As with nuclear weapons, the deployment of drones as weapons must not be permitted to lower the threshold of war. It therefore requires an ethical view of the fact that individuals, not nations, are targeted.

Whether the reconnaissance drone “Eurofalke” will ever deliver images to the German army is written in the stars. But its fate does not mean that Germany is foregoing military drones. Thomas de Maizière has spoken out in favor of the acquisition of such armed, flying robots, for the same reason as Barack Obama. Drones are not to be evaluated differently from bombers, but if anything have an ethical advantage because one’s own soldiers are not endangered.

The defense minister rules out targeted German kill missions. There will be remote-controlled machines with the German military drones. The question is only whether this will occur before the ethical dimension of such missions is resolved.

Combat drones are considered the ideal long-range weapon in a war with opponents who do not abide by international law of war. Sending drones means protecting one’s own soldiers from a merciless enemy. This was the main reason for the enormous rise of these sorties against al-Qaida under Barack Obama.

Automation of War

The automation of war looked like the fulfillment of a duty to protect one’s own military. The White House readily uses that to sketch out a new legal definition of war: Drone flights over Libya were no longer brought before Congress for approval. American lives, it was said, were not placed in danger. Therefore, such ventures were not a military intervention subject to approval.

Critics of the drone technology have feared from the beginning that the automatable war is identical to an off-handedly provoked war. The case of Libya seems to confirm that. Yet the same fears already existed with the use of the atom bomb. Then, too, it seemed as if the ultimate hands-off weapon had been invented, whose controllers would sit in safe bunkers far from the battlefield.

Proponents weighed the safety of hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers against the deployment of the bomb in Japan and focused on the effectiveness of the bomb. Critics saw the potential and the low threshold for deployment and believed that trigger-happiness would now become a genuine risk.

Ethical Questions

It turned out differently and will turn out differently with drones also. With nuclear weapons, two conditions were of course in its favor. First, enough countries would soon possess this technology to nullify the short-term U.S. feeling of superiority again.

Second, the decision-makers early on faced the moral questions that had surfaced with the new weapon. The view of the bomb as an inter-continental artillery gave way to the view of it as a complex, political-philosophical problem. The same is necessary with combat drones in order to prevent the threshold for war from sinking.

The first requirement for a sober, ethical view already exists. The U.S. no longer has a monopoly on combat drones. Washington does have the best guidance system for such weapons, but countries like Russia or China will find the connection.

The second requirement to comprehend the new technology as a complex challenge has not been fulfilled. Their moral problems are still overshadowed by their military potential.

War against Individuals

Drones as a weapon emerged shortly after the World War as a remote-controlled practice plane for U.S. flak soldiers.* These machines were useful for nothing else and bore bee-like, black stripes, hence the mocking name. The mockery turned to seriousness. The guidable nuclear cruise missiles of the ‘80s and their conventional variation, with which the U.S. tried to target Saddam Hussein specifically, were the precursors of today’s devices.

The nuclear version was, however, not accurate enough for attacks on sensitive targets of an opponent and the conventional variant not precise enough for surgical attacks on individual persons. Because that is what the combat drones of today are: They are weapons for war no longer against nations, but rather against individuals. Thomas de Maizière does, to be sure, have other fields of application in view. But the effectiveness and attractiveness of the drones consists of being able to neutralize individuals without advance warning.

They are an ideal weapon for war by ambush — an ambush without the chance for defense. The risk-free, utterly deadly weapon against merciless enemies is a seductive idea militarily and politically.

Ambush Instead of Diplomacy?

The combat drone is therefore a potentially dangerous concept. First, they could contradict the prevailing, international rule of war. Those agreements forbid mines and weapons with 100 percent kill rates. Combat drones may be defined as such instruments.

Secondly, the war against individuals changes the understanding of battlefield reconnaissance — and in fact all the more, the stronger a commander feels himself bound to the law of war. A drone deployment that is supposed to hit an unequivocally identified opponent requires total reconnaissance of the thoughts, intent and deeds of individuals.

In an air attack on the fuel tanker of Kunduz, the German army experienced this painfully. Whoever deploys drones against individuals must know every living soul in these surroundings in order to not hit the innocent. The use of combat drones is not similar to a computer-guided hammer. It is more like a powerful pair of pliers, with which every private sphere is broken open, before a nation triggers the ambush.

Thirdly, with this ambush, the incentive to resolve risks with time-consuming, diplomatic means dwindles. The effect was already noticeable for a short time after the invention of the atomic bomb. Only the mass murder potential of the bomb held the U.S. back from using it in the Korean conflict.

As the complexity of the nuclear weapon then sank into consciousness and the duty to protect soldiers was superseded by a similar obligation for world peace, the atom bomb gave birth to the most complex diplomatic negotiations that ever were. Such a change in consciousness is also necessary with a view to combat drones before the flying ambush seduces all too many governments.

*Editor’s Note: The original text does not specify which World War is being referred to.