Drones: A Challenge to the Professional Military Ethic

By: LCDR Andrew Ely, U.S. Coast Guard Academy

The military use of drones receives significant public attention, particularly regarding their technological advantages and combat superiority. While the many advantages of this new military technology are important for modern combat and other operations, the use of drones on the battlefield raises some questions unique to the men and women in uniform who pilot them. U.S. military personnel are trained to adhere to a code of conduct known as the Professional Military Ethic (PME). For personnel who operate remote weapons, this code can pose an ethical dilemma because the pilot's individual autonomy is constrained by the capabilities of the machines he or she controls.1

This discussion looks at the conflicts that arise for the remotely piloted vehicle (RPV) pilot who is serving in roles that do not apparently require the traditional core military virtues. At first glance, there may be perceived emotional benefits to using RPVs in battle; a drone, after all, is not subject to the range of sensations and emotions faced by a soldier2 on the ground. That is not to say that its use is devoid of moral implication, however. What, then, are the effects of piloting a drone on the military professional who is far removed from the battlespace and yet operating within it?

The sheer number of drones now in use demonstrates their perceived utility, and drones are affecting the way policy makers and soldiers think about and conduct the spectrum of military operations. The United States military now has nearly 150 times as many drones as it did just a decade ago.3 It is well worth exploring, then, what impact the radically expanded use of this stillyoung technology has on those personnel who pilot drones, and on the pilots' understanding of war. These lessons, while drawn from U.S. experience, could easily be expanded, mutatis mutandis,4 to every armed force that uses or is contemplating the use of drones in military operations.

While all branches of the U.S. military are becoming increasingly reliant on RPVs to put more physical distance between soldiers and the battlefield, it remains true that first and foremost, a military unit is composed of individuals. It is still individual soldiers who accomplish mission objectives. We see evidence of this in the organizational literature of the U.S. armed services, which guides all of their uniformed members. The "Soldier's Creed" of the U.S. Army and the "Airman's Creed" of the U.S. Air Force, for example, illustrate the central role of the fighter and the absolutist philosophy that is instilled in him or her at boot camp, the service academies, and other training venues for the services.5 These documents set out fundamental expectations—a warrior ethic. Such an ethic includes (but is not limited to) loyalty to the mission, prohibitions on accepting defeat and providing information to the enemy, a requirement for unwavering support for other members of the team according to traditional standards, and the defense of freedom and justice. In short, the guidance emphasizes that one must be brave in all military endeavors on behalf of the nation. This leaves us with a pressing question for the soldier assigned to engage in combat through drones: How does operating a weapon thousands of miles from the battlespace correlate with the seemingly inherent requirement for the warfighter to honor traditional elements of the warrior ethic?

The Unique Obligations of a Soldier

Any soldier who has physically been in battle has experienced "the fog of war." Overcoming this confusion requires strong leadership and a heavy reliance on basic military principles and values.6 Among these are the virtues traditionally attributed to the warfighter, including the virtues that are qualities of character— being a good soldier requires a good character. Consider the virtue of bravery. Simply acting bravely is not sufficient; the soldier must also develop the proper character that will guide his or her emotions through being given opportunities to practice being brave.7 It is hard to imagine how soldiers can maintain a virtue such as bravery while they are physically removed from the battlespace. The use of drones and other semi-autonomous or autonomous weapons should cause us to examine whether we need to differently frame traditional military training methods. Where should the armed services place the emphasis in military ethics training and professional military education to ensure that warriors are the most effective ethical practitioners possible?

To answer this question, we must first review military ethics in general. Members of the U.S. military, for example, have a distinct obligation to the society and citizens they serve and defend.8 Like all military personnel, they are trained to follow established procedures and policies. In combat, a soldier's decisions are primarily aimed at benefiting his or her own side. The soldier's decision process also must, secondarily, consider factors such as proportionality and discrimination—principles that will provide some benefit (or at least minimize harm) to the other side. Taken alone, policy and procedure will not serve as adequate tools for a soldier operating in-theater to navigate through the "fog of war"; rather, ethical considerations play just as vital a role in evaluating and selecting courses of action.

In war, the "right thing to do" is guided by unity of command, which requires, among other things, unity of effort—that is, coordination and cooperation among all elements that comprise the forces employed to accomplish the desired outcome or goal.9 It is important to note that such a structure expects that the soldiers who make up the unified command must willingly accept the goal of the mission as justified. In a democracy, it is not the role of the soldier, or even the commander of the unified force, to determine the goal of the mission. Rather, it is the obligation of the civilian government to articulate the moral justification for entering war, the jus ad bellum, in the planning phase.

The U.S. fighter maintains responsibility for his or her decision and actions according to jus in bello, the laws of war that apply to the actual conduct of operations in armed conflict. In traditional combat, soldiers operate physically in the theater of the war effort. Even bomber pilots who operate from the apparent safety and considerable distance of the sky are still working in-theater and assume some level of risk associated with their specific mission. The hardships of war are experienced by a cross-functional and integrated team of individuals working together within the battlespace. Thus, the more technology removes the soldier from the battlespace, the harder it becomes for that soldier to adhere to the traditional PME. How can one individual meet the obligation to be brave and loyal to other team members while personally removed from any apparent physical harm?

In his book, Kantian Thinking about Military Ethics, J. Carl Ficarrotta explores how soldiers are morally bound while acting in war, and whether their moral obligations exceed those of ordinary citizens.10 He suggests that if we understand the function of the military in a narrow sense to be to fight on behalf of the nation, then soldiers are held to a higher moral standard while executing this function. His reasons are threefold: first, the operational complexity and cooperation required by warfare demand strict adherence to a code of ethics; second, the requirement that soldiers demonstrate "bravery, selflessness, and conscientiousness" while carrying out their duties calls for a clear moral code; and third, failure to successfully execute a military operation may result in exceptionally dire outcomes.11 Each of these reasons underscores the importance of unity of effort to maintain unity of command. It is not clear that reliance solely on the military's PME and leadership will produce the right result from the soldier confronted with the execution of a tactical objective in the battlespace.12

Trust and integrity within the military unit are foundational principles on which the team functions. The obligations of soldiers are obligations of solidarity; that is, they are particular to the armed service and impose requirements on members beyond mere consent.13 To accomplish the set of missions determined by national leadership, a soldier must be loyal to the military organization and fellow military members. But what happens when loyalty to the mission requires a soldier to betray her loyalty to a fellow member of the military? The drone pilot cannot aid her fellow soldiers who are physically in the battlespace as she would be able to if she were on-scene. Her agency is limited to the capabilities of the drone. If a drone pilot observes through her monitor an act of violence in the battlespace against soldiers on her own side, she may retaliate against the enemy by firing the drone's weapons. Her range of action is limited, however; she cannot physically come to their aid and offer medical care, or help remove a wounded fellow warrior from the battlefield.

The difficulty that I am pointing out is a dissonance for the drone pilot between the justification to act that she receives from her branch of the service and her obligation to treat others fairly. In the first place, the RPV pilot is limited in her ability to carry out the physical expectations set forth in training and the traditional PME. In the second place, as a result of this limitation on her ability to act within the battlespace, the pilot is in some sense restricted from honoring the principle of unity of effort as she has been trained to do. That is, she may be put in a situation where she cannot come to the aid of a member or members of her own side because her on-scene agency is restricted to the capabilities of the drone. I argue that this creates an unacceptable moral dilemma for the RPV pilot. Her military training and guiding ethical principles— the PME—tell her to be brave at all costs and to stay with her team during a mission, even if she is in great peril. However, her assignment places a physical boundary between her and the battlespace that utterly precludes her from doing so.14

This reality makes it morally problematic to align how the PME is directing the soldier to carry out her assignment with a role that limits her on-scene agency. If my argument here is correct, this disconnect has the potential to raise a seemingly unmanageable internal conflict for the drone pilot and could, in the worst case, lead to a breakdown of unity of effort by threatening the fundamental tenets of unity of command and the broader PME. In the next section, I go into more detail on just how this conflict may play out for the RPV pilot, and the problems this creates for the PME.

The Conflict: Military v. Individual Virtue

When we think of an ideal member of the armed services, there are specific attributes and values that readily come to mind such as courage, bravery, persistence, and integrity, to name only a few. Each of these virtues can be tied directly to the primary mission of the military professional: to serve as a warfighter.

Although the role of the modern military has expanded far beyond preparing for and fighting traditional interstate wars, the culture of the military still revolves around these kinds of virtues. Core values, and the methods that many armed services utilize in training to instill them, focus on the central idea that, as a soldier, you are not in the fight alone: you function as a part of a team of highly competent and trained individuals to execute the mission. The concepts of unity of command and unity of effort are of critical importance in this context. My concern is that the further one departs from the traditional model of unity of effort, the more difficult any justifications for unity of command become.15 The central moral point that appears to support the use of RPVs is that to conduct a just war, a soldier is expected to discriminate between combatants and non-combatants so as to deliberately target only those who are combatants. Proponents of RPVs insist that use of the technology in this case increases the morality of war because drone strikes are potentially more precise than other suitable weaponry, and hit what or who they are aimed at.16 The consistency of such technology, in their view, directly translates into increased military effectiveness and the ethical soundness required by jus in bello.

Unity of command, however, requires unity of effort. When I am directly in the physical presence of my team while fighting from a trench or the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, a sense of belonging and camaraderie arises through the shared history and experience that surround the mission. Thus, there is strong support for me to undertake a proportional role in the conflict, knowing that the others are doing so as well. Because the RPV pilot does not have this shared experience, it is possible to question whether he or she can truly act on behalf of fellow soldiers in the same way that someone next to me in the trench or overhead in a fighter jet can. As Martin Cook writes, proportionality (and, I would contend, all jus in bello moral principles) is "highly contextual and depend[s] on many dimensions of practical military reality."17 One of these practical realities is the shared physical battlespace in which soldiers fight. When this is lost due to the removal of some military operators from the theater, it is natural to infer that the virtues of the warrior ethic that are in part dependent on that practical reality could be lost along with it.

The focus of the traditional PME is on the empirical realm: a soldier is a part of a team, and this knowledge enables the soldier to recognize and understand the limits of his own authority. Choosing the right course of action is at least partially based on the justification for the method of action; for example, using violence to stop violence by another. A soldier on the ground can demonstrate physical and moral bravery and loyalty. He can exercise his authority as an autonomous agent while on-scene. An RPV pilot cannot behave in the same way. As I pointed out earlier, the pilot relinquishes her authority, at least in some sense, to the drone. She has no capacity in which to display physical bravery, and may have little opportunity to display moral bravery. She cannot act in the same fully autonomous way as the soldier on the ground because she is physically absent from the battlespace, and consequently free from all risks of physical harm. Further, because a solid foundation in the virtues of military conduct requires opportunities to practice them, it seems difficult to assume that the drone pilot will reliably execute them.

I am not proposing that we do away with the use of drones—such a notion is equally impractical and undesirable. Rather, we must consider how we should equip and train the pilots who operate them to handle the cognitive dissonance that emerges between the traditional PME and an operational environment that obviates the need to exercise at least some of the fundamental military virtues. As militaries continue to incorporate remotely operated technology, I perceive a new obligation for military training and the PME.

A Proposal for the PME

The U.S. military's current approach to training and education is focused on the mind-set of a soldier in battle. This includes what fighters' obligations are to those on their own side: "Every soldier must have the potential to act like a warrior if only once in their life, whether they are support personnel who face the danger of improvised explosive devices … or mechanics huddling in shelters as mortars explode around them."18 The traditional PME therefore is not adequate to guide the reactions of RPV pilots who operate completely remote from the battlespace. The challenge lies in how to modify the PME so that it can accommodate this new combat reality.

Uncovering this problem has been my primary aim. While a full exploration of potential solutions is beyond the scope of this article, the concept of virtue epistemology (VE) could potentially address this inadequacy, at least in part. Using VE, the individual does not seek to justify an action based on a set of external principles; instead, he or she evaluates when and whether to act based on intellectual "virtues and vices." Virtues in this case refer to the qualities of careful, informed reasoning that serve as the basis of good moral character and lead to reliable, true beliefs. Vices include jumping to conclusions, or clinging to an idea in the face of disproving facts. These intellectual virtues and vices are fundamental concepts of self-evaluation that are meant to be practically useful in the face of a moral dilemma.19 The aim of VE is to promote intellectual and ethical well-being for agents who are faced with a difficult choice or situation. Examples include acknowledging that they do not know something or recognizing that they are unable to physically act.

It is essential that all military personnel who are actively engaged in a combat operation possess the necessary cognitive and emotional tools to make timely decisions that are justifiable according to the dynamic circumstances and information available as the situation unfolds. At first glance, the inclusion of intellectual virtues in military ethical training looks promising because it appears to address two of the most pressing problems faced by RPV pilots. First, the "fog of war" problem can be mitigated by applying such virtues as openmindedness and what Aristotle called phronesis, or practical wisdom, which support the unity of effort that is vital to the military in combat operations.20 Second, intellectual virtues allow RPV pilots to more fully recognize the limits of their agency and avoid applying amoral (faulty) beliefs to justify their moral position.

For example, when the RPV pilot cannot physically assist an injured fellow soldier, her ability to rely on her own intellectual virtues of informed reasoning may help the pilot understand her epistemic duty. Just as conflicts may arise between the moral virtues (e.g., do moral ends justify immoral means?), similar conflicts may arise between the intellectual and moral virtues (e.g., I know I have no means to act, but my moral virtue demands that I physically act). Open-mindedness helps the RPV pilot to be receptive to new ideas: e.g., recognizing the limits on her agency that prevent her from demonstrating moral bravery and finding other means to help, such as requesting assistance from another unit on the battlefield.

At this point, an overarching intellectual virtue, practical wisdom, comes into play. This quality of intellect allows the pilot to consider all of the moral and intellectual virtues involved in her choices. Practical wisdom allows the pilot to understand the totality of the situation and assess the practical thing to do, while recognizing that the morally brave and the open-minded choices come into conflict. Having considered all of the factors, the pilot can then make the decision that a reasonable person would make (calling for help and waiting for it to arrive); she can justify her choice by evaluating the general motivation for good in all of the virtues involved and picking out those virtues that best fit the unique situation.

Despite the potential benefits of VE and the intellectual virtues for military training, the proposal presents some significant problems that must be addressed. The first problem is implementation. Without adequate funding, training resources, and time for personnel to attend training in VE decision making, the project will remain in the world of ideas. The difficulties of implementation will be compounded by the need to deliver VE training to the broad spectrum of the military workforce, from entry-level recruits to senior officers. Multiple training programs will have to be developed and implemented to target the cognitive skill levels, needs, and roles of such disparate groups of students. In the case of the U.S. military and most other military organizations, if the military leadership acknowledges the need for better cooperation and collaboration among personnel in combat operations, this need must be made apparent to those government officials responsible for the funding of military education.

A deeper problem consists of educating military personnel in the intellectual virtues while maintaining the battlefield-oriented PME that has been a timehonored part of military tradition and culture. Among the traditional virtues of honor, loyalty, bravery, and so on, there must be room to reinforce the intellectual virtues without interfering with the discipline that supports unity of command and unity of effort. If RPV pilots are expected to know what they ought to do during an operation, then they must be able to explore alternatives, apply careful reasoning, and remain focused on the ultimate objective of the current mission. The difficulty lies in balancing the ability of RPV pilots to adhere to their orders and required operational protocols while providing opportunities for them to acknowledge and justify the limits imposed on their personal autonomy.

In actual combat, there is often little or no time for advanced preparation. Therefore, a rules-based approach to moral problems is warranted. The objective of training and the PME is to create a clear policy for the individual soldier to follow in a wide range of physically and morally difficult circumstances. One advantage of VE is that intellectual virtues—the qualities of a careful and competent thinker—rather than physical ones such as bravery under fire, serve as the foundation of epistemic evaluation.

Aristotle distinguished virtues of character to be those of one who is well tempered and wise: this state of mind allows him or her to reason and act in an appropriate way.21 RPV pilots must be able to draw on well-established intellectual virtues to navigate through the "fog of war" in a way that acknowledges the limits of their agency while they aim to act according to the truth of whatever situation they are operating in. Since soldiers already (presumably) possess virtues of character that guide them to act in a reasonable way, it seems a natural progression to educate them in the intellectual virtues. Using appropriate reasoning will allow soldiers, including RPV pilots, to critically examine and develop a clearer picture of the circumstances that have given rise to a moral dilemma.

About the Author(s): Lieutenant Commander Andrew Ely teaches Moral and Ethical Philosophy in the Humanities Department of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. He has served in the Coast Guard for over 18 years, most recently as commanding officer of Station New London, Connecticut. LCDR Ely also served as platoon officer and chief of nautical science at Officer Candidate School, as the school chief of the Chief Warrant Officer Professional Development Course, and as the administrative officer for the Leadership Development Center. He has an MA in philosophy from the University of Connecticut and an MA in Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.


1. The contents of this article reflect my own personal views and are not necessarily endorsed by the U.S. Coast Guard Academy or the U.S. Coast Guard.

2. A note from the CTX editors: We recognize that combat personnel and drone pilots come from other services besides the Army. In the interests of simplicity, we are using the term soldier in a general sense to include all military personnel who serve in the roles described in this article.

3. See "The Growing U.S. Drone Fleet," in the "World" section of the Washington Post website: http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/the-growing-us-drone-fleet/2011/12/23/gIQA76faEP_graphic.html

4. Mutatis mutandis is a Latin phrase that can be translated as "only the necessary changes having been made." In other words, the issues and principles described here can be adapted to other countries' circumstances.

5. "Soldier's Creed," U.S. Army, n.d.: http://www.army.mil/values/soldiers.html ; "Airman's Creed," U.S. Air Force, n.d.: http://www.airforce.com/learn-about/airmans-creed/

6. Mark Rhodes, "The Fog of War," Strategy by Design, n.d.: http://www.strategybydesign.org/fog-of-war/

7. Epictetus, The Handbook, trans. Nicholas P. White (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1983), 11–13. The Stoic philosophy of Epictetus is considered a foundational component of the PME for modern Western militaries. But, the control of emotion that Epictetus promoted is unrealistic if a modern soldier is supposed to abide by the Hague Conventions and show some level of compassion toward the enemy, thus minimizing unnecessary suffering in battle. Therefore, it must be the job of the military instructor and commander to guide a soldier's emotional reaction to the circumstances of combat.

8. This obligation is evident in the time-honored tradition of the reading of the military officer's commission and enlistment of non-commissioned soldiers.

9. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Doctrine for Joint Operations, Joint Publication 3-0 (Washington, D.C.: Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2001), A-2.

10. J. Carl Ficarrotta, "Are Military Professionals Bound by a Higher Moral Standard: Functionalism and Its Limits," in Kantian Thinking about Military Ethics (Farnham, England: Ashgate, 2010), 1–16.

11. Ibid., 6–7.

12. To act requires that a person—the agent—initiate his own action. The purpose of the PME and military leadership is to guide soldiers so that they choose right action. That is, the objective of guiding doctrine such as the PME is to fulfill a need of the individual. Soldiers operating under unity of command have to function as part of a team. The PME addresses this need, guiding the agent to help his fellow soldiers.

13. Michael J. Sandel, Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009), 225.

14. Eric Beidel, "Army Pilots: Flying Drones Tougher Than It Looks," National Defense, February 2011: http://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/archive/2011/February/Pages/ArmyPilotsFlyingDronesTougherThanItLooks.aspx

15. Martin L. Cook, The Moral Warrior: Ethics and Service in the U.S. Military (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 2004), 28.

16. Bradley Jay Strawser, "Moral Predators: The Duty to Employ Uninhabited Aerial Vehicles," Journal of Military Ethics 9, no. 4 (2010): 352.

17. Cook, The Moral Warrior, 34.

18. Christopher Coker, The Warrior Ethos: Military Culture and the War on Terror (New York: Routledge, 2007), 133.

19. Heather Battaly, "Virtue Epistemology," Philosophy Compass 3, no. 4 (2008): 639–663.

20. When faced with a formidable opponent in combat, soldiers are trained to act with moral bravery, to accept personal risk, in order to prevail. Consider the example of a squad leader whose men are outnumbered by the enemy and cut off from any means to call for help. The leader decides to fight with everything he has, recognizing that attack or certain death are his only viable options—indeed, that the former option may result in the latter. By undertaking the attack in light of such overwhelming risk, the leader is considered courageous because he accepted personal sacrifice to further the larger goal. Other military and political leaders will emphasize this person's moral bravery because they want those who find themselves in a similar situation ideally to conduct themselves in a similar fashion. This moral argument works only if the individual leader understands the ultimate goal that justifies the personal risks and sacrifices. For example, see Linda Zagzebski, Virtues of the Mind: An Inquiry into the Nature of Virtue and the Ethical Foundations of Knowledge (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 256.

21. Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, trans. Martin Ostwald (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1999), 27.

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