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The game-changer in global conflicts

A new book on drone warfare shows how the use of the weapon is transforming how war is waged, says TOMASZ PIERSCIONEK

Drone Warfare 

by John Kaag and Sarah Kreps

(Polity, £17.80)

IN THE last 10 years armed unmanned aerial vehicles — drones — have been operated to kill individuals in at least seven countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Palestine, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. Their use is changing the way war is conventionally waged.

In this book John Kaag and Sarah Kreps explore the legal, moral and political questions and controversies that have transpired alongside the proliferation of a technology that allows one side to wage war from afar while incurring minimal risk to its own personnel. “The rhetoric and moral thinking about war has become sloppier as our weaponry has become more precise,” they contend.

While guiding the reader through the maze of emerging ethical and legal quandaries, and demystifying the common arguments and counterarguments relating to the use of armed drones, the authors avoid taking sides in the debate. Instead they explore the validity of arguments put forward by opponents and proponents of drone warfare. 

Yet they caution against the growing risk of “moral hazard,” whereby a nation could in future go to war without its leadership needing to consider the drawbacks of negative public opinion and critical questioning about the reasons for conflict which often follow deaths on the battlefield. These act as a potential brake on leaders launching wars on a whim. 

Describing themselves as pragmatists rather than pacifists, Kaag and Kreps emphasise too the wide legal and ethical gaps when it comes to the use of drones. The rapid pace of technological development has outstripped the legal sphere and moral reasoning, they argue. They show how, especially in recent years, drone warfare does have drawbacks, despite the apparent military advantages. 

And they demonstrate how, despite the benefits to one side in terms of fewer — if any — casualties, such “benefits” may precede the development of civic apathy when it comes to opposing conflict.

The questions raised and the arguments explored in the book are becoming more relevant as other other countries seek to acquire armed drones, with the way the US behaves being seen as a precedent for other states. Thus, the authors suggest that the US takes the lead in their “judicious” use.

Drone Warfare is a good overview of a complex topic and though the explanation of some of the legal concepts underpinning their military deployment requires concentration to understand, the authors provide much food for thought for both proponents and opponents of drone warfare.

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