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US Seen Dropping Ethics Considerations In Drone Assassinations

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Drone Warfare: The Death of Precision (excerpt)

(Source: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; posted 12 May 2017)

By James Rogers

During the Obama presidency, precision was not just about hitting the right target, and it was more than mere accuracy. It was an ethos, one that enshrined the liberal-American desire to be just in times of war while still ensuring victory. Armed drones and the precision missiles they deployed were said to epitomize this desire. Drones were, the president stated, part of a “just war—a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.”

These claims were contentious. People such as Nobel laureate Desmond M. Tutu declared that these weapons undermined America’s “moral standards,” and non-governmental organizations such as Airwars—which monitors civilian casualties resulting from airstrikes in Iraq, Syria, and Libya—exposed the true cost of precision. For the Obama administration, though, drones continued to offer the alluring ability to kill at a distance while mitigating the cost to innocent life. Although mistakes were made, in an age when the United States led the world in the use of drones, these weapons appeared to offer a simple and unrivaled solution to the complexities of war.

In the post-Obama era, however, the drone landscape has changed. Not only has American dominance over the use of drones eroded—with a plethora of state and non-state actors acquiring drone technologies—but with the rise of a new presidential administration, the American search for just and proportionate precision appears to have been called off.

The long quest for “precision.” American precision warfare was never perfect. Nevertheless, during the Obama years, the administration made genuine attempts to minimize civilian casualties. Indeed, the moral and strategic search for precision has a long history in American warfare; the origins of Obama-era precision can be traced back to the Cold War nuclear context of the 1980s. Albert Wohlstetter, a prominent American nuclear strategist of that era, argued that conventional precision missiles could offer an alternative to massive nuclear destruction in the event of hostilities with a nuclear armed state.

Thanks to advances in computer data gathering and transmission, missile range and yield, and offensive accuracies and reliability, precision missiles could provide an effective “discriminate deterrence,” Wohlstetter wrote. The logic was that precision missiles could guarantee the pinpoint destruction of enemy military targets around the globe without resorting to the nuclear option—and the civilian casualties that would come from nuclear war. This strategy was not used in the Cold War, but in the post-Cold War era precision weapons dominated American warfare.

Building upon the initial success of the Gulf War that ended in 1991, the Kosovo War of 1998 and 1999 marked a fundamental milestone in the way the United States conducted warfare. It was within this conflict that precision was achieved with near-perfection, paving the way for it to become a staple of American strategic thought. No longer did American political and strategic thinkers need to concern themselves with justifying a heavy cost to both civilian and American military lives.

Instead—through the combination of unarmed surveillance drones, real-time video transmission, and Tomahawk cruise missiles—precision increased, the costs of war were reduced, and the strategic advantage was maintained. Despite some high-profile incidents in which civilians were killed, Secretary of Defense William Cohen declared Kosovo to be “the most precise application of air power in history.”

There were zero NATO combat deaths in Kosovo, so for the United States the war was seemingly cost-free and bloodless. These perceived successes had a lasting impact on American warfare. (end of excerpt)

Click here for the full story, on the Bulletin of American Scientists website.