Drones Don’t Change a Thing

October 5, 2013

M. Shane Riza, Killing Without Heart: Limits on Robotic Warfare in an Age of Persistent Conflict (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2013).


In Killing Without Heart, Colonel M. Shane Riza argues that the use of remotely-piloted and autonomous robots by the US military leads to bloodless engagement (at least on our side), one in which American forces can limit their casualties to virtually zero while still aggressively taking the fight to their adversaries.

Does this change the character of war, or perhaps even its very nature? Has the emergence of robotics altered war’s nature? What is that nature? This is question has forever occupied the minds of strategists.  Riza, a U.S. Air Force officer, attempts to steer the discussion from tactical evaluations towards ethical considerations of the use of military robotics. He questions the possible implications of using such tools: “Is there a point where our distance, both literal and figurative, and our ability to engage in battle with more and more impunity alter our concept of what is right and wrong in war?”

Robotics might seem to be potential policy game-changers, but it is a mistake to see newly emergent technological innovations as anything other than tools whose primary value is tactical.

Riza asserts that new robotic technology makes war an easier option rather than one of last resort. While it is not particularly clear whether this is the case given the US public’s current aversion to military engagements, the main issue with such a contention is that it conflates tactical “ease” with easy policymaking. While questions of military strategy are inevitably influenced by available technology, they are not governed by it. People and politics determine the overall strategy. Tools that appear to make for “easy” tactics do not guarantee easy strategy. It may be technologically feasible to deploy highly sophisticated, armed drones nearly anywhere in the world, but technology does not choose its specific operations.

Riza also discusses the decreased risk to soldiers’ lives when automated and remotely controlled weapons systems are utilized.  He extends this line of thought to warn of a consequent erosion of the warrior ethos. Warriors do not kill without impunity; they place their lives “in the highest of stakes.” To Riza, this is at the center of the humanness of war. Riza believes that remotely conducted or unmanned warfare reduces the human aspects of warfare. He asks, “would we recognize a no-hitter pitched by a pitching machine with the same awe as we do when we see the battle between the man on the mound and the men at plate?”

Riza conflates the discourse of war with the reality of war. The degree of separation between adversaries that automation and remote control allows is part of a long, historical trend. The long bow, the machine gun, the tank, and the airplane all effectively grew this distance between a soldier and his enemy. Radar and progressively more precise munitions guidance systems further increased this gap. Robotics represents another step in this chain. Riza is correct in identifying this as an enormous step, but it is a mistake to expect this to diminish the warrior ethos any more than previous innovations. Riza’s seeming prediction that the use of robotics will be the only means of conducting warfare in the future is similarly inaccurate. There is no shortage of military objectives to which automated weapons systems will never be as well suited as a formation of infantry soldiers. The military of the future will not be solely composed of robot GIs.

Riza goes on to argue that the risk to a country’s combatants is being transferred to noncombatants since military operations involving tools such as unmanned aerial vehicles are often directed from domestic military bases instead of in theater. “The risk inversion is the true revolution in warfare, and it is being driven by robotic technology,” he writes. Therefore, he suggests, retaliation on a country’s soil is the only possible response. But this is not new. Attacks on the enemy’s homeland to eliminate its ability to wage war is a constant feature of war. In World War II, both the Axis and the Allies targeted civilians and infrastructure. Terrorist acts target noncombatants in addition to combatants. The attacks of September 11 were aimed at both civilian and military centers. A major nuclear war would not be limited to military centers.

The crucial question is one embedded in the pages of Riza’s work: “Are we prepared for killing without heart?” Riza is right to argue that the ethical implications of modern warfare require more analysis and debate. Military strategy should be crafted in a way that makes it possible to clearly articulate why we apply violence to “kill without heart.” But it isn’t that different from killing with heart. War is and will continue to be a human activity not because humans pull kill triggers but because humans determine war strategy and warfare in a political process. Humans determine the when, where, why, and how of war. Robots will not change that.


Ryan Youra is a student at American University studying International Studies and a research intern at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, where he works under WOTR Contributing Editor Frank Hoffman. These views are his own and do not reflect the positions of the National Defense University or any part of the United States Government.


Photo Credit: Nick Royer, Flickr