Drone Operators: Soldiers or Civilians?

International law does not allow combatants to kill in the morning and enjoy dinner with their children later in the evening.

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A German Bundeswehr armed forces pilot operator controls a Heron 1 unmanned aerial vehicle on a mission from their Advance Ground Control Station at the Marmal army camp in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, on December 11, 2012. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

Here's one aspect of the drones debate that has received little airplay: the international consensus against human shielding - the idea that civilians in the United States should be protected from military targeting and the battlefield. There's a lot of talk about protecting civilians abroad from drone strikes, but what about civilians at home?

Most people associate human shields with the horrific practice of physically surrounding oneself with children in battle, a tactic most recently used by the Syrian army in 2012, when the UN reported that it had strapped children to its tanks to deter enemy attacks. That is the clearest and most perverse example of human shields, but human shielding is not limited to those instances alone.

The Geneva Convention and customary international law also extend the definition to three other scenarios. First, it can refer to the purposeful placement of military facilities within dense civilian population centers, or, conversely, the purposeful placement of civilians among military facilities. Additionally, shielding occurs when combatants deliberately attack from or are housed within civilian residences. These actions are prohibited because combatants can effectively "shield" military targets with innocent civilians, contravening the codes of war.

Sound familiar yet? Because drone operators (those who fly drones by remote control) target and kill enemies, they are targetable as participants in combat. But American drone operators are not normal combatants. They live with their families. Their civilian and military worlds are intertwined.

For example, a drone operator sitting in a base in Nevada may control a drone buzzing over Afghanistan. Though the operation may be conducted within a military compound, far removed from civilian populations, the problem arises when a drone operator completes a shift and goes home.

As combatants, drone operators are targetable at any time. On the battlefield, a combatant does not acquire immunity when he (and now, she) is eating, sleeping, or picking up children from school. And that is the key, because on traditional battlefields, there are no children, and there are no schools. International law does not allow combatants to kill in the morning and then enjoy immunity later in the evening. It is not a light switch. War has never worked that way.

In all the discussion about drones, little attention has been directed at drone operators. When they do come up, the conversation centers on the psychological effects of constantly switching from combatant to civilian life, day in, day out. While that is a significant concern, this duality of civilian and military life under the laws of war gets little attention.

The reason is obvious: nobody is attacking drone operators in Nevada. Al-Qaeda thankfully has no armed drones at its disposal, so U.S. operators risk little by sleeping in their homes at night. And nor are they deliberately using civilians to shield themselves.

But what happens when the rest of the world has drones? That question is increasingly important as manufacturers look to international markets. While only the U.S. and U.K. have ever deployed armed drones, several countries have them, including China, which considered using onelast month to kill a druglord. Dozens more countries are eager to jump on board and are already investing in research, so drone technology will likely be widely available soon.

The advent of drones challenges the notion of the battlefield and we are far from resolving all of the legal and moral questions it raises. Allowing drone operators to live among civilians is a part of that story. Are we comfortable with a tactic that contradicts one of the essential maxims of warfare, the separation of civilian and military targets?