Science Fiction Problems: The Pros and Cons of Drone Warfare

Hello everyone! I’m finally back with another Science Fiction Problems, where I take an issue that writers of sci-fi tend to struggle with (or with which I myself struggle) and offer handy advice for tackling the issue. This often comes in the form of debunking myths (like “space is cold!”) and attacking cliches that appear in books, movies, and video games that many writers take for granted.

gray eagle drone air force unmanned plane
I've actually always thought these looked kind of creepy

This time around, I’ll be addressing an issue that I haven’t actually read or seen much of in sci-fi recently: drone and robotic warfare. Even if you’re not from the States, I’m sure you are well aware that the American military makes very effective use of remote-operated bombers in the middle east. This is the most well-known form of drone warfare, and has been the center of a lot of contraversy as people consider whether or not such a method is ethical.

Specifically, I Don’t Mean The Terminator

I find this as ironic as I find it disturbing

Now, there have been movies and books about robot soldiers and planes (like that horrible Stealth movie), but there’s an important difference there: drone warfare specifically involves a human controller, not artificial intelligence (that almost always becomes self-aware and goes on rampage). This creates a real ethical problem, because the cold calculation of war is not left up to a computer, but still very much in humanity’s hands. Does this dehumanize the controller? Does it create an ilusion of separation between the decision and the operator that makes it more like a video game than real war? These are some of the many questions that are asked about real life drones.

If you plan on using drones in your sci-fi, even in a limited sense, there are many points to consider. While I’m labeling them Pros and Cons, this more reflects the real-world perspective. Any one of these points could be a “good” point to leverage in an interesting way in your story.


  • Reduced Casualties: proponents of drone warfare be quick to point out an obvious benefit, which is that many (friendly) lives are saved. This is a boon no matter who is using them, whether the military using them cares more about public relations image or the lives of the soldiers themselves.
  • Tactical Superiority: American bomber drones are so effective because they can pop in and out of warzones, do some quick reconnaisance, and perform precision sneak attacks. And that’s just the bomber drones! In Sci-fi, we can have anything from tank drones to submarine drones, and any size or shape that is needed for a job.
  • Retaining Skilled Pilots: in times of war, highly trained personnell are essential. Often, skileld pilots in the field will be killed or captured if their vehicle is destroyed. Not so with drones! If a drone is destroyed, the pilot is fine, and could be piloting another one immediately.


  • Potential Costs: War is always expensive, but the more sophisticate your approach, the more costly is can be. Often, there is a tradeoff between casualties and investment per soldier, but in this case, assuming a large proportion of your fighting force is robotic, then the cost per “soldier” shoots through the roof. If a nation is fielding mostly drone forces, if they start doing badly, the sheer financial burden could accelerate easily out of control (which could turn into a Cold War style ending for a country, if that’s what you’re going for).
  • Dehumanizing Factor: This may or may not be true of real-world drone warfare, but in the case of science fiction, there is a real potential for abuse. In a culture already inundate with violent video games and media, it would be easy for a less-than-ethical government to turn particularly good gamers into ruthless drone pilots, making it more about their score than fighting for your country. Orson Scott Card did this in Ender’s Game (I won’t spoil it for you, though! Go find out how!), and offers an example where the players didn’t even know what they were doing was real. This is the extreme logical end of the ethical problem, and could be a great plot point.
  • Diminishing of the Reality of War: It is already difficult today to feel that war is real, but think how hard it would be if no one in your country even really went to war. Especially if the government of a nation was actively concealing the reality of the war from its people, any sense of preparedness and attitude of prudence would be extremely difficult to maintain. Greece-style riots would likely break out at the first pressure of rationing or rising costs, because the populace would have no connection to the hardship’s necessity. This would be a logical consequence of how the nation handles its war, whether it decieves its people or not.

Well there you have it! That’s quite a lot to think about, and next week I’ll get into some ideas for different kinds of drones you might use! Until then, what are some other pros and cons for drone warfare? Is there anything that I overlooked? Has anyone seen any good books or movies that handles this well? Let me know in the comments below!