on one's conscience. Only a psycho would feel nothing emotionally.

I know of several real cases where US government officials (uniformed and civilian paramilitary) and civvy contractor UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) pilots, ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) planners and targeting specialists are suffering very real, chronic and debilitating mental illnesses arising from such exposure, some of which was experienced from a mission control bunker in mainland USA — that is, nowhere near a war zone.

Yes, young gamers are excellent candidates for driving remote sensors and certain modern offensive action but they are human and there is predictable cost to their wellbeing when the war is over. Same human frailty, be it a bayonet attack at dawn or Hellfire 'barrage' in the dead of night at the click of a mouse.

The business of killing people is nasty. But I've never read anything sensible about how to prevent it. Didn't Freud say something about intrinsic evil in human nature?

This whole argument about the supposed ease of remote fighting and so-called risk of machines making decisions is just plain silly.


Christian Enemark from the University of Sydney writes:

An excellent post by Afghanistan veteran Adam. He insists that 'the distinction between fantasy (gaming) and real-world remote warfare is very clear and profound', and I am inclined to agree and to sympathise with anyone suffering PTSD.

The psychological hazards faced by those who kill from afar is a subject worthy of more research, but Adam's post raises broader concerns about the legality, ethics and prudence of drone-based warfare in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In particular, I am intrigued by his reference to 'US government officials (uniformed and civilian paramilitary) and civvy contractor UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) pilots'.

To the law first, and under Article 43 of the Geneva Conventions Additional Protocol I, only 'Members of the armed forces of a Party to a conflict' are 'combatants', and no one else has the 'right to participate directly in hostilities'. The US Government will not confirm reports that Langley-based CIA (noncombatant) drone operators are targeting militants in Pakistan. Perhaps this is because there are doubts about the legality of what appear to be extrajudicial killings or outright assassinations.

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The UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, Philip Alston, has repeatedly expressed his concern that 'Predators are being operated in a framework which may well violate international humanitarian law and international human rights law.'

Regarding military ethics, and beyond the understudied issue of PTSD, a key concern with remote-control warfare is the distinction between risky and risk-free modes of killing. Military 'pilots' in Nevada operating drones over Afghanistan are potentially exposed to psychological harm, but they kill in a manner that undoubtedly entails no physical risk. The expertise, instruments and minds of drone operators are most certainly 'in the fight', but their bodies are not.

As such, within the warrior profession, the use of drones potentially challenges traditional notions of honour, courage and masculinity. On the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, Shakespeare’s Henry V said that 'gentlemen in England' would 'think themselves accursed they were not here, And hold their manhoods cheap...' (And yes, civilian academics like me might fall within this category too.)

Lastly, on the issue of prudence, there is a risk that drone strikes will be counterproductive to the strategic ends of counterinsurgency. Last year, David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum warned against expanding or even just continuing the drone war in Pakistan for three reasons: (1) it created an undesirable, anti-American siege mentality among civilians; (2) drone attacks are popularly believed to have caused more civilian casualties than is actually the case; and (3) the use of drones without a concerted information campaign directed at the Pakistani public amounted only  to a tactic rather than a strategy.

If drone strikes are 'counter-counterinsurgency', they are imprudent, and any popular ill-will generated can only be compounded by perceptions of illegality, immorality or cowardice.

In the final sentence of his post, Adam makes the broader observation that 'This whole argument about the supposed ease of remote fighting and so-called risk of machines making decisions is just plain silly.'

In response, I would say firstly that these issues are not well understood and I thank Adam and Sam for bringing them to light. But the 'whole argument' is far from silly and is well worth having. Arguably, for example, remote fighting is easier precisely because it is less (physically) dangerous, and machine-mediated decision-making on matters of life and death is fraught with legal, ethical and strategic risk. On these and related issues, there needs to be much more debate.


In his email on the remote-control warfare debate, Christian Enemark claims to be making an ethical point when he says that, in physical terms at least, drone pilot put themselves at no risk of harm when they go to war. He goes on to say that 'the use of drones potentially challenges traditional notions of honour, courage and masculinity.'

But that's really a sociological observation, not an ethical one — Christian hasn't really demonstrated why the use of drones is particularly problematic on an ethical level.

Yet I can see some ethical problems arising from the Christian's line of thought. After all, don't governments and citizens have a moral duty to protect those who fight on their behalf? And don't drones serve that purpose? If drones are ethically questionable because they allow armed forces to fight without risk of physical harm, then what other military technologies ought we to consider unethical on those grounds?

Certainly the fighter-bomber would be out in the Afghan war, since the enemy has no means to defend itself from high-altitude strikes — the physical risk to these pilots is only slightly higher than that of drone pilots. Coalition countries also use long-range artillery in Afghanistan to hit Taliban targets from a distance, thereby keeping friendly troops safe. Then there are the armoured vehicles to protect against mines and IEDs. Individual troops carry body armour too.

For that matter, so did soldiers at the Battle of Agincourt (pictured), to whom Christian refers as upholding traditional notions of honour, courage and masculinity. Perhaps such notions are more honoured in the breach than the observance.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.


Peter Layton writes:

Your debate on drones has some resonances with debates about spying on the enemy by listening to their signals. US Secretary of State Henry Stimson shut down the State Department's cryptanalytic office saying 'Gentlemen don't read each other's mail.' Technology keeps throwing up new ways of making war that need to be dealt with.

In this regard some are concerned that fighting remotely is less manly and courageous. I am sure that the same was said of artillery when it first started being outside the range of the immediate retaliation of foot soldiers. However it cuts to the core of the role of war in Western thinking. War has become instrumental. It has a political purpose. As Clausewitz said, (modern) war has its own grammar but not is own logic. 

The manliness argument tries to make war into some search for, or reaffirmation of, one's own identity. Some cultures have this view of war, some believers in this principle probably live on the Pakistan/Afghanistan border but it is not why contemporary armed forces wage war. On this side of the enlightenment wars are instrumental; surely no one suggests anything different? And so drones seem to have a place in the future of making war.

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Secondly, the view that drones are counter productive in counter-insurgency.

The drone strikes in Pakistan that worry people are not counter-insurgency, they are counter-terrorism. Such attacks aim not to directly protect the local population but instead kill terrorists in their sanctuaries. These drone attacks are enemy-centric. There is undoubtedly collateral damage but this is arguably much less than any other means of directly attacking the terrorist sanctuaries. 

Does anyone doubt that using land forces would be much more problematic and much, much more costly in civilian lives? Or do people wish to make the case that terrorist sanctuaries should be no-go areas for Western forces?

Air power makes obvious a contemporary problem with all uses of armed force, especially in eras of non-linear battlefields. Who is it legitimate to attack? People suggest that the foot soldiers are fair game but that their leaders, suppliers, supporters and financiers are not. At what part of the supply chain is it acceptable to stop the business of war? Who can be attacked: the people who use the rifles, those that train them, those that supply the rifles to these individuals, those that make them, those that finance the rifles, or those that feed the people that use the rifles?

Some ethicists will say only the individuals using the weapons, but this is a recipe for long-term attrition warfare that singles out young men as expendable. This is a position not without its moral dilemmas as well. Is it morally right to end a war quickly by taking a more expansive view of targeting or better to use methods that favor protracted and more deadly wars? Who in a society is responsible and accountable for a war being undertaken — should only those expendable young men at the front lines be held accountable? Should we attack the 18 year old suicide bombers only or also Osama bin Laden in his cave? This is an area where there are no easy answers, and probably no good ones either.

Moving from counter-terrorism, there may be some more anguishing in the future over stopping rogue states getting nuclear bombs. Who is it then acceptable to attack physically or with harsh sanctions: the military forces that might be equipped with the nuclear bomb, the scientists who are building the bomb, the bureaucracy administering the building, the leadership advocating it, the contractors involved, the companies supplying the raw materials, the taxpayers funding it all, and so on....??

No easy answers seem available. The making of even just wars at their core always carries moral and ethical dilemmas, albeit the current use of drones may make this tension more obvious.

Photo courtesy of the US Air Force.


Matt Currie responds to our debate:

There seems to me to be two separate questions here which are being blurred in this debate. One is practical and the other moral.

Firstly, If playing computer games desensitised people to the act of killing wouldn't there be measurable consequences? Gaming is incredibly popular amongst the whole community (not just the military). I'm no statistician but wouldn't there be a rise in the number of killings;  a higher murder rate? I am not aware of any evidence which supports this.

Even if the games do have a desensitising effect, is there any evidence that this is greater than the effect of military training? Professional soldiers are already conditioned to kill on command. My own experience is that the combination of training, military culture (that emphasizes toughness), the need to follow orders and to do one's duty have a greater effect than playing military simulation games.

Secondly, military personnel kill on the orders of the politicians who deploy them. The moral weight of the decision to kill should fall on the politician, not the soldier. When the State sends soldiers to fight we should do all in our power to protect them. The evolution of military technology throughout history has been aimed at reducing the risk to soldiers and increasing the danger to their enemies, I doubt we will ever change this trend. There is no going back.

Lastly, having seen the debilitating effect that PTSD has on friends who have served on military operations I would suggest that if it is proven that there is a desensitising effect on drone pilots, an office in Nevada might still be a welcome alternative to front line service.


James Brown has worked as an Australian Defence Force officer and completed his Masters in Strategic Studies in 2009. These are his personal views.

The recent posts on the use of predator drones draw out three key issues. Firstly, are they legal or ethical? Secondly, are they effective? Finally, and quite bizarrely, is fighting with drones manly, courageous, or honourable?

Let me consider the last point first. Christina Enemark mentioned that 'the use of drones potentially challenges traditional notions of honour, courage and masculinity'. In the considerable time I’ve spent talking to drone jockeys and targeteers none of those concepts have been important factors in how they do their job. Those operators are happy to leave pontificating on masculinity to poets, philosophers, and singer-songwriters. Drone pilots derive the same professional satisfaction from making tough decisions under demanding circumstances as any other professional. They don’t drive home through the Nevada desert feeling that they haven’t done their bit in the war.

The legality of drone strikes is a more intriguing question. Read More

Enemark quotes The UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions who states that 'Predators are being operated in a framework which may well violate international humanitarian law and international human rights law' — a conclusion Philip Alston came to after a total of 11 days on the ground in Afghanistan in 2008. Alston’s report draws heavily from this ICRC report, which itself is based on outdated international humanitarian law framed with a WW2-like battlefield in mind.

The test of whether someone is a targetable combatant is whether they are directly participating in hostilities. State Department legal expert Harold Koh mentions here the robust processes which determine who will be targeted for drone strikes. Coalition targeting approval processes in Afghanistan are extremely rigid, with multiple levels of internal military and external civilian oversight —including now the Afghan government. The problem in understanding these processes is that Jack Bauer and other TV heroes have conditioned us to expect that drone strikes occur instantaneously and easily. This is far from the truth. Like all other aspects of war, drone operations require plenty of detailed planning, patience, and a degree of good luck.

Philip Alston’s problem with drone operations seems to be less that the US doesn’t have robust targeting processes, and more that he doesn’t have access to them. Nor should he. Professor Alston is an expert in many things but sensitive intelligence source handling is not one of them. If Alston wants to understand how drone targets are selected, he should join the military or run for political office.

Enemark notes arguments that suggest drone strikes are ineffective because they create a siege mentality amongst Pakistani citizens, lack a concurrent information campaign, and ultimately only temporarily reduce insurgent leadership capacity. I wholeheartedly agree on the second point. I’d argue though that the siege mentality in Pakistan comes more from constant insurgent attacks in Pakistan’s towns and cities than from drone strikes in sparsely populated and inaccessible areas in the North West provinces. The suggestion that drone strikes provide little disruption to enemy operations is misguided. Drone strikes and surveillance place constant pressure on insurgent networks — forcing them into extremely complex procedures to carry out their everyday business. When drone strikes decapitate terrorist and insurgent leadership figures, the disruption to enemy networks buys space and time for conventional military operations inside Afghanistan.

Decisions on the use of drone strikes don’t occur in a vacuum. They are made by professionals acutely sensitive to the issue of civilian casualties. They are also made with an excruciatingly aware consideration of the military alternatives. Ethical and legal debates over the use of remotely piloted drones are important, but shouldn’t neglect a consideration of the practical alternative military courses of action. Nor should they fail to consider the consequences if the military didn’t act at all.

Photo by Flickr user dragsterhund, used under a Creative Commons licence.  


Here's a bracing contribution to our drone warfare debate.

In the margin's of yesterday's ICG Asia Briefing conference in Singapore I talked with Samina Ahmed, ICG's Project Director for South Asia. She argues that much of what we hear about the effects of US drone strikes in the FATA areas of Pakistan is wrong — it doesn't drive locals into the arms of extremists, in fact quite the opposite.

You can listen here.


Peter writes in with this contribution to the drone debate.

A recent article by the LA Time illuminates more aspects of the drone attacks on terrorist groups operating from the FATA pertinent to this ongoing blog debate...

In these drone attacks, as an earlier post makes clear, the US endeavors to abide by law of war conventions meaning that only the terrorist groups leadership and readily apparent foot soldiers are targeted.

As the article observes attacks are not authorised against those individuals that facilitate Al Qaeda operations or fund the group. This approach, while legally correct and ethically sound, does have strategic ramifications when thinking about these wars of non-state actors.

...The drone strikes are then principally focusing on terrorist attrition and disruption. The Times Square bomber and the Christmas airline bomber were not well trained suggesting that the terrorist groups are indeed having difficulties in their redoubts.

However, the drone strikes cannot go on at this level forever, and when they decline the terrorist groups will gradually recover as quickly as their resourcing allows. Moreover, for the foreseeable future Pakistan and Afghanistan (or Yemen) are unlikely to control their territory to a level that definitely rules out transnational terrorist groups using these states as a sanctuary.

The present strategic balance between defensive and offensive actions against FATA based terrorist groups may need to shift. More emphasis may need to be placed on defensive measures, as the present level of offensive action cannot continue indefinitely...


Barack Obama has inadvertently contributed to our lengthy debate on the morality of drone warfare. The joke went down OK at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner last week, but not so well after the event: here, here, here ...