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National Defense > Blog > Posts > Ethics of Drone Strikes ‘Not a Relevant Question,” Says Air Force Chief
Ethics of Drone Strikes ‘Not a Relevant Question,” Says Air Force Chief
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz pushed back on the idea that aerial strikes conducted by U.S. unmanned aircraft are more morally questionable than conventional bombings performed by pilots in fighter jet cockpits.

Schwartz’ comments were in response to questions during a May 1 seminar at the Stimson Center, a national security think tank in Washington, D.C.

Lincoln Bloomfield Jr., chairman of the board of Stimson, asked Schwartz whether the use of drone strikes in war zones over the past decade has been a subject of debate among the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Critics of the increasingly frequent U.S. reliance on drones to drop bombs or launch missile strikes on suspected insurgents have argued that this form of warfare has unique ethical implications because U.S. Air Force operators fire the weapons from military bases in the United States, thousands of miles away from the intended target. Bloomfield asked Schwartz if the Joint Chiefs have discussed the doctrinal repercussions of having pilots launch weapons when they are so far removed from the battlefield.

Schwartz refuted the question as irrelevant. He said pilots who command weapons follow the same orders regardless of whether they are in a cockpit or flying a remotely operated aircraft in front of a computer screen on the ground.

“Is it more honorable for us to engage a target from an F-16 or an F-15 [manned fighter] than it is from an MQ-9 [remotely piloted aircraft]? Is that somehow more ethical? .. Oh come on,” he replied. “We have very explicit criteria, rules of engagement, legal standards to engage a whole variety of targets.”

The issue is not whether this is ethical, he said. If a weapon is intended to strike a legitimate target that poses a threat to U.S. forces or allies, “I would argue that the manner in which you engage that target -- in close combat or not -- is not a terribly relevant question. … If what we’re doing is righteous, and I believe it is, the exact modality is less relevant.”

Schwartz’ defense of drone strikes comes amid a swirling controversy over the Obama administration’s escalation of this form of warfare in the fight against al-Qaida and other jihadist groups. Antiwar and human-rights activists in recent years have sought to find legal avenues to ban drones, but their efforts have been unsuccessful.

Supporters of the use of unmanned aircraft as weapons of war contend that drones are not by themselves lethal weapons unless they are specifically designed and equipped to be armed drones. Otherwise, they are just trucks that can carry weapons, but can also carry sensors, and can serve in benign roles for both military and civilian applications.

Bloomfield asked Schwartz if he foresees a time when the tables might turn, and the U.S. military could become the target of enemy drones. Schwartz said unmanned aircraft are one example of a technology that provides advantages but also creates vulnerabilities. Armed drones in the hands of potential enemies are “concerning,” he said. But he added that the risk is manageable. “We’ll have to deal with that.”

Schwartz said he doubts that armed drones operated by adversaries will pose an “existential threat” to the U.S. military. Most likely, enemy drones will be guilty of violating U.S. airspace sovereignty, he said. If that happened, “we would not sit on our hands.”

On the perennial question of whether drones will ever replace human pilots, Schwartz said that might never happen, and it it does, it will not be in this lifetime. The current generations of unmanned aircraft are “capable,” he said, but cannot survive in contested airspace. “As a result there’ll be a continuing need for manned tactical aviation that can penetrate contested airspace.”

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