Ethics, Law and Airpower

Airpower, or the use of kinetic and non-kinetic weaponry from manned and unmanned aerial platforms, has become the preferred operational choice of the world’s most advanced military forces. It allows for ‘power’ to be exercised in a way that is relatively safe (physically) for the operators and is thus, seemingly, politically more acceptable. In its most extreme form, airpower has become a tool of political assassination, used by different leaderships to destroy individual human beings judged to be enemies. This can often be done by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or Drones) controlled by personnel hundreds or thousands of miles away from the targets being destroyed.

On the other hand, aerial vehicles are increasingly used for humanitarian and peacekeeping purposes, as tools for monitoring migration flows, tracking illicit activities and reaching remote populations. At the same time, there is today little in the way of a serious debate over airpower theory; the ideas underlying how and where airpower can be used and be effective. Not since the Warden-Pape dialogue of the 1990s has there been a meaningful public discussion about airpower and winning wars. That is incongruous as airpower eats up more and more of national defence budgets and has become the preferred weapon of choice in modern wars. The rise of asymmetric threats in war and the increasing demands for protection of civilians require re-evaluation of airpower assumptions. In this context, the international community is actively engaged in a variety of multilateral initiatives to create new norms and rules governing aerial platforms.

This strand aims to marry our existing strength in airpower development and theory with other strengths in international law and the ethics of armed conflict. Because of our expertise across these areas we can examine airpower in its totality, evaluating when it can be used effectively, when its usage could be construed as legal (or illegal) internationally, how its usage can be judged by different ethical systems, and how legal and normative constraints are changing through the agency of diverse actors. We believe that we could attract PhD students to examine these questions from using historical case studies, theoretical debates, comparative studies and on-going legal dilemmas in humanitarian law.