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!


4 thoughts on “Science Fiction Problems: The Pros and Cons of Drone Warfare

  1. Some issues with your cons:
    1.) The comparative cost really depends on what you’re replacing. If the predator drone is replacing an F-18 fighter, you’re looking at replacing a $66.9 million plane with a $4.5 million drone. That’s not a cost, it’s big savings. The reason is simple: since the drone doesn’t need an on-board pilot, it doesn’t need a cockpit, or controls, or an ejection seat, or a canopy, or air supply, or any of a myriad of other components in a modern combat jet that exclusively support the pilot. With those out of the way, the whole thing is lighter and smaller, which means you need less armor and smaller engines with less fuel, with makes it still lighter and still smaller. And since you’re deploying from a nearby base, rather than half a world away, you need even less fuel and even smaller engines. In fact, you don’t really even need jets, since you aren’t engaging in arial dog-fighting. Now, of course, this is a big cost saver because you aren’t just replacing a person, but another machine, but in reality, even the soldiers on the ground are pretty pricey. While I don’t imagine for an instant that replacing a soldier with a human analog drone would be cost saving today, the mounting costs of communications gear, body armor, and the like are quickly working their way there. The army is even developing a combat exo-suit for use when soldiers are on long marches, so their legs don’t have to carry the weight of the large backpack. That’s a big chunk of an effective drone right there.
    2.) I don’t have nearly as much to say about dehumanizing warfare, but I will say that, for better or worse, the military probably considers this a feature. Killing people is nasty work, and the army does everything it can already to make their soldiers not think of the enemy as people.

    1. Hey Colin! You’re right that drone aircraft are less expensive than many of the manned aircraft they replace, however, you have to remember that currently the US is on the cutting edge of this technology and is utilizing it in a theater in which there is no competition. In a different scenario (such as any you would likely put in a sci-fi story) other nations would be fielding such units, as well as countermeasures, and many other types of drones. The US is already developing and fielding other types of drones (naval, tank, logistical land-based walkers, etc.) in support of already-existing human forces, and the costs are climbing as these systems become more and more sophisticated. I see this cost going through the roof in a competitive arms race as each side pushes to outdo the other.

      So yes, right now drone bombers are much cheaper than manned bombers, but this is mostly because they don’t have to be expensive at the moment, not because they are always cheaper. Besides, if you can buy two drones for the price of one manned bomber, you’re probably not going to just buy one drone. It’s far more likely that nations at war would be fielding as many units as possible.

      As for your second point, I was pointing out the societal concerns of the filter that drone warfare creates, not whether or not a military would find the numbing factor to be beneficial. While we certainly don’t want soldiers to be traumatized for doing the necessary duty of defending their country, we also don’t want them to become mindless killing machines apathetic to unnecessary brutality and slaughter. If we wanted that, we’d be better off going the Terminator route (and that has its own issues). That’s why I said “Dehumanizing Factor.” Obviously if we don’t care if we maintain our humanity, then this doesn’t matter. I wasn’t referring to the humanity of enemy soldiers- this is war we’re talking about.

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