Ethics & International Affairs


The Implications of Drones on the Just War Tradition

Daniel Brunstetter and Megan Braun


Increasingly, the United States has come to rely on the use of drones to counter the threat posed by terrorists. Drones have arguably enjoyed significant successes in denying terrorists safe haven while limiting civilian casualties and protecting U.S. soldiers, but their use has raised ethical concerns. The aim of this article is to explore some of the ethical issues raised by the use of drones using the just war tradition as a foundation. We argue that drones offer the capacity to extend the threshold of last resort for large-scale wars by allowing a leader to act more proportionately on just cause. However, they may be seen as a level of force short of war to which the principle of last resort does not apply; and their increased usage may ultimately raise jus in bello concerns. While drones are technically capable of improving adherence to jus in bello principles of discrimination and proportionality, concerns regarding transparency and the potentially indiscriminate nature of drone strikes, especially those conduced by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), as opposed to the military, may undermine the probability of success in combating terrorism.

Key words

  • Just war tradition;
  • drones;
  • jus ad bellum;
  • jus in bello

Daniel Brunstetter is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Irvine. He has published on the just war tradition and modern political philosophy in Political Studies, International Relations, Review of Politics, and elsewhere. He is also codirector of UC Irvine's Program in Conflict Analysis and Resolution.

Megan Braun is a Rhodes Scholar pursuing a master's in Philosophy in International Relations at Oxford University, where her research focuses on the interaction between technology, law, and the just war tradition.