Drones ‘lower threshold of lethal force’ academic study finds

15th February 2016 / United Kingdom, United States

Although some continue to insist that armed drones are in effect no different from other military aircraft, there seems to be increasing acceptance that the technology may lower the threshold for use of force. Stanley McChrystal, for example, former commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, told a conference in London late last year that he believed the capabilities of drones could make them more palatable to military decision-makers and “lower the threshold” for lethal force, while a recently released MoD policy document Future Operating Environment 2035’  asserts that:

“increased use [of remote and automated systems] in combat and support functions will reduce the risk to military personnel and thereby potentially change the threshold for the use of force. Fewer casualties may lower political risk and any public reticence for a military response…”

In essence it is argued that averse public reaction to the death of military forces deployed overseas is a real restraint on political leaders weighing up the option of whether to launch military intervention. Take away that potential political cost by using unmanned systems such as drones and it becomes much easier for political leaders to opt for ‘clean and quick’ use of military force rather than the slow and often difficult political and diplomatic options. While we and others have been making this argument for some time, an important new study by two US academics published in a US military journal sheds new light on the subject.

In ‘The Ethics of Drone Strikes: Does Reducing the Cost of Conflict Encourage War?’ James Walsh and Marcus Schulzke report on their empirical study into how public attitudes towards the use of armed force change when unmanned drones are used in comparison to the deployment of other types of force.

Using a fictional news story on the US use of force in Yemen, the pair surveyed more than 3,000 participants to gauge responses in a variety of scenarios. The authors say (edited)

“The news stories varied two elements. The first was the type of military action. This could take one of three forms: a drone strike, an air strike from a piloted aircraft, or the use of ground troops. Consistent with the casualty aversion idea, the news stories had different information about the risk that American military personnel would face.

The second element that varied across the treatments was the purpose or goal of the use of force.  The treatments in our news story vary four such objectives. The first is counterterrorism, in which attacks are planned on militants who have in the past attacked the United States. The second is foreign policy restraint, where the United States seeks to punish a foreign state for threatening a key interest, in this case the shipment of petroleum from the Persian Gulf to world markets. The third is humanitarian intervention, in which American military force has the objective of stopping mass killings in a foreign country. The final objective is internal political change, aimed at preventing the violent overthrow of a foreign government by its internal opponents.

Combining these two elements—type and objective of military force—produces a total of 12 treatments. Roughly 300 participants were randomly assigned to read each of these stories. They then answered questions about their reactions to the planned use of force, including the degree to which they supported the attack; their estimates of the number of military casualties that would result if the attack were carried out; general attitudes regarding the wisdom of the use of force; and demographic questions such as party identification, age, gender, and so on.”

Analysis of the results show, say Walsh and Schulzke, “that participants are more willing to support the use of force when it involves drone strikes.”  They go on:

“Drones lower inhibitions against initiating armed conflicts as many critics of this technology have predicted. Respondents were consistently more likely to favor the use of UAVs over ground forces in each of the experiments, regardless of the objectives being pursued. They were also more willing to initiate conflicts using drones than piloted aircraft…”

The authors go on to say, however, that the technology’s influence “may not be as profound as critics of drone warfare often argue”, maintaining that other factors besides casualty aversion – such as gender, race, income and age – have also been found to affect support for war.  Walsh and Schulzke argue that gender had a comparable influence on support for war as the use of drones.

While the study is an important and useful exploration of this aspect of the critique of drones, the inherent lack of realism in such experiments must nevertheless be acknowledged.  In addition, perhaps due to the nature of the journal in which the study is published, there appears to be a certain predisposition towards military solutions. In the experiment itself, for example, there was no ‘non-use of military force’ scenario.  The use of military force, albeit in varied ways, was the only given option for participants to choose.  Similarly, while reviewing 2014 public opinion polls on possible US military action against ISIS as part of the study, the authors note that “drone strikes received considerably more support than attacks from manned aircraft” but fail to point out that the option of ‘no airstrikes’ received the greatest number of positive responses from the public.

The crux of the issue is not whether the resort to the use of force via drones is preferred over the use of other force (though this is of course very important) but rather whether drones are encouraging and enabling the use of force where otherwise no force may have been used.  Would, for example, the US have resorted to the use of force so many times inside Pakistan over the past decade without the availability of drone technology?

To be fair to the authors they make clear in their conclusion that the military “should help to ensure that the American public does not lose sight of the fact that, despite the benefits drones bring in terms of force protection and offensive power, wars remain extremely destructive activities that must be waged for the right reasons and only as a last resort.”  On the other hand the authors also suggest that

“Drones will be particularly important when they are used in conjunction with other strategies for justifying a war – for example, if a prospective military venture can be framed as a counterterrorism operation. This should not be considered a purely good or bad outcome. In some instances, war may be warranted and helping politicians make the case for war will be morally advantageous. At other times, a war may fail to pass jus ad bellum standards and any effect drones have in lowering inhibitions against fighting will be morally harmful.”

Without doubt this is an important area of research and this study should be read by all those with an interest in the ethical arguments surrounding the use of armed drones.  Much more attention needs to be paid to this particular aspect of the use of armed drones and, at the very least, the literature review at the beginning of this paper is an excellent place to start.

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By Chris Coles contributor to truepublica and Editor at dronewars.net

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