A Philosopher's Blog

Gun Drones

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on August 25, 2017

Taking the obvious step in done technology, Duke Robotics has developed a small armed drone called the Tikad. One weapon loadout is an assault rifle that can be fired by the human operator of the device. The drone can presumably carry other weapons of similar size and weight, such as a grenade launcher. This drone differs from previous armed drones, like the Predator, in that it is small and relatively cheap. As with many other areas of technology, the innovation is in the ease of use and lower cost. This makes the Tikad type drone far more accessible than previous drones, which is both good and bad.

On the positive side, the military and police can deploy more drones and thus reduce human casualties. For example, the police could send a drone in to observe and possibly engage during a hostage situation and not put officers in danger.

On the negative side, the lower cost and ease of use means that such armed drones can be more easily deployed by terrorists, criminals and oppressive states. The typical terrorist group cannot afford a drone like the Predator and might have difficulty in finding people who can operate and maintain such a complicated aircraft. But, a drone like the Tikad could be operated and serviced by a much broader range of people. This is not to say that Duke Robotics should be criticized for doing the obvious—people have been thinking about arming drones since drones were invented.

Budget gun drones do, of course, also raise the usual concerns associated with remotely operated weapons. The first is the concern that operators of drones are more likely to be aggressive than forces that are physically present and at risk of the consequences of a decision to engage in violence. However, it can also be argued that an operator is less likely to be aggressive because they are not in danger and the literal and metaphorical distance will allow them to respond with more deliberation. For example, a police officer operating a drone might elect to wait longer to confirm that a suspect is pulling a gun than they would if their life was in danger. Then again, they might not—this would be a training and reaction issue with a very practical concern about training officers to delay longer when operating a drone and not do so when in person.

A second stock concern is the matter of accountability. A drone allows the operator a high degree of anonymity and assigning responsibility can be problematic. In the case of military and police, this can be addressed to a degree by having a system of accountability. After all, military and police operators would presumably be known to the relevant authorities. That said, drones can be used in ways that are difficult to trace to the operator and this would certainly be true in the case of terrorists. The use of drones would allow terrorists to attack from safety and in an anonymous manner, which are certainly matters of concern.

However, it must be noted that while the first use of a gun armed drone in a terrorist attack would be something new, it would not be significantly different from the use of a planted bomb. This is because such bombs allow terrorists to kill from a safe distance and make it harder to identify the terrorist. But, just as with bombs, the authorities would be able to investigate the attack and stand some chance of tracing a drone back to the terrorist. Drones are in some ways less worrisome than bombs—a drone can be seen and is limited in how many targets it can engage. In contrast, a bomb can be hidden and can kill many in an instant, without a chance of escape or defense.  A gun drone is also analogous in some ways with a sniper rifle—it allows engagement at long ranges. However, the drone does afford far more range and safety than even the best sniper rifle.

In the United States, there will presumably be considerable interest about how the Second Amendment applies to armed drones. On the face of it, the answer seems easy enough: while the people have the right to keep and bear arms, this does not extend to operating armed drones. But, there might be some interesting lawsuits over this matter.

In closing, there are legitimate concerns about cheap and simple gun drones. While they will not be as radical a change as some might predict, they will make it easier and cheaper to engage in violence at a distance and in anonymous killing. As such, they will make ideal weapons for terrorists and oppressive governments. However, they do offer the possibility of reduced human casualties, if used responsibly. In any case, their deployment is inevitable, so the meaningful questions are about how they should be used and how to defend against their misuse. The question about whether they should be used is morally interesting, but pragmatically irrelevant since they will be used.

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8 Responses

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  1. Joe Postove said, on August 25, 2017 at 8:30 am

    It also makes it easier for a state to engage in war, thus making it, perhaps more likely.

  2. TJB said, on August 26, 2017 at 3:00 am

    I think terrorists will just strap bombs on drones and fly them into crowded areas. I don’t think they will mess with gun-toting drones.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 28, 2017 at 7:32 pm

      I’ve heard that they have already done that in the Middle East.

      The gun toting drone does have some interesting terror options; but I think you are right that a bomb-drone will be their killdrone of choice.

  3. DH said, on August 26, 2017 at 9:35 am

    This is a reasonable set of arguments, but I would suggest that it’s the exact same set of argument that happens every time a new weapons technology is developed.

    “Look, we have this great new weapon! It will protect our soldiers while inflicting damage on the enemy!”
    “Is that ethical? Shouldn’t our soldiers go into harms way to inflict damage, in the spirit of fair play?”
    “What if the enemy gets a hold of it?”

    It was a concern when the pioneers and the US Army used guns against the Native Americans. It was a concern when steam-powered ironclad warships were used prior to and during the Civil War, it was a concern with the development of the automatic rifle, the airplane, the tank, long range guns and missiles, the atomic bomb and, in modern times, EMP bombs, computer viruses and now drones.

    Colonel Kurtz, in “Apocalypse Now” popularly voiced the thoughts of some critics of modern day warfare when he so famously repeated, “The horror! The horror!” as he lay dying. Applying ethics to war is dichotomous – the winner is the one who has the greater stomach for the horror.

    TJB makes a good point. One of the basic tenets of terrorism is to inflict maximum damage with maximum fear and maximum horror. We respond with “responsible” surgical strikes, avoiding the collateral damage that is the hallmark of our enemy. They may not even use drones at all – after all, they have never been too interested in protecting either the lives or the identity of their operatives; in fact, quite the opposite. The fact that they are willing to die horrible deaths as a matter of commitment and honor adds to their power as an enemy, and makes them better at this than we are.

    As to the question of the risk of the enemy gaining access to this new drone technology, I’d say it’s not a risk, but rather a foregone conclusion – provided they want it. I imagine that military strategists are well aware of that fact. I don’t think there has ever been a case in history where the enemy does NOT gain access to new technology – but the question is, “How much damage can we inflict with this new weapon BEFORE they get their hands on it?”

    If I were to predict, I foresee us using all the intelligence gathering capabilities at our disposal to identify the location of a group of high-level operatives, then sending in a drone to take them out. This would instantly turn them into martyrs, and their successors would respond by sending suicide bombers into a crowded mall in some major Western city. Point made. “Kill us, we welcome death. But you will always live in fear”.

    • WTP said, on August 26, 2017 at 11:37 am

      “Is that ethical? Shouldn’t our soldiers go into harms way to inflict damage, in the spirit of fair play?”

      Said no man, or any men he is responsible and/or cares for, who is going into harms at the serious, likely risk of loss of life. Whether the enemy gets hold of it or not is irrelevant. War is not a game. You don’t get to hit the replay switch and start over again. Dead is dead and it lasts forever. And yes, I know I’m being a dick by pointing this out but Colonel Kurtz (both the movie character and the one in the original novel The Heart of Darkness) are fictional characters. We civilians slip too easily into fiction to make our points, for good or for bad. Again, while admit I am being a pedantic prick here, when talking with real men who have been in and seen real horrors and had to make split second decisions or lose their lives, one understands that this difference should not be taken lightly.

      TJB makes a good point. One of the basic tenets of terrorism is to inflict maximum damage with maximum fear and maximum horror.
      That is war. The basic tenet of war is to inflict maximum damage with maximum fear and horror. Wars are fought between the ears. You simply do not do so on civilian targets with the express purpose of harming civilians first. That is a barbarity beyond the basic barbarity of war.

      As to the question of the risk of the enemy gaining access to this new drone technology, I’d say it’s not a risk, but rather a foregone conclusion – provided they want it.
      They already have. Just google Jihadists Taliban ISIS using drones.

      If I were to predict, I foresee us using all the intelligence gathering capabilities at our disposal to identify the location of a group of high-level operatives, then sending in a drone to take them out. This would instantly turn them into martyrs, and their successors would respond by sending suicide bombers into a crowded mall in some major Western city. Point made. “Kill us, we welcome death. But you will always live in fear”.

      If I were to predict, this doesn’t end well for anyone. The minds of our young people have already been eroded with the sorry, pathetic excuse for “critical thinking”, sometimes branded as “critical theory”, that is anything but critical except for the concerted purpose of eroding Western Civilization and its values while simultaneously instilling grossly misplaced feelings of virtue, as we see in Mike and the terrorist front groups like Black Lives Matter and such that he supports. And the worse things get in the West, the much worse they get for the rest of the world.

      • DH said, on August 28, 2017 at 9:40 am

        First of all, no apology needed – I don’t think you are being pedantic or dickish at all. You bring up a good point about the fictional characters, but Kurtz, IMO, illustrates a pretty good point. Terrorism is about the horror – the more the better – and Americans don’t have the stomach for it. I’m not saying that the horror is good, nor am I saying that we should respond in kind – but it is a fact. While we seem to struggle to seek ways to combat our enemies with as little “collateral damage” and/or civilian involvement as possible, they do the opposite.

        (I say “seem to” because that’s the public face of it. I do hear horror stories about American operations in war, but I cannot speak knowledgeably about the subject, so I’m going with the press releases).

        I would disagree with your statement that “to inflict maximum damage with maximum fear and maximum horror” is the basic tenet of war. We have come a long way since the days of the Siege of Petersburg or the firebombing of Dresden. I believe, and I hope I’m right, that the US approach to war is more strategic than that – taking out military assets, shooting missiles down from the sky, and surgical strikes to eliminate leaders while protecting citizens and even accepting refugees.

        To me, the basic tenet of war is about wealth and power, or in some cases ideological dominance. The “maximum fear” approach is just a means to an end. Imposing sanctions, applying political pressure, covert operations, surgical drone strikes, viruses that disrupt computer systems that control banking and finance, communications, and day to day operations are also means to an end, and can also be very effective acts of war.

        Sometimes threats and brinkmanship are the most effective means. Whether it was true or not, there was much discussion about Trump’s handling of the North Korean situation as it may have related to Nixon’s “Madman” strategy – keeping your plans close to your chest, making maneuvers that fell just short of overt acts of war, and letting your enemy believe that you are a “loose cannon” capable of anything. (Trump’s mistake, according to this discussion, was to make specific threats that he would have to follow through with – whereas the ideal “madman” approach would be to let the enemy draw his own conclusions”.

        Anyway – the point regarding machine-gun bearing drones is that to me, whether or not they have them or even want them is somewhat irrelevant. Surgical strikes are not their stock in trade, and that’s what they are there for. The US might say, “Look – we can find the individuals responsible for this and take them out with almost no collateral damage!”, whereas the terrorists might respond, “why would we want to do that, when we can just put a bomb on one and take out a whole city block?” Even that falls short of their message, because by not putting a suicide operative in the middle, they don’t make the point about their commitment and willingness (or even eagerness) to die for their cause.

        I think that both of our predictions are accurate.

        • WTP said, on August 28, 2017 at 11:37 am

          We have come a long way since the days of the Siege of Petersburg or the firebombing of Dresden.

          And I would say we haven’t. I believe that we are backsliding. I believe this is why we haven’t been doing much winning in the military sense since WWII. The best we seem to achieve lately is a return to pre-war state, and the cycle continues. I say this not in an inhumane, war mongering way, though most people, especially those that pass for modern philosophers, would scoff at such. It pains me to say it. I loathe the pain and suffering of war. I have been very fortunate, like most people, to not have to experience it myself. But after long conversations, over many years, with someone who has, and after much reading outside the books The Narrative recommends, I have come to agree with General Sherman, whose name I have somewhat ironically adopted in my tla nic. He stated this in many different ways, clarified and such so this quote may be more of a summary, but the full context of his thoughts on the subject were effectively thus:

          It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.

          You might as well appeal against a thunderstorm as against these terrible hardships of war. War is cruelty, there is no use trying to reform it; the crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.

          You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices to-day than any of you to secure peace.

          Imposing sanctions, applying political pressure, covert operations, surgical drone strikes, viruses that disrupt computer systems that control banking and finance, communications, and day to day operations are also means to an end, and can also be very effective acts of war.

          I agree. To start. Hope that they will work. Yet what effect do sanctions have against the most vile? And do not our other foes, and even some of our closest allies, and even our own people, break those sanctions fairly regularly, thus to no effect except to cut our nose to spite our face? When we imposed sanctions against Japan, pre-WWII based on their rape of Manchuria, from the Japanese perspective that was viewed as a justification for Pearl Harbor and the entry of the US into the most vile war in history.

          Sometimes threats and brinkmanship are the most effective means. Whether it was true or not, there was much discussion about Trump’s handling of the North Korean situation as it may have related to Nixon’s “Madman” strategy – keeping your plans close to your chest, making maneuvers that fell just short of overt acts of war, and letting your enemy believe that you are a “loose cannon” capable of anything. (Trump’s mistake, according to this discussion, was to make specific threats that he would have to follow through with – whereas the ideal “madman” approach would be to let the enemy draw his own conclusions”.

          Agree. Though I’m waiting out judgement on Trump’s “mistake”. Much of that was a forced error driven by an unhinged MSM, constantly harping for details, that Trump has done a mostly good job of fighting. One guy can only do so much, however.

          Anyway – the point regarding machine-gun bearing drones is that to me, whether or not they have them or even want them is somewhat irrelevant. Surgical strikes are not their stock in trade, and that’s what they are there for. The US might say, “Look – we can find the individuals responsible for this and take them out with almost no collateral damage!”, whereas the terrorists might respond, “why would we want to do that, when we can just put a bomb on one and take out a whole city block?” Even that falls short of their message, because by not putting a suicide operative in the middle, they don’t make the point about their commitment and willingness (or even eagerness) to die for their cause.


          Agree completely. And as I pointed out above, they already have the technology. The bomb implementation is much easier than the gun implementation.

          Interesting that we can agree/disagree in a philosophical discussion without hurt feelings and cries of ad hominem attacks. Thank you for that.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 28, 2017 at 7:36 pm

      Yup; when people freak out about a new weapons changing all the ethics and being like no other weapon, they are usually wrong. The basic ethical rules for a pointy stick also tend to work as well for phased plasma rifles.


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