The U.S. is increasingly using drones in the War on Terror — an issue which raises ethical questions. The legal basis for such attacks is also controversial.

The unmanned plane circles the target area for hours. Cameras and sensors are programmed for the man who will sooner or later return to his house. The plane knows his height, facial features and clothing. It knows how many children the suspect has and how big they are. When the car door opens, everything happens lightning fast. In split seconds, the personal image is scanned and compared to the stored information. Just as fast, a further automatic check runs: There are no children in the vicinity. The computer releases the shot. The pilots in the distant command bunker in the U.S. have only watched the process.

Enormous Distance

There is still no fully automatic killer robot. People were still involved in the death of an al-Qaida mastermind in Yemen, which became known last Friday. It is highly probable, however, that the team of a pilot and two data navigators, which had fixed a drone on the heels of the terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki, sat in Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, USA, several thousand kilometers away. For the Americans, Awlaki is one on a long list of targets. He is the man who lived in the suburbs of the U.S. capitol until 2002, and whose sermons inspired the massacre on the military base Fort Hood in November 2009. There was also a drone attack in Pakistan on Friday.

U.S. President Obama has already ordered more than 1,800 such killings in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia — among them U.S. citizens, which is especially legally contentious. It is just a small step to fully automatic shooting. According to a current report by The Washington Post, the Pentagon is presently testing drones that act as autonomous fighting machines. Moral criteria, such as the protection of children, could then be programmed in, according to military officers. “The prospect of machines able to perceive, reason and act in unscripted environments presents a challenge to the current understanding of international humanitarian law,” writes The Washington Post.

Target Objects Resemble Figures in Computer Games

Today the distance between those at the trigger and their victims is already enormous. This distance has existed since long-range weapons were invented. For the pilots of the unmanned aircraft, who themselves are not at risk, however, the target objects look like the figures in a computer game; they operate joysticks in front of monitors. This is also tempting for politicians: war without casualties in one’s own country is one step closer.

For a half century, the U.S. has been experimenting with unmanned aircraft, “unmanned aerial vehicles,” UAV for short. Unmanned reconnaissance aircraft already flew in the Vietnam War — the so-called Firebees. But since the mid-90s, the increasingly sophisticated drones have become killing machines — and only since then did the wider public first take notice of them. An estimated 7,000 unmanned aircraft of vastly differing types are in the U.S. arsenal today. Ten years ago, there were fewer than 50.

The U.S. still has an enormous technical edge. Barack Obama uses these tools on a full scale. In his first year in office he ordered more attacks with drones than did George W. Bush during his entire term in office. Drones fit the manner in which Obama wants to wage his wars perfectly: without pathos, without U.S. casualties — but efficiently. The belief in one’s own technology goes so far that the CIA, which stands behind the operations more than the military, asserted, in all earnestness, in August, that within one year, 600 suspected terrorists and Taliban fighters in Pakistan had been killed in drone attacks without a civilian casualty.

Diverse Arsenal

All signs point to expansion. Meanwhile, according to a report by The New York Times, the drones are so efficient that the U.S. is running out of high-level targets. More and more often, common Taliban fighters are also attacked.

In the Libyan conflict, drones made U.S. missions possible after they had been officially withdrawn from military action. Just a few days ago, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal reported that new bases on the Seychelles and in the Arabian Peninsula make a large part of Arabia and the Indian Ocean into an operations zone. The drones do not only change the War on Terror. From long-range reconnaissance aircraft like the “Global Hawk,” to the tiny camera-equipped aircraft the size of a bird or even an insect, the arsenal is becoming more and more diverse.