Drones and War: The Impact of Advancement in Military Technology on Just War Theory and the International Law of Armed Conflict

| September 2020
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MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle. Photo credit: Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt via Wikimedia Commons

Editor’s note: This post features a summary of the work from the winning presentation at the 2020 Carnegie Council Student Research Conference and reflects research and conclusions from the author’s larger research project on this topic.

Since the first use of drones as lethal tools of war, certain pundits, politicians, and ethicists have argued for holding the use of drones to a different moral standard than conventional weapons. These arguments are motivated by what are viewed as distinct characteristics of drone strikes that make them morally dissimilar from the use of traditional weapons. If we accept this moral dissimilarity, it challenges the principles of Just War Theory and its codification in the International Law of Armed Conflict, meaning that they must both be reimagined as military technology continues to advance and creates increasingly complex moral scenarios.


Historical and Theoretical Background

Originally created for reconnaissance, drones were first used for lethal purposes in 2001 by the U.S. government.1 Since their first lethal employment, several arguments have been offered as to why the use of these unmanned aerial vehicles as weapons is immoral. I outline three of these arguments below.

1) Disrespectful death: This argument is underpinned by the idea that “a human being deserves to be able to at least point at his or her killers (and condemn them, if they are unjust) even if his or her killers are cruising 20,000 feet above in a plane.”2 Proponents of this argument suggest that this disregard for the mutual humanity of combatants makes killing with drones disrespectful and, thereby, immoral.

2) Unfair killing: This argument is underpinned by the idea that “there is indeed something powerfully disturbing and morally troubling about being killed by remote killing” since those targeted for killing cannot inflict direct harm on the other side.3 Advocates of this argument suggest that this power asymmetry makes killing with drones unfair and, thereby, morally impermissible.

3) Riskless killing: This argument is underpinned by the idea that “the reciprocal imposition of risk creates the space that allows injury to the morally innocent.”4Proponents of this argument believe that for one side of war to be able to kill the other, they must be willing to assume the risk of physical harm upon themselves. This assumption of risk is absent in drone strikes, making their use for killing in war immoral.

In his work, “Drones and Robots: On the Changing Practice of Warfare,” ethicist Daniel Statman argues convincingly against these claims. Statman’s counterargument is that the individually identified characteristics of drones—that they are disrespectful, unfair, or riskless—are not mutually exclusive to drones. Rather, they are shared with many conventional weapons. Helicopter pilots do not acknowledge the humanity of their victims, and soldiers who fire long-range artillery assume very little risk to themselves. Thereby, drones are not fundamentally different from conventional weapons that have been held to the traditional principles of Just War Theory and thus should not be held to a more morally stringent standard.

Statman is correct that the above characteristics are not mutually exclusive to drones. His counterargument, however, shows only that the three arguments taken individually are each insufficient to morally distinguish the use of drones from conventional weapons. The weakness of each argument is that they identify individual problematic characteristics of drones. Rather, I argue, there are multiple overlapping conditions of drone strikes that, taken together, highlight their moral dissimilarity to conventional weapons.


Inherent Conditions of Drone Strikes

Inherent in modern drone strikes are three conditions:

1) Power Disparity: When a drone operator selects an enemy combatant target to kill, a virtually unparalleled power dynamic is created. While those operating drones can take the life of their target, the targeted combatant cannot kill the drone operator. At an altitude of 30,000 feet, it is nearly impossible to accurately target a drone to prevent a strike.5 The targeted group is also incapable of retaliating. Drone operators are usually located in guarded facilities thousands of miles away from the attack.6Drones land and refuel much farther away from combat than traditional tools of war, usually across international borders.7 Ultimately, those targeted by drones cannot prevent, fight back, or retaliate against the operators or equipment of a drone strike, while those operating the drone have the complete ability to kill targeted combatants.

2) Knowledge Disparity: Drones are flown at such a height and in such a manner that for targeted individuals often the first sensory experience to indicate a strike is the hiss of a hellfire missile before it makes impact.8 Unlike infantry or helicopter attacks, where noises and visuals can alert those being attacked to the nature of the power dynamic in which they find themselves, the power dynamic of a drone strike is only known by the targeting entity. This is morally problematic in that the target cannot react to the power dynamic, thereby removing their autonomy to stop fighting and articulate to their enemy a desire to forfeit their combatant status and become a prisoner of war.

3) Precision: Drones have an unparalleled ability to accurately kill targeted individuals. Traditional weapons often do not land exactly on a target, allowing enemy combatants to find cover before firing adjustments are made. Drones, used correctly, will hit their target with almost complete certainty.

While they might share each individual condition with conventional weapons, I argue that drone strikes uniquely exhibit all three of the conditions together, making their use morally dissimilar to the use of conventional weapons.


Indiscriminate Killing of Combatants

Under both the traditional view of Just War Theory and the current Law of Armed Conflict, each side in war is granted a license to indiscriminately kill their enemy combatants.9There is an exception to this principle. Defined as hors de combat (HoC) by the 47th rule of the Geneva Conventions, combatants can no longer be legitimate targets for killing in the event of capture, injury, incapacitation, or surrender. Key to the Geneva Convention’s definition of this term is the phrase, “anyone who is in the power of an adverse party.”10 It is evident that in the case of traditional HoCs, they have a complete ability to be harmed without the ability to cause harm and they have no autonomy in being able to change their situation.

I do not argue that those targeted by drones should qualify as HoCs. However, for the duration of the targeting, the conditions of the strike cause the targeted individual to become morally similar to HoCs. The targeted individual is in the complete power of the adverse party and can do nothing to change it. 



Drones are not inherently immoral; rather, it is the conditions of modern drone strikes that lead to their moral dilemma. To use drones ethically, one or more of their three typical conditions must be intentionally removed even if it requires a greater assumption of risk. This could mean using drones in conjunction with ground forces to remove the knowledge disparity condition. Or, perhaps, prioritizing nonlethal incapacitation in drone strikes to resolve the power disparity condition.

As discussed above, the morally problematic nature of traditional drone strikes stems from three significant conditions: power disparity, knowledge disparity, and precision. These conditions make the use of drones ethically different than the use of more conventional weapons. They create a moral situation that, for the duration of the attack, is similar to traditional situations in which combatants cannot legitimately kill enemy combatants. Therefore, drones cannot be held to the traditional standard of indiscriminate killing of enemy combatants set by both traditional Just War Theory and the International Law of Armed Conflict.

There may soon be new weapons developed that have the same morally problematic conditions as highlighted in this essay. The conclusion should be that such new technology must be held to the same standard as drones. New technology that creates different, but equally problematic, moral situations must also be reimagined to be conducted ethically. To ensure that the morality of war keeps pace with the advancement of war technology, new understandings of military ethics and traditional Just War Theory must be codified into international law.

—Langdon Ogburn

Born and raised in Raleigh, North Carolina, Langdon Ogburn is a Philosophy Major with a minor in Africa Regional Studies at the United States Military Academy at West Point. As a Stamps Scholar, he has conducted research on military ethics and mass atrocity prevention, which he desires to incorporate into his career as a military officer.



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  1. Robert Farley, Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 2014), pp. 245-246.
  2. Bradley Strawser, “Moral Predators: The Duty to Employ Uninhabited Aerial Vehicles,” Journal of Military Ethics 9, no.1 (2010), p. 357.
  3. Jai Galliott, “Viewpoint Article Closing with Completeness: The Asymmetric Drone Warfare Debate,” Journal of Military Ethics 11, no. 4 (2012), p. 355.
  4. Paul Kahn, “The Paradox of Riskless Warfare,” Philosophy & Public Policy Quarterly 22, no. 3, (Spring 2010), p. 2.
  5. “The 10 Longest Range Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs),” Air Force Technology, June 19, 2019, https://www.airforce-technology.com/features/featurethe-top-10-longest-range-unmanned-aerial-vehicles-uavs/.
  6. Volker Franke, “A Drone’s Strike Away: Peace and Security in the Age of Automated Warfare.” Army Peace Keeping and Stability Operations Institute (January 2019), p. 8.
  7. Ibid.
  8. “Living Under Drones: Death, Injury and Trauma to Civilians from US Drone Practices in Pakistan.” Report, Stanford International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic and the Global Justice Clinic, September 2012., p. 59.
  9. Gabriella Blum, “The Dispensable Lives of Soldiers,” Journal of Legal Analysis 2, no. 1 (Spring 2010), pp. 71-72.
  10. “Rule 47. Attacks Against Persons Hors de Combat,” International Committee of the Red Cross, https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/customary-ihl/eng/docs/v1_rul_rule47.

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