Unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as drones, have arguably become the central feature of our country's counter-terrorism strategy.
Like other new technologies, drones have taken America into a Wild West of unregulated territory, full of possibility, and America has followed with remarkably little discussion of the ethical implications. The time is ripe to take a long, hard look at what the proliferation of these vehicles might mean for the nation and the world, and to thoughtfully adopt policies of wisdom and restraint.
We don't have ready answers. But we suggest several areas in which leaders and citizens should be asking pointed questions.
The number of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan alone has increased from 52 under President George W. Bush to 282 so far under President Barack Obama, with more than 2,200 people killed by drones in that country over the past three years, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
This raises ethical questions about the way drones are changing modern warfare. As with nuclear weapons, which likewise changed war and its moral calculus, they prompt the question: Just because we can do something, does it mean we should?
Drones enable a warfare of focused assassinations. This strategy risks fewer American lives and is relatively easy to execute from a distance. But should risk and convenience drive the way we think about targeted killings? Do we have a clear sense of whether or when they cross a moral line? Who in our military hierarchy decides who lives and who dies, and what criteria do they use?
For a country that stands for the idea that justice should be decided fairly in courts of law rather than through contests of might, is there a line between justified killings and war crimes? How does our moral framework account for the hundreds of innocent civilians, including women and children, chalked up to collateral damage?
More than 50 countries, including China and Russia, have some level of drone technology. China in particular seems to have fewer inhibitions about exporting its technology. Given that drones are likely to become widely available due to the relative low cost and convenience of producing and using them, what precedent should the U.S. set for their use?
For example, the U.S. currently deploys drones in noncombat zones in countries where no formal war has been declared. How comfortable would America be if other countries, including its enemies, did the same? What moral ground can America claim if and when that happens?
Finally, we must consider our own humanity. It's easy to focus on the novelty of unmanned vehicles, but the truth is that most are not, technically, unmanned. Pilots at bases from New York to New Mexico put in full days maneuvering drones remotely, gathering information on the personal lives of targets and, when the time is right, pulling the trigger.
An article in The New York Times last week revealed something of the psychological stress these pilots endure. A few will develop PTSD; others will internalize the stress in other ways. The Air Force — which is training more drone pilots than fighter and bomber pilots combined — is now supplying chaplains and medics at drone operation centers to help pilots cope.
Before America charges ahead into this brave new world of drone warfare, its citizens deserve to have a debate on what it means for individuals, the country and the world.
National security is vitally important. And, like other essentials, it comes at a cost. America should carefully count that cost and be certain it is paid prudently. The country may well come down on the side of drone strikes as a new keystone of national security. But it should do so as the result of a full discussion of the facts and a careful shaping of policies. This discussion has not yet happened. It needs to.