Which Two Things Are Not Like The Other?
September 5, 2013 10:58 PM   Subscribe

I have a serious question about how war will be fought in this future age. Please explain how technology effects the business of military conflict. I'm very very interested if any news outlets or American Politicians are discussing this perspective currently. Details inside.

In short, my understanding on the global ban against chemical weapons is that chemicals kill indiscriminately, and back when agreements were made, troops against troops fighting with conventional weapons were deemed more fair.

Remote controlled drones seem unfair in terms of this universal agreement, at least in spirit, since no human operator of these drones is put in physical jeopardy in any way.

Is there any discussion going on anywhere about how remote controlled drones present an unfair balance of military power + margin for error similar to chemical weapons?

I'm sure countries without drones would not dare voice officially oppose the use of drones, since that would make them a target.

I am keen to know if there are questions about the morality of using weaponized drones within the countries that have them.

posted by jbenben to Law & Government (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Chemical weapons are not at all like drones. The problem with chemical weapons is that they kill massive numbers of civilians indiscriminately. This is not a problem with drones, which can deliver surgical strikes with as good of precision as any other air strike. The notion of a "fair fight" doesn't come into it it all. War has always been fought with each side's best available weapons. Nobody's ever used the old model rifle because it's more evenly matched with the enemy's guns.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 11:08 PM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

The problem with chemical weapons is that they kill massive numbers of civilians indiscriminately.

The Geneva protocols which initially banned the use of chemical weapons was signed in 1925. AFAIK, there had only been a few uses against civilians at that point, not all of which were widely known about at the time. The vast majority of uses were against entrenched troops during WWI. I believe it was banned because of the suffering victims endured and the crippling nature of the injuries, rather than who the victims were. At the end of the war, people want their surviving soldiers to be able to come home and do productive work, not be blinded, or in ventilators and so on.
posted by empath at 11:24 PM on September 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

War has always been fought with each side's best available weapons.
Demonstrably false, as nuclear weapons have only been used twice in human history, and our most powerful nukes have never been used. And the Geneva Convention prohibits all kinds of weapons.

I am keen to know if there are questions about the morality of using weaponized drones within the countries that have them.
Yes. There is an active anti-drone movement in the US. Code Pink is one organization to start with.

The root of your question, though, seems to be "how are chemical weapons worse than any other weapon?" The factual answer is they are not. There is no moral or factual component at all to the concept of being OK with Syria killing civilians with conventional weapons, but attacking Syria for doing the same with chemical weapons. It is utterly empty political posturing, and that's all. I know this is not a venue for personal opinions or debates, but I'm simply stating inarguable facts here.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:24 PM on September 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I guess to restate what I said more simply - the initial ban on chemical and biological weapons and so on was signed for cold-blood pragmatic reasons and not because of moral outrage. It was simply an agreement not to unnecessarily cripple and maim each other's soldiers during war, and the incentive to abide by it was that if you didn't, the other side would retaliate in kind.

Agreements motivated by concern for civilian populations is largely something that happened well after WWII. Both sides targetted civilian populations for indiscriminate mass murder during WWII, after all, with the Allies almost completely annihilating several cities (Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, etc), and the Nazis targetting London with rockets, and so on.
posted by empath at 11:32 PM on September 5, 2013

Best answer:
The Geneva protocols which initially banned the use of chemical weapons was signed in 1925.
Actually, chemical weapons were first banned by The Hague Convention of 1899, not that it did much good. The only major nation who refused to ratify the ban on chemical weapons at that time was the United States
posted by Lame_username at 11:33 PM on September 5, 2013

Mod note: Guys, this is absolutely not the place for opinion, discussion and debate -- you'll find threads on the main page for that (here's one, and there are others). Please link to discussion or analysis of the morality of using drones and chemical weapons.
posted by taz (staff) at 11:39 PM on September 5, 2013

Best answer: I think you're asking a big question about what laws of war are and how things like acceptable military conduct and was crimes are defined and agreed upon, by whom, and why. This is the subject of an entire branch of military history. A really general answer would describe various philosophies of warmaking from antiquity to modern times, as well as a patchwork of treaties and common international law that were codified at various times and under different considerations. Some people analyze these agreements on strict Realpolitik grounds, but it's also arguable that Enlightenment and other humanistic considerations have gone into them at various times.
posted by Nomyte at 12:07 AM on September 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Is there any discussion going on anywhere about how remote controlled drones present an unfair balance of military power + margin for error similar to chemical weapons?

Not sure about the chemical weapon aspect, but here in Seattle, their use has been banned for illegal surveillance by police, after public outcry.

Unfortunately, their domestic use by increasingly paramilitarized police operations across the United States will likely expand as Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, General Atomics and other drone manufacturers continue strong lobbying efforts with state Representatives and Senators.

As far as the executive branch goes and their use by the US military overseas, when President Obama was Senator of the state of Illinois, he received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from the majority owners of General Dynamics. As President, Barack Obama has received ~$2M in campaign donations from military/defense contractors in 2008 and 2012 (cf. OpenSecrets.org).

In addition to being a major donor to President Obama, General Dynamics is also a major donor to the Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus.

These and other weapon systems that are ethically problematic in similar ways to chemical weapons (white phosphorus, depleted uranium) will continue to be deployed because it is profitable to make and use them.

Though Seattle can set some example for how grassroots opposition can have positive effect on a very local scale, the discussion you hope for is, as such, therefore a narrative that is largely owned and massaged by corporate lobbyists, and so comparisons with aspects of chemical weapons, while technically accurate in specific ways, will not likely ever reach the ears of the legislative and executive branches. There's just too much money to be made.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:35 AM on September 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

The vast majority of uses were against entrenched troops during WWI.

Don't forget that Mussolini used gas extensively against the Ethiopians in WW2.

I think the best parallel to drones is not chemical weapons, but rather the international campaign to ban land mines. Despite a near universal ban, the United States refuses to give them up entirely because of the tactical value to US military.

I think the answer to the question is that where you have a military balance - such as in chemical weapons - both sides will be anxious to ban them, but where one side enjoys a military advantage moral arguments will always be found to keep them.

The same goes with nuclear weapons.
posted by three blind mice at 12:43 AM on September 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

Is there any discussion going on anywhere about how remote controlled drones present an unfair balance of military power + margin for error similar to chemical weapons?
This isn't really a position I've seen or heard anyone take? And I've heard quite a few talking heads burble on about Syria over the past couple weeks. Realistically, the lives of modern American fixed-wing pilots aren't really in appreciably more danger than drone pilots. Taliban fighters with AK-47s and light machine guns aren't going to shoot down an A-10. Helicopter pilots might be in slightly more danger than the fixed-wing pilots, but not hugely so.

It's also the case that the personnel deploying chemical weapons aren't in huge personal danger. In point of fact, a drone aircraft could deliver a weapon with a chemical payload. But even standard delivery methods are going to be artillery, where the personnel are several kilometers away from the point of impact.

I also found the recently sidebarred comment to the blue helpful in thinking about the unique threats of chemical weapons.
posted by kavasa at 1:45 AM on September 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just wanted to make sure you have seen these two comments by Punkey.
posted by trip and a half at 1:46 AM on September 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

You should look for public white papers from the Department of Defense; I know they have a robust interest in the future, and how, say, a peak oil scenario would affect defense posture, and I think they have published future-oriented studies of things like global warming.
posted by thelonius at 3:45 AM on September 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Won't speak to drones. But on 'chemical weapons'...

It's worth noting that the first declaration on the non-use of chemical weapons happened in 1899. That was the "Declaration concerning the Prohibition of the Use of Projectiles with the Sole Object to Spread Asphyxiating Poisonous Gases". This was before chemical weapons had even been lobbed or dropped on anyone. That declaration was signed by government delegations of the following countries: Great Britain, Austria-Hungary, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Russia, Japan, and China. The USA was present at the convention but chose not to sign the 1899 declaration.

Of course signing that declaration didn't stop combatants during the First World War (1914-18). Nor later on.

Anyway, this recent and mercifully short article from The Economist magazine maps out how the "taboo" on chemical weapons came about: How a whole class of weaponry came to be seen as indecent
posted by Mister Bijou at 3:50 AM on September 6, 2013

Whoops! That 1899 Declaration was signed at the Hague Convention.
posted by Mister Bijou at 3:58 AM on September 6, 2013

there's been plenty of discourse around how they're used, but afaik there hasn't been much chatter about a per se, prophylactic ban (after all, they're just airplanes.....)
posted by jpe at 4:02 AM on September 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you're curious about some of the history of chemical (and biological) weapons, check out A Higher Form of Killing, which I picked up after seeing it recommended on MeFi a while back.
posted by rmd1023 at 5:35 AM on September 6, 2013

Best answer: Speaking directly to the first part of your question, tech applied to military ends has always been about decreasing risk/exposure on side A (you) and increasing lethality/exposure on the other side (the Evil and Inhuman Hordes of your worthless adversary.)

Information gathering (communications and presence/location of opponents) has a long history, and the tech applications are obvious. Sensing, remote detection, distributed sensor networks, conventional observation, space based observations... all of it comes up routinely in Requests for Proposals/Quotes (RFP and RFQ). Info is ammo. More is better. Now counts.

On the other side, once a target is characterized and you want it neutralized, anything that contributes to standoff distances is valuable. Spear beats club. Arrow beats spear. Gun beats arrow. Cannon beats gun. Missile beats cannon. Laser beats missile. Fusion beats laser... Anything with instantaneous results is desirable. Speed of light solutions are really good. Failing that, anything that keeps the target unaware of threat and/or impotent to evasion is good.

Any single characteristic of tech can be evaluated/employed in "dark" terms. I once worked on a proposal to take a camera, put it on the rear of a bunker buster bomb, use it to count the intervening floors and levels in the bunker, video the entire descent through the hole it poked and shoot the video up and out the hole left in the ground above before it closed up in a few hundred milliseconds before detonation so the bomber could see WHO they killed in floor X of the targeted bunker. Other times, I worked on proposals for fiber optic guided missiles.... a mortar kind of thing that spooled out fiber optic cable on flight so the shooter could see what was being destroyed AND guide the thing towards it in terminal flight. Other times, I evaluated IED jamming radio approaches aimed at some of our recent and favorite excursions into the wastelands of the middle east where the 'subhumans' of the moment live.

Nothing surprises me when I read about employment of tech in killing. Morals are not so much an issue, and the mentality is more like fantasy video games, but with people eventually getting smoked on the receiving end for real. It's one reason I now generally use my superpower for good, though I just made a tester for machine gun trigger springs for a start up. Seems there is always opportunity in killing. IN fairness, those who would do us harm are doing the same thing, but as we used to say about the Russians after WW2, "nothing to worry about... our Germans are better than their Germans". Context. Morals have very, very little to do with anything. It is patent bullshit.

It's a perverse reality that the issues of defense goods are fascinating, in a lot of ways. Budgets are large, schedules ambitious, quality requirements high, design features innovative. The human portions are removed a lot... "people" is replaced by "target", "destruction" by "render ineffective", nuclear missile by "delivery system", etc. It's also a perverse reality that the tech in a bubble gum colored smart phone used by a tween owes its existence to long ago efforts to kill the Chinese devils who make it for us. We forget where the inspiration for microwave ovens came from, that our carbon fiber fishing rods and bikes are the same tech as the foldup wings and propeller on a man-launched observation drone.

It just occurred to me that even the lingo "defense" goods is designed to put US in the good guy role. Not much mileage in calling a hydrogen bomb a baby vaporizer or aggression goods.

We are an odd species. Our best and brightest have often turned their creativity to war, sometimes by necessity, but sometimes by general curiosity (Da Vinci). Really, human death is not all that hard to cause and the same brain that makes a bottle capper for beer can make a machine gun. It's all focus and context.

OK, now I have to go work on the pasteurizer I invented for a client to make milk safe for children. Jeez. Same brain, different day.
posted by FauxScot at 5:52 AM on September 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Others have addressed the original motivations for banning chemical weapons. A cynic might argue that the ongoing success of this ban derives from the fact that they provide no military advantage to major powers, hence the major powers continue to support the ban.

Drones are quite the opposite.
posted by alms at 6:18 AM on September 6, 2013

Best answer: I was just watching a Star Trek episode last night that addressed this exact issue. How would wars be fought in the future, once we've removed all the distasteful fighting / disease / destruction of it all. Spoiler: it looks like a giant WoW game.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:54 AM on September 6, 2013

Best answer: It might seem like an odd site but businessinsider.com has had interesting articles. Here is one example: http://www.businessinsider.com/drone-strikes-could-cause-blowback-2013-3. I would google that site; you will find lots of interesting stuff.

US generals are certainly offering their opinions on the ramifications.

A lot of countries are developing drones or already have them. At this point, I don't think there are any rules other than might is right.

Daniel Suarez has a book (scifi but very near term) out exploring the use of autonomous drones called "Kill Decision".

Drones present an interesting problem: they don't have to be armed but can be used for surveillance, and general business things (examine farm fields, inspecting pipelines, even delivering food). Some US States have problems with the surveillance aspect and are passing laws. However, blimps are being planned for super "eyes-in-the-sky".

If you are looking for rules, I imagine those would likely emerge from a UN body, but you have to wonder how effective those might be.
posted by PickeringPete at 9:45 AM on September 6, 2013

Best answer: You also might find this of interest: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/09/the-killing-machines-how-to-think-about-drones/309434/
posted by PickeringPete at 12:10 PM on September 6, 2013

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