The Moral Hazards of Drone Warfare

Drones have come under the spotlight of political and academic debates in recent years, as they are set to define the next generation of war-making. Nonetheless, the recourse to drones remains a new type of warfare, with much ground left to cover regarding its precision, efficiency, and, as I will discuss, its effect on the mental health of collateral victims. 

Civilian mental health casualties

The natural place to start when tackling mental health and drones would be the weapons’ effect on the recipient population. Contrary to bombs which take up a matter of seconds between when they land and explode, drones can circle around the same village or area for hours if not days, thus creating an important buildup to violence[1]. As a tribal leader from North Waziristan (Pakistan) related, “drones may kill relatively few, but they terrify many more […] they turned the people into psychiatric patients.”[2] Drone warfare could after all be equally (if not more) damaging to the mental health of civilians in a zone of conflict, due to their prolonged stay in some areas, which creates the sense of an omnipresent threat. Another question which should be asked is whether drones truly represent ‘a step forward’, or whether they just foster the illusion of a more ‘humanitarian warfare’. Sure, drones may be more precise, but this doesn’t take away from the trauma of warfare for the receiving end.

Drone pilots & PTSD

In addition, an area of drones’ moral ambiguity which has rarely been covered outside of government reports is the severe mental strain experienced by many drone pilots. Remotely piloted aircraft pilots do not fit our traditional stereotype of combat soldiers; in the middle of battlefields overseas. The reality of drone operators is a symbiosis of the soldier’s duties with pressures of everyday life. In a study conducted by the Defense Department, researchers found that drone pilots experience mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression on the same scale as aircraft pilots deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.[3] In an effort to comprehend such severe effects on drone pilots’ mental health, Dr. Jan Lin Otto explains, “they witness the carnage. Manned aircraft pilots don’t do that. They get out of there as soon as possible.”[4]

The dilemma of drone warfare

Drone wars are sold to us as a more humane type of warfare, but what if the consequences of this new type of conflict are just as (if not more) damaging than traditional warfare on the mental health for those on both ends of the spectrum. We can’t and shouldn’t ignore the full costs of drones. There is still much research to be done in this area, especially with their increasing prevalence; just between 2008 and 2015, the number of drone operators tripled in the United States.[5]

This article’s intent however, is not to entirely discredit the legitimacy of drone warfare, as one could retort ‘what would you do?’ in response to criticisms on drone use. Drones could nonetheless be approached as a lesser of two evils rather than some glorified warfare, as this would let room for research to be carried out on the mental health consequences of drone use. This would help provide better understanding of the effects for the pilots sending them, the populations enduring them, and even the policy makers implementing them – as the inherit precision of drones leads to a moral hazard, which may lead governments to ‘over-use’ drones and as a result create more sources of conflict.[6]

Lara Cottin is a third-year student in History and International Relations at King’s College London.


[1] Steve Coll, ‘The Unblinking Stare, The drone war in Pakistan’, The New Yorker, (2014)

[2] Ibid.

[3] James Dao, ‘Drone Pilots Are Found to Get Stress Disorders Much as Those in Combat Do’, The New York Times, (2013)

[4] Ibid.

[5] Tommy Tobin, ‘The Hidden Cost of Drone Combat: Soldiers’ Mental Health’, Harvard Law School National Security Journal, (2015)

[6] Coll, ‘The Unblinking Stare’

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