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Bundeswehr Drone MQ-1 Predator
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Combat drones

Fabian Schmidt/ db
June 30, 2014

Opponents of armed drones warn the devices lower the threshold to kill. Nonsense, says DW's Fabian Schmidt: War has been impersonal since the invention of gunpowder.


Armed drones – even the word sounds perilously like a term from a science fiction movie. It invokes a world where robots have seized power, with just a few technocrats left to decide over life and death from afar, with a mere mouse click - like in a mediocre video game.

Those are scenarios opponents of the rollout of armed drones favor. Their main argument is that war becomes "impersonal" as soon as planes are unmanned. They argue that a person far away who is in charge of the deadly decision to drop a bomb has a much lower threshold than a soldier facing his adversary – virtually eye-to-eye.

War is no duel

This notion of chivalric soldierly virtues, with dueling rivals fighting a fair battle like they did in the 18th century, may sound romantic, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with present-day reality.

In the wake of the invention of gunpowder, war became increasingly impersonal. Once soldiers wielding lances and swords no longer had to rely on their own muscular strength to gore their foes, warfare began to depart from the ideal of hand-to-hand combat. You never know who you might hit when you shoot an artillery shell at a settlement.

Fabian Schmidt
Image: DW

Today, manned weapons systems – tanks, submarines, frigates and fighter bombers – are so chock-full of computer technology that they could easily be termed "combat robots." People who operate these systems don't personally face the enemy, just like the faraway operator of the unmanned drone. But the latter has one advantage: He can weigh his possibly deadly decision with a clear head and in the framework of a regular workday. By contrast, the fighter plane pilot is under considerable stress and must constantly fear for his own life. Who is more likely to make a mistake?

Democracies must protect their troops

There are even more good reasons why the armies of democratic nations should use unmanned weapons systems: Since 2001, they have been leading a skewed war against opponents that resort to camouflage, that cheat and shamelessly exploit the perceived weaknesses of our democracies. Their fanatic fighters hide among civilians, spreading fear and terror – one of the reasons they are so difficult to catch.

Democratic governments must do everything in their power to protect their own soldiers as best they can. Unlike their opponents, the soldiers are playing with an open deck. They advocate human rights, democracy and freedom; they promote education and transparency. Theirs is an unequal battle, however, – another reason why they deserve to have the very best weapons.

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