Don't Fear the Reaper

Four misconceptions about how we think about drones.

Killer robots. Video-game warfare. Unlawful weapons. Terminators. Drone-attack commentary has become synonymous with reports of civilian carnage, claims of international-law violations, and worries about whether high-tech robotic wars have become too easy and fun to be effectively prevented. But the debate over drones is misleading the public about the nature of the weaponry and the law. It is also distracting attention from some more important and bigger issues: whether truly autonomous weapons should be permitted in combat, how to track the human cost of different weapons platforms and promote humanitarian standards in war, and whether targeted killings -- by drones or SEAL teams -- are lawful means to combat global terrorism. Based on our analysis of recent op-eds, we unpack four sets of misconceptions below and offer some sensible ways for the anti-drone lobby to reframe the debate.

Misconception No. 1: Drones Are "Killer Robots." This is actually two assumptions; neither is precisely wrong, but both are misleading. First, drones themselves are not necessarily "killers": They are used for many nonlethal purposes as well. Drones (unmanned aerial vehicles) can carry anything ranging from cameras to sensors to weapons and have been deployed for nonlethal purposes such as intelligence gathering and surveillance since the 1950s. Yet the nonlethal applications of drones are often lost in a discussion that treats the technology per se as deadly; 90 percent of the op-eds we analyzed focus solely on drones as killing machines.

Of course, it's true that drones can be used to kill. Some drones over Libya are now armed, and armed drones have been launching strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen for years. Second, even weaponized drones are not "killer robots," despite the frequent reference in the op-eds we studied to "robotic weapons" or "robotic warfare." Their flight and surveillance systems are able to extract information from their environment and use it to move safely in a purposive manner, but the weapons themselves are controlled by a human operator and are not autonomous. With a human-in-the-loop navigating the aircraft and controlling the weapon, the "killer" aspect of these specific drones may be remote-controlled, but it's not robotic.

This important distinction is easily lost on a concerned public, but the distinction matters. Indeed, the debate over "killer robot drones" that actually aren't autonomous is preventing public attention from being directed to a more ground-breaking development in military technology: preparations to delegate targeting decisions to truly autonomous weapons platforms, many of which are not drones at all. As Brookings Institution scholar Peter W. Singer has argued, a shift toward fully autonomous weapons systems would represent a sea change in the very nature of war. Groups like the International Committee for Robot Arms Control have called for a multilateral discussion to stem or at least regulate these developments. Those worried about drones might usefully refocus their attention to on the debate over whether to keep humans in the loop for unmanned aerial vehicles and other weapons platforms globally. The big issue here is not drones per se. It is the extent to which life-and-death targeting decisions should ever be outsourced to machines.

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Misconception No. 2: Drones Make War Easy and Game-Like, and Therefore Likelier. Remote-controlled violence even with a human in the loop also has people concerned: Nearly 40 percent of the op-eds we studied say that remote-control killing makes war too much like a video game. Many argue this increases the likelihood of armed conflict.

It's a variation on an old argument: Other revolutions in military technology -- the longbow, gunpowder, the airplane -- have also progressively removed the weapons-bearer from hand-to-hand combat with his foe. Many of these advances, too, were initially criticized for degrading the professional art of war or taking it away from military elites. For example, European aristocrats originally considered the longbow and firearms unchivalrous for a combination of these reasons.

It's true that all killing requires emotional distancing, and militaries throughout time have worked hard to devise ways to ease the psychological impact on soldiers of killing for the state in the national interest. Yet it's not so clear whether the so-called Nintendo effect of drones increases social distance or makes killing easier. Some anecdotal evidence suggests the opposite: Drone pilots say they suffer mental stress precisely because they have detailed, real-time images of their targets, and because they go home to their families afterward rather than debriefing with their units in the field. Studies haven't yet confirmed which view is accurate or whether it's somehow both.

Even if some variant of the Nintendo effect turns out to be real, there is little evidence that distancing soldiers from the battlefield or the act of killing makes war itself more likely rather than less. If that were true, the world would be awash in conflict. As former Lt. Col. Dave Grossman has documented, at no time in history has the combination of technology and military training strategies made killing so easy -- a trend that began after World War I. Yet as political scientist Joshua Goldstein demonstrates in a forthcoming book, the incidence of international war -- wars between two or more states -- has been declining for 70 years.

The political debate over drones should move away from the fear that military advancements mean war is inevitable and instead focus on whether certain weapons and platforms are more or less useful for preventing conflict at a greater or lesser cost to innocent civilian lives. Activists should keep pressure on elected officials, military personnel, and other public institutions to make armed conflict, where it occurs, as bloodless as possible. For example, some human rights groups say the Nintendo effect itself could be harnessed to serve humanitarian outcomes -- by embedding war law programming into game designs.

So the wider issue here, too, is not drones. It is about ensuring that a humanitarian code of conduct in war is protected and strengthened.


Misconception No. 3: Drone Strikes Kill Too Many Civilians. It's hard to argue with this value judgment -- in some ways, even one dead civilian is indeed "too many." But it's hard to single out drones when we know so little about whether they kill more or fewer civilians than manned aerial bombing or ground troops would in the same engagements -- which also, in some cases, save lives. So a better question than "how many" is: relative to what, and who's counting, how?

Civilians do die in drone attacks, as they do in other types of combat. But accurate reports on drone-strike casualties -- and casualties from other types of attack -- are very hard to find because no official body is tasked with keeping track. This should change: All collateral damage, not just that caused by drones, needs to be counted and atoned for, and minimized by the governments that inflict it.

To demonstrate this wider problem, consider efforts to tally drone deaths. These statistics vary wildly among different sources depending on how sources define who is a militant and who is a civilian. Pakistan Body Count, which keeps a dataset based on news reports, defines all drone deaths as civilians unless the report clearly specifies which terrorist organization the dead belonged to. According to its founder, Pakistani computer scientist Zeeshan-ul-hassan Usmani, the resulting numbers suggest civilians account for 88 percent of all drone-strike deaths in Pakistan since 2004.

But the New America Foundation's similar dataset, complied by analysts Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann, shows drastically different results. They too rely on news reports, but they estimate the civilian fatality rate to be only 20 percent on average since 2004. Moreover, they show this percentage is shrinking over time. Unlike Pakistan Body Count, Bergen and Tiedemann code any individuals whose status is unknown as "militants" rather than civilians. A report from the Jamestown Foundation comes up with an even lower number by excluding all men and teenage boys from the "civilian" category -- a problematic maneuver from a war law perspective. It's not hard to see why the totals end up being different.

An even bigger problem with all these estimates, however, is that they do not measure actual deaths but rather "reported deaths," relying on news reports. Not all journalists, however, are trained to accurately distinguish civilians deaths from combatants. Reports often conflate militants with "suspected militants" and pool them in the same category, an assumption that discounts civilian casualties. Numbers in media reports are also sometimes vague, leaving it to the discretion of the number crunchers how to interpret them. (Pakistan Body Count translates the term "many civilians" into eight and "several civilians" into four.) Moreover, many of these reports draw on statements by the governments that are doing (or facilitating) the bombing -- governments that have an incentive to minimize civilian casualty counts.

Ultimately, the problem here is bigger than drones. It is the absence of a global regime for systematically estimating how many civilians suffer deaths and injuries due to incidental harm from military operations in general. Knowing whether drones constitute the best tool for conducting certain operations requires more than counting drone-strike casualties. The question is not how much collateral damage drones cause, but whether that damage is greater or less than that from aerial attacks by manned aircraft or from ground troops.

Such data is necessary to make the case that drones either are or aren't a suitably discriminate weapon. The world needs a standardized reporting system for tracking civilian and combatant deaths globally in order to really understand the effects of different weapons technologies on civilians. Only then can we have an informed debate about how to minimize war's impact on civilians -- while enabling governments to use force when necessary and legitimate. Until then, we're really just guessing.


Misconception No. 4: Drones Violate the International Law of Armed Conflict. No, they don't -- at least, no more so than any other weapons platform when it is used improperly or in the wrong context.

The Hague and Geneva conventions actually place very few restrictions on specific weapons. Nothing in the laws of war, for example, requires that weapons make killing difficult or that they level the playing field. Value judgments aside, the treaties allow for a significant amount of injury and harm both to combatants and civilians. They ask only that harm to combatants be as humane as possible and that harm to noncombatants be minimized.

Weapons have been banned outright when by design they fail on one of these criteria. Chemical weapons and certain types of land mines and cluster munitions are considered to be inherently indiscriminate because they can't be controlled once deployed. Blinding lasers were banned not because they are indiscriminate (quite the opposite) but because international society judged that permanently blinding a soldier or airman constituted superfluous suffering beyond that required by military necessity.

Weaponized drones are not themselves weapons, but rather are platforms for launching air-to-ground kinetic weapons that kill through blasts and explosions. They differ from other types of bombing platforms only in that they are remotely controlled. Although some have argued that explosive weapons used in civilian population areas do not meet the proportionality test -- meaning the benefits of their use don't outweigh the humanitarian damage they cause -- bombing is currently an accepted practice in international society. It is hard to argue that remotely controlled drone-fired missiles are any more unnecessarily injurious than bombs launched from the air by human pilots.

Military operations inside Pakistan do pose international legal problems, but it's not because of the drones. It's because the United States is technically not at war with Pakistan and because U.S. drone operations in Pakistan are being conducted by the CIA rather than the armed forces. The former violates the U.N. Charter; the latter arguably violates the rules on lawful combat in the Geneva Conventions. These dynamics create legal problems for U.S. military operations in Pakistan whether they are carried out by drones or by SEAL teams on the ground, as in the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden. A drone, in short, can be one means by which international law is violated, but it itself is not the source of the violation.

The legal debate over drones needs to refocus on what drones are being used for, not on the nature or effects of the weapons themselves. The real issue is not drones, but the summary execution of suspected criminals without evidence or trial, in complete secrecy, at perhaps an unacceptable cost to innocent lives. Whether this is happening with or without the consent of the Pakistani or Yemeni government is irrelevant. Whether it is being conducted by the CIA or by the U.S. military is irrelevant. Whether it is occurring with remotely piloted drones, manned aircraft, special operations forces, or death squads is irrelevant. What matters is whether extrajudicial execution is or is not the best way to protect citizens against terrorist attacks.

Those who oppose the way drones are used should shift focus to one of the big normative problems touched by the drone issue: the military robotics revolution, collateral-damage control, and the return of extrajudicial execution. Focusing on the drones themselves misses this bigger picture.

Update: This article has been changed to reflect factual issues with the characterization of the New America Foundation dataset.

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Crowded Waters

The superpower battle for regional supremacy in the South China Sea is heating up once again.

For the last two years, a quiet showdown has played out over the South China Sea, the body of water bordered by China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, the Philippines, and Taiwan. This little-known body of water is of vast strategic importance: Fully one-third of the world's maritime trade traverses the South China Sea, and some optimistic estimates of its untapped stores of oil and natural gas would make it a second Persian Gulf. The South China Sea is also a major highway linking the oil fields of the Middle East and the factories of East Asia, with more than 80 percent of China's oil imports (and large percentages for Japan and South Korea as well) flowing over its waters. As influential Asia-watcher Robert D. Kaplan has put it, the South China Sea's importance to the region makes it the "Asian Mediterranean."

Due to these waters' importance, several countries -- Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam -- claim sovereignty over part of these waters. Yet China claims rights of sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, as detailed in the "9-dash line" included in its submission to the United Nations. While tension in these waters has waxed and waned for several decades, recent years have seen an uptick in tensions. Starting in 2009, two discernable rounds of geopolitical intrigue can be identified, and last week likely marked the beginning of round three.

The first round began in March 2009, when Chinese fishing vessels harassed the U.S. surveillance ship Impeccable in international waters, 75 miles off the coast of China's Hainan Island. Three months later, a Chinese submarine collided (apparently accidentally) with the towed sonar array of the USS John S. McCain near Subic Bay off the coast of the Philippines. Other aggressive moves followed, including reports that Beijing had declared the South China Sea to be a "core interest," putting it on par with Taiwan and Xinjiang as fundamental strategic priorities. China's assertiveness was noted around the world and caused a strong reaction.

Round two. In July 2010, the United States and much of Southeast Asia pushed back. At a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum in Hanoi, 12 Southeast Asian countries complained of Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared freedom of navigation within the South China Sea to be a national interest of the United States. China initially reacted harshly to this pushback, with Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi reportedly declaring Clinton's remarks in Hanoi to be "an attack on China" and not so subtly reminding his Singaporean counterpart that "China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact." A subsequent statement by the Chinese military reiterated China's "indisputable sovereignty" over 1.3 million square miles of the South China Sea -- which much of Southeast Asia naturally disputed.

The backlash apparently proved too diplomatically costly for Beijing, and China has gradually backed away from its previous assertive behavior. The head of U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Robert Willard, told the Senate Armed Services Committee this April that China's naval behavior in the first months of 2011 had been less assertive than it was in 2010. Chinese leaders routinely claim that China does not seek to replace the United States as the leading world power, and Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo has forsworn a Chinese "Monroe Doctrine." Still, many in Washington and throughout Southeast Asia saw China's pullback as largely a tactical reaction to the harsh reaction it had caused and not as a strategic decision to abandon its ambitious claims of sovereignty, brazen reinterpretations of international law, and the use of harassment and coercion as tools of policy.

Round three began last week in Singapore, when the leading defense officials of the Asia-Pacific region gathered for the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). (Full disclosure: The author is a member of IISS.) Speakers included the Malaysian prime minister, Russia's deputy prime ministers, and defense ministers from Australia, Britain, China, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, the United States, and Vietnam. All gave official statements, and many participated in open question-and-answer sessions (including Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie, who was questioned rather expertly by FP's Cable Guy). There were also several minister-to-minister meetings on the side of the dialogue, including a meeting between U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Liang. More than anything else, the South China Sea was repeatedly mentioned throughout the dialogue as a key issue, and many officials used the dialogue as an opportunity to announce their country's approach to the region. Based on these remarks, round three on the South China Sea has clearly begun and will likely be defined by three interrelated trends.

First, the United States is backing up its political statements with an increased military presence in Southeast Asia. Delivering his farewell message to the Shangri-La Dialogue, Gates announced that the United States would station littoral combat ships -- new, relatively small ships designed to patrol the shallow littoral waters that permeate Southeast Asia -- in Singapore, expand cooperation with Australia in the Indian Ocean, and increase the number of exercises and port visits conducted in the region by the U.S. military. Gates also announced the Obama administration's intention to sustain the United States' military presence in the region, despite the budget pressures back home. To lend specificity to his claim, Gates promised that the United States would sustain funding for "air superiority and mobility, long-range strike, nuclear deterrence, maritime access, space and cyber, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance" -- all technologies needed to contain China. (It should be noted, however, that future procurement decisions will be made by the next defense secretary and Congress.)

Second, China is trying to allay regional concerns, but ultimately will not back down. In Singapore, Liang struck a more conciliatory tone than last year's Chinese speaker. He disavowed claims that China seeks to challenge U.S. military superiority or limit freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. He called for dialogue and negotiation to resolve disputes and reiterated China's oft-stated commitment to the region's peaceful development.

Yet these rather benign statements stand in sharp contrast with recent actions in the South China Sea. Just days prior to Liang's speech, a Vietnamese survey vessel conducting oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea allegedly had its seismic cables cut by a Chinese ship, and hundreds of Vietnamese subsequently converged on the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi in protest. Similarly, in recent days the Philippines has accused China of "serious violations" in the South China Sea, including the unloading of construction materials on disputed islands. Meanwhile, China continues to makes its neighbors nervous by investing in increasingly capable naval military capabilities. Rumors abound that China's first aircraft carrier is nearing operational status, and the Pentagon has been tracking China's burgeoning naval strength for several years.

Finally, regional investment in naval power is expanding, raising the potential for cooperation and the danger of conflict -- and not just between China and the United States. Vietnam used the Shangri-La Dialogue to confirm its intention to purchase six Russian-built Kilo-class attack submarines, as well as Su-30 fighters and surface-to-air missiles. Several other states around the region, including Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Singapore have also recently announced plans to beef up their naval capabilities, leading some in the United States to point to an emerging Southeast Asian naval arms race. Although others have pointed out that many of the arms being procured in the region are not targeted at China but rather at other regional powers, the key takeaway is that the waters of Southeast Asia are about to get very crowded.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. Asia is especially vulnerable to natural disasters, and the U.S. Navy could use more help when tragedies like this year's earthquake and tsunami off the Japanese coast or the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami strike. Yet busy international waters are inherently dangerous. Submarines and surface ships can easily bump into one another, endangering the crews involved and adding a dangerously destabilizing element to the complex overlapping claims that crisscross the South China Sea. Moreover, states with newfound naval capabilities now have the ability to use force, or the threat of force, to enforce claims that could mean billions of dollars in natural resources and a significant boost in national prestige.

Clearly, there is a need to harness this rather raw and nascent naval power into something that contributes to the health and success of the international system, rather than feeding a debilitating cycle of fear, antagonism, and conflict. The United States and China have an opportunity to lead the region down a productive path. A good start would be multilateral efforts to improve the region's capacity for humanitarian assistance and disaster recovery, which would develop the habits of healthy cooperation and build trust. There is also clearly a need for the region, including the United States and China, to adopt something along the lines of the 1972 "incidents at sea" agreement developed by the United States and the Soviet Union to avoid maritime collisions and manage the potential for crises resulting from accidental collisions.

A disastrous Southeast Asian arms race is not inevitable. The United States should encourage the rise of new naval powers that can help maintain their own independence, provided they do not limit freedom of navigation or threaten regional stability -- both of which are of primary importance to Washington. As these powers emerge, they will likely expect continued U.S. assistance and engagement, yet will also seek to retain good ties with China as well. That's normal. After all, this isn't the 20th century, when spheres of influence and axes defined great-power competition. Geopolitics in the 21st century recognizes that integration builds stability and allows for states to pursue economic competition rather than territorial aggrandizement. The key for all involved is to allow for such complexity.

We'll see what round four has to offer.