IAF Magazine Articles

Sitting in Nevada, Bombing in Afghanistan

Hollywood production brings up thought provoking questions about the ethics of UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) strikes that over the years have become a central part of the modern battlefield. It turns out that the operation of these unique aircraft brings operational advantages alongside weighty ethical dilemmas

Eilon Tohar

The Major flies over an Afghani village that sprawls across a narrow piece of desert. The mission must be executed with great precision: first, he must identify a local driving a truck on a dirt road, then, accurately place the sights on the target until a small square frames it on the display and finally, pull the lever. In ten seconds the "Hellfire" missile will hit a target suspected of assisting a terror organization and leave behind it a demolition cloud. Another operation has been successfully executed all from his seat.
12,000 Kilometers from the Afghani village, the Major rises, leaves his mission station, enters his car and leaves to pick up his children from school.

Killing With the Press of a Button
"Good Kill", directed by Andrew Niccol raises interesting dilemmas regarding the ethics of UAV involvement in combat. The plot revolves around Tommy (Ethan Hawke) a former F-16 pilot that was reassigned to be a UAV operator. From a pilot that was accustomed to being absent from home for months and risking his life, he finds himself frustrated from his new post even though it allows him to return home to his wife (January Jones) and his children every day.
Not only does he encounter problems in his personal life, but he also comes face to face with ethical questions concerning his professional field: beginning with a weapons warehouse bombing that accidentally killed two bypassing children and then recurring bombing of the same place, once targeting the neighbors that came to clear the bodies.
The commands he receives gradually challenge his conscience more and more, as the movies goal is not to object the U.S Governments policy but to stimulate a discussion and properly display both arguments.

Less Boots on the Ground
The focus on targeted UAV killings in the world as an independent subject is not something to take for granted: besides targeted killings not being their only mission, many other aircraft also execute targeted killings. Nevertheless, some claim that because of the unique type of activity these special systems have unique ethical questions of their own.
The world of unmanned technology is gaining momentum in every field: from remotely controlled naval vessels to unmanned remotely controlled operational vehicles. Most prominent are the UAVs that enable the execution of an array of aerial operations without risking the life of the operator, ranging from intelligence gathering to targeted killings.
The UAVs are not only larger in numbers, they are also more advanced and there are those who foresee a day in which they will completely replace manned aircraft.
This trend has many clear advantages. It allows democratic countries to minimize the number of "boots on the ground" and complete their mission remotely without jeopardizing soldiers' lives. The critics, on the other hand, point at the UAV operators sitting in their air conditioned mission stations, thousands of Kilometers away from their target in a "videogame like" atmosphere.
If the UAV is downed or is involved in an accident, the damage will be economic at most. While in the past, the results of such incidents could have been the loss of aircrew members lives. In one of the movies scenes, Tommy arrives at a register in a convenience store on his way home and is asked about his flight suit. "Just today I bombed six terrorists in Pakistan", he replies to the cashier, who of course doesn't believe him.

Piecing the Puzzle
The public discussion is held on the background of the a-symmetrical confrontations that characterize the modern era, meaning countries that face small terror organizations, a situation different to the past in which wars were conducted between armies.
In the last few years it has become clear that the western democracies have trouble dealing with rivals smaller and weaker than them, a phenomenon that can be explained in a few ways, with one being the countries desire to obtain international legitimacy. Military strength doesn't guarantee a country's ability to defend its sovereignty and its citizens safety anymore, today, it needs international support. Terror organizations exploit this fact, for instance, by firing rockets from densely populated areas, which restricts countries legitimacy to attack and puts its soldiers in a moral dilemma.
"There are two principles concerning the moral aspect of targeted killings - self defense and maintaining respect for human life", said Prof. Asa Kasher, in one of the discussions that were held around the airing of the movie, "self defense is obvious and not only a right but an obligation for any democracy when it is attacked unjustly. But its obligation is also to be respectful towards every human being, and if it (the democracy) restricts his independence or harms him - it better have a very good reason. These two principles make the difference and not the question of the operation is executed by a pilot or a UAV operator".
A report published in 2013, shows the number of people killed from the US' targeted killing policy throughout the years and proves that UAV activity cause fewer deaths than manned attacks or ground operations, while comparing the number of deaths in Cosovo, Vietnam, and Iraq.
It's hard to find revealed declarations on the subject because most countries that operate armed UAVs don't rush to shed light on the topic. When details in the giant UAV puzzle around the world are revealed, extremely fast development is revealed, even in countries like China and Iran. About a year ago it was publicized that in a decade, every country will be able to operate attack UAVs.
This way or that, the American movie shines a spotlight on one of the oldest questions in the field of battlefield ethics across the world. The instruments and arenas change but the man and his dilemmas stay, whether in the cockpit or in the mission station.


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