Large or small, drones raise questions about the growing disconnect between the American public and its wars. Military ethicists concede that drones can turn war into a video game, inflict civilian casualties and, with no Americans directly at risk, more easily draw the United States into conflicts. Drones have also created a crisis of information for analysts on the end of a daily video deluge. Not least, the Federal Aviation Administration has qualms about expanding their test flights at home, as the Pentagon would like. Last summer, fighter jets were almost scrambled after a rogue Fire Scout drone, the size of a small helicopter, wandered into Washington's restricted airspace.
Within the military, no one disputes that drones save American lives. Many see them as advanced versions of “stand-off weapons systems,” like tanks or bombs dropped from aircraft, that the United States has used for decades. “There's a kind of nostalgia for the way wars used to be,” said Deane-Peter Baker, an ethics professor at the United States Naval Academy, referring to noble notions of knight-on-knight conflict. Drones are part of a post-heroic age, he said, and in his view it is not always a problem if they lower the threshold for war. “It is a bad thing if we didn't have a just cause in the first place,” Mr. Baker said. “But if we did have a just cause, we should celebrate anything that allows us to pursue that just cause.”
To Mr. Singer of Brookings, the debate over drones is like debating the merits of computers in 1979: They are here to stay, and the boom has barely begun. “We are at the Wright Brothers Flier stage of this,” he said.