Digitial warfare: Drones and lethal autonomy…

The image that war oftentimes conjures up is a bloody one.  It also is an image that is said to permanently change a person who has witnessed its horrors.

But, the age of digital warfare has arrived and the image of war increasingly is becoming a much more impersonal image as “drones” and “lethal autonomy” become normative.

Drones are undoubtedly changing the face of war.  They lessen the need for “boots on the ground.”  They take war directly to the enemy.  They reduce collateral damage.  And, they also may be legal under international law because they arguably are a form of self-defense.


It sounds good…almost too good.

Almost silent and invisible, predators in the sky offer the promise of ridding the world of the lawless who would like to inject chaos into it.  Intelligence officials in Langely, VA, can pinpoint an enemy and armed services personnel located thousands of miles away from the battlefield can then direct joy sticks and press buttons that obliterate the “target,” filming the sortie for later analysis.

The Washington Post has also reported new robotic technologies that may very well transform the image of war.  For example, “autonomous robotics” may one day allow drones to search for human targets and then make identifications based upon facial-recognition  or other software.  Once a match is confirmed, a drone could launch a missile to kill the target.  It’s called “lethal autonomy.”


Even if international law sanctions lethal autonomy, is its use moral and ethical?

Yes, lethal autonomy takes war directly to the enemy.  Yes, it lessens the need for standing armies and assists in keeping troops out of harm’s way.  Yes, it can be effective in ridding the world of heinous criminals.

According to the Washington Post article:

In the future, micro-drones will reconnoiter tunnels and buildings, robotic mules will haul equipment and mobile systems will retrieve the wounded while under fire. Technology will save lives.

However, the most troubling aspect of lethal autonomy is that it also has the potential to remove human beings and personal responsibility from the decision-making calculus.  Even if the tools of lethal autonomy were directly linked to their human operators, these machines process so much more data than human beings can process at any given moment in time that it may be near to impossible for armed forces personnel to manage more than one drone and autonomous robot at one time.  Then, too, as an enemy become increasingly sophisticated about how to do battle with drones and autonomous robots, there is no doubt that the amount of time available to make decisions will be reduced and the new technologies will have to be allowed to operate on their own.

The author of Governing Lethal Behavior in Autonomous Robots, Ronald C. Arkin, told the Washington Post that ethical military drones and robots—capable of using deadly force while programmed to adhere to international humanitarian law and the rules of engagement—can be built.   Software would instruct them machines to return fire with proportionality, to minimize collateral damage, to recognize surrender, and, in the case of uncertainty, to maneuver to reassess or wait for humans to assess the situation.  In other words, Arkin believes that the rules of warfare that humans understand can be converted into mathematical algorithms for machines to follow on the battlefield.

Who’s to know with certitude?

What is for sure is that making determinations about the legal, moral, and ethical, and legal implications of digital warfare, in general, and this technology, in particular, require a careful and sober assessment.



To read the Washington Post article, click on the following link:

More to explorer


  1. And, they also may be legal under international law because they arguably are a form of self-defense

    It’s not so much the technology itself that causes me the greatest concern, as it is the initial decision making on the human level as to what constitutes “self-defense” or “national interest”, etc. The danger this technology poses is as you pointed out – it makes war less personal in a sense, a little more than a video game, to the ones inflicting the damage. I fear it will make the decision that “self-defense” or “national interests” are at stake a little too easy. If none (or very few) of our own troops will be at risk, how much easier will it be to pull the trigger? The US’s record with respect to limiting engagements to truly justifiable “national interests” is not a very good one.

  2. When I was in ROTC I was advised that the American people cherished human life, and that was why if something dangerous had to be accomplished they preferred to send a machine—–or a ROTC graduate! This trend can be debated ad nauseum, but the technology is here and it will be used, both by us and our adversaries. The American people are not going to tolerate sending troops in harm’s way when it becomes obvious that instead of risking a group of Rangers, for example, or a manned aircraft, on a strike behind enemy lines, we can send a drone. War has been technology driven for centuries, and I see no way to reverse that. As to whether that technology is used responsibly, as always the people determine that at the ballot box. The technology is merely a tool. Whether it is put to good or bad use is up to us. Part of me though agrees with this dialogue from the movie Patton:

    “Correspondent: General, we’re told of wonder weapons the Germans were working on: Long-range rockets, push-button bombing weapons that don’t need soldiers. What’s your take on that?
    Patton: Wonder weapons? My God, I don’t see the wonder in them. Killing without heroics. Nothing is glorified, nothing is reaffirmed. No heroes, no cowards, no troops. No generals. Only those that are left alive and those that are left… dead.”

  3. ‘Patton: Wonder weapons? My God, I don’t see the wonder in them. Killing without heroics. Nothing is glorified, nothing is reaffirmed. No heroes, no cowards, no troops. No generals. Only those that are left alive and those that are left… dead.” ‘

    I would love to hear what General Patton would say today, 9/23/2011 about the wonder of a space program which can operate satellites until these are left to become space ‘junk’ and which cannot demonstrate much precision to prevent potential victims on earth when these crash out of orbit. (They venture – odds …?)

    Or, what he would say about such planning, as evidenced by today’s watch, for these drones when obsolescence occurs, or controls are usurped by – ?.

    Our education system(s) will have produce more than general disciplines.

    Probably, the same observation. His words are timeless.

  4. When I went on Active Duty the Sergeants in my platoon pulled me a side to explained Real Tactics. “Never send a man to do a bullets job, bullets don’t have families”. As Don noted the technology is here, it is no longer an option. But UAV’s and Robots don’t have familes, and unlike bullets they can be programmed to have more discretion that bullets fired fto see if the enmy responds.


    The article seems to miss some key points, which are often missed.

    The Law of Weapons or aka the Just War doctine of proportionality is simple.

    If you hae a military necessity that requires you to engage an otherwise legal target, you use the weapon actually availabel to you that causes the least human suffering.. Except you can’t use weapon that is proscribed by treaty even if it would cause the least human suffering. (note 1 This is a difference between Int Law and the Church teaching on the subject. NOTE 2 The US Armed Forces do not issu prescribe weapns). As often happens when you here some one in the news yelling about propotionalty and they are not comparing at least two other wise leagel things, they don’t know what they talking about, or if the do . . .

    The correct answer to the point you bring up ensuring that everyone involved iets the and education and training know the law, is committed to it, and follows it. Technology is changing to fast to control by maintaining prescribed lists.

    Hank’s Eclectic Meanderings

  5. Yeah! They told me if I voted for McCain, America would assassinate people all over the Muslim world.

    No jury trial. No 30 years of appeals. No last meal. [gently sobbing]

    ROE: Does the subject need to shoot first at the drone? Does he at least need to be armed?

    PS: This entire, ten year $ half-trillion global war on terror could have been won in 2 nanoseconds. Nuke ’em. Then, they will know we are serious.

  6. There is no means to gently kill or honorably destroy.

    War is “all hell.” Sherman.

    Once they decide for war: win it quickly with least cost in friendly lives (von Clauswitz?).

    Are there other categories besides mortal war and venial war in your just war theology?

    Tommy, are you going to vote for Obama again?

    Such a vote would be another most un-Christian act. And, thanks for helping to ruin the economy.

  7. Baseless assumptions, leaps in logic, emotionalistic arguing … where do I start?

    First of all, I don’t support Obama; I did not vote for him in 2008, and I will not do so next year.

    Furthermore, you’re “Nuke ’em” policy is against the doctrine of the Church, who teaches that “(e)very act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.” (Lumen Gentium 80.3, quoted in CCC 2314)

    Furthermore, simply because war demands distateful acts does absolve the soldier or the leader from the moral law. In short, the soldier only has a right to harm his enemy if his enemy can and will harm another; once the enemy cannot harm others (if, say, he is captured or so), the soldier loses the right of violence. It’s why we don’t execute POWs, as well as the other precepts of ius in bellum. It is one thing to shoot an enemy in active combat, it is another to shoot a helpless prisoner.

  8. Good for you, Tommy!

    You need to realize that we are defending ourselves against the same aggressors as Christendom has for almost 14 centuries. FYI. The first war that the United States of America had to fight was against these filthy pagans’ ancestors.

    For Pete’s, sake calm down.

    Who said anything about shooting POW’s?

    Jihadis don’t wear uniforms. Jihadis don’t conduct moral combat operations. Jihadis are not enrolled a national army that is signatory to the Geneva Conventions (which one?) and is at war with us. Ergo, jihadis have no recourse to the rules of war.

    Lumen Gentium does not recognize the fact that there are whole cities and vast regions inhabited by aggressive, expansive evil, i.e., muhammadanism.

  9. The more automated the better. During hurricane Irene, most people missed the news that we had killed Al Qaeda’s second most important leader by drone within Pakistan. The intelligence that preceded that kill and that followed it was painstaking partly to void unnecessary collateral kills. After it they collected further intelligence and license plates at his funeral by drone camera.
    Frankly it was safer than the possibility of killing innocents in urban human combat wherein a .50 caliber can travel very far past the enemy and hit a child on a distant street. With drone kills, you are shooting down very often at a car on a long desert road. “Down” is key….no continued flight of the missile. That’s safer than you defending your house against home invaders with a .357 magnum that misses the criminal and heads toward your neighbor’s windows….(shotguns with special self defense loads kill better in house and exponentially fade quickly with distance….(killing is necessary to stop their trigger finger). Being under veiled threat by a criminal I fought last year (NY harbor), I sleep near a tactical shotgun with our bedroom very impregnable. It would be chaos if it happens at night. The drone world is much cleaner. God is good….I’m cool during violence. Each cross fits. Drones are good. With Pakistan’s army living side by side the Harqquani network in North Waziristan, drones will increasingly be used there by us. Diplomatic kills.

  10. >Lumen Gentium does not recognize the fact that there are whole cities and vast regions
    >inhabited by aggressive, expansive evil, i.e., muhammadanism.
    Um, no. Not every single inhabitant of a Muslim city is an active combatant. Can babies be considered active participants in jihadism? What about the mentally ill? Not to metnion the non-Muslims who might be living in those cities (such as the Christians in Arab cities, to cite one example.)

    Also, the Church has recognized the expansion of Islam and, while Islam wasn’t on the forefront of the public mind in the 1960s the way it is today, the bishops of Vatican II still recognized an “aggressive expansive evil” – Communism. And yet they still condemned the intentional destruction of entire centers of population. Do you think the Holy Spirit let them go astray? Matthew 16:18 says otherwise.

    Remember, God was willing to spare Sodom and Gomorrah if he could find but 10 righteous people in them. Given that your average city – even a majority-Mulim one – can count having more than that number of non-jihadists – you’re being less merciful than Him.

  11. ThomasAquinas,
    Very good piece. One tiny correction: God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah and there probably were children somewhere in those two cities…..if Lot were the only heterosexual in a whole city, I think he would have moved just from estrangement. We are thus not to follow even His example because as in the case of the dooms of the tribes of Canaan, He can include children and we cannot intentionally do so. He can include children because in Ezekiel He says,
    ” All souls are mine” and prior to sanctifying grace and prior even to the Law, God was inclined to take the children of bad adults with them perhaps so that they would avoid growing up evil and influencing Israel to do the same. Thus when God kills Dathan and Abiram who rebelled against Moses, God kills the children also…perhaps to save them for heaven:

    Num 16:27 So they got away from about the dwelling of Korah, Dathan, and Abi’ram; and Dathan and Abi’ram came out and stood at the door of their tents, together with their wives, their sons, and their little ones.

    Num 16:33 So they and all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol; and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly.

    Keep in mind that prior to grace also, God had to use great demonstrations of Power just to get Israel to pay attention to Him…and still they recurringly kept betraying Him. His power then especially as used prior to the Law and during it’s beginning which included the killing of children…..is not to be imitated by man though one group at that time…the Jews…were supposed to do it as His arm. In fact Saul is removed from the kingship because he did not kill all the Amalekites nor their king who then was killed by the prophet Samuel who “hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal.”

  12. From Fox news…45 minutes ago…drone success against terrorism:

    “Senior Al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki and another America-born militant were killed in Yemen early Friday morning by a CIA-led U.S. drone strike, marking the highest-profile takedown of terror leaders since the raid on Usama bin Laden’s compound.”

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: