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Remote Weapons: Ethics from a Distance

A fully armed MQ-9 Reaper drone

A fully armed MQ-9 Reaper drone taxis down an Afghanistan runway. Credit: US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson

By Adam Henschke

Are military drones that launch lethal attacks by remote control of any more concern than traditional warfare capabilities?

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Drones, lethal unmanned air vehicles and robots as part of modern warfare: these sound like the realm of fantasy, but we are facing a revolution in military technologies. Many interested in military ethics are concerned that these technological advances might present some important ethical risk, and so we should reject these sorts of remote weapons.

Is there something ethically special about remote weapons that should cause us to be concerned? There are three points at which we might be facing some particular ethical concerns: that remote weapons are special, secret or ensnaring.

Remote weapons allow the application of lethal force by people who are not in the immediate vicinity of battle. Drones are the most commonly thought of technologies here, in part because they are the most widely used of these remote-controlled technologies. But drones do not necessarily entail lethal force. While drones like the Reaper Drone sometimes use weapons, the vast majority of drones in military use are used for intelligence, reconnaissance and other support roles. While there may be ethical concerns with standard drones, such as privacy and border security, these seem far less ethically troublesome than death by remote control.

At the other end of the scale are war-robots, fully autonomous weapons systems that are designed to make decisions to kill without human...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.