By Matthew M. Reed Managing Editor October 25, 2010

The advent of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) raises serious ethical questions. Some fear that cheap weapons like Predator drones – which are remotely piloted and carry deadly payloads – might unleash the worst imperial impulses. Such fears are based on the assumption that war without cost makes war more likely. By this logic, countries would employ force for selfish reasons. However, few are even considering the opposite development: countries could deploy armed UAVs for humanitarian purposes like stopping genocide.

Air-powered peacekeeping missions are not unprecedented. In the 1990s, UN and NATO forces launched airstrikes to curb ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. Later that decade, the United States deployed unarmed drones in support of Bosnian peacekeepers. If the UN extended its legal mandate to unmanned peacekeeping missions, a drone fleet could fulfill this role at limited cost; indeed, thousands of peacekeepers and pilots could be replaced by a leaner arrangement that emphasizes intelligence gathering and measured violence.

The controversial drone campaign in Pakistan is instructive. In Pakistan, where the United States launches frequent drone strikes, civilian casualties have plummeted in the last year according to data compiled by the New America Foundation. At the same time, overall strikes will increase more than 50 percent this year because of better intelligence. Smaller warheads are exacting more casualties on Taliban leaders, terrorist networks are suffering like never before, and civilians are being spared. A less aggressive “Pakistan model” based on intelligence gathering and local coordination could be applied in the service of humanitarianism.

A similar approach, a Pakistan-lite model, would rely on drone platforms for launching and receiving aircraft,intelligence officers, support staff, and a modest security force to protect personnel and equipment. Drones would protect victims and punish victimizers accordingly, as intelligence officers develop conflict-specific expertise, acquire targets, and establish a granular understanding of the environment.

It should be noted that air-power has its advantages and disadvantages, and expectations should be realistic. It is easy to imagine situations in which drones are particularly useful. Such as when demographics create north-south divisions like in Darfur or when refugee camps are at risk, drones could protect groups already separated from their attackers. However, dense cities are troublesome because conflict is compacted. In these areas, UAVs possess no magic bullet (or missile) but they can observe and report.

Drone strikes could indeed stop violence by impeding attackers, but the true limitations for these systems are political. Drones will not create peace and Predators can not negotiate. Instead, drones can provide leverage for peacemakers and establish security with fewer peacekeepers.The promise of punishment for genocidal offenses will go a long way toward resolving issues in the political realm, as offending parties are driven toward negotiation or lose their ability to sustain violence.

With Americans souring on foreign adventures and the Department of Defense reassessing its budget after two costly wars, cheap drones are appealing because they limit deployments, risk, and cost. Cynics may claim that these advantages are negative, but moralism in American foreign policy—not imperialism—could be preserved by these systems. Today western Pakistan is saturated with the haunting buzz produced by Predator and Reaper drone engines. Tomorrow that sound could be heartening for victims of genocide.

This image has been available freely in the public domain by the U.S. Air Force. The original source
can be found here.