Standoff Ethics:

Policy Considerations for the Use of Standoff Weapons

Tim Cathcart



            The purpose of this paper is to review the ethical nature of precision-guided standoff weapons, also known as “smart weapons.”  A review of present and future standoff weapons and how they relate to modern warfare is provided for background.  Against this context is a discussion of the following key values: national security, preservation of life, fair play and liberty and freedom.  The primary ethical considerations presented involve responsibility, justice and restraint, and these are examined in relation to current standoff weapons policy.  Finally, a broad set of recommendations for a formal policy on use of standoff is provided. 


The State of the Art in Precision Weapons

            Precision guided weapons are generally considered those which use some means of terminal guidance to accurately strike a particular set of coordinates.  Usually, the weapons are programmed with a set of three-dimensional coordinates and use on-board global positioning system (GPS) receivers or inertial navigation units (INUs) to steer themselves to the target. 

An example of a simple precision guided weapon is the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), which is essentially a “dumb bomb” with a brain attached.  The addition of a computer-based processor and some steering controls allow existing inventories of dumb bombs to be converted to aircraft-released precision-guided weapons and, once dropped, maneuver to the objective.

            More complicated precision-guided weapons have a self-propulsion system and can be fired a considerable distance from the target[1]—thus the term “standoff.”  These weapons, such as the Tomahawk cruise missile, contain internal three-dimensional mappings of the earth’s surface, and use this information in conjunction with GPS receivers to fly “nap-of-the-earth.”  This “stealthy” approach reduces the chances of early-warning while also maximizing the potential for unobstructed flight to the target.  During the March 2003 Tomahawk strike which launched Operation Iraqi Freedom, the missiles were re-programmed in-flight to a more accurate set of coordinates—a capability allowing even more standoff flexibility but which also reduces opportunity for a thorough evaluation and review of targets (de Borchgrave, 2003).

            Precision-guided weapons are not a panacea; a recent article in Popular Mechanics noted that during Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) JDAMs and Tomahawks produced “an inordinate number of civilian casualties” and “the reality was that, even at their best, roughly two out of every 10 smart bombs exploded where they should not have” (Wilson, 2003).  Further, precision weapons are only as good as their programming: during Kosovo, the Chinese Embassy was struck by a precision-guided weapon which landed directly on its programmed target because of faulty intelligence, arousing intense Chinese anger and causing international repercussions.

            However, compared to the massive civilian casualties of World War II caused by the need to drop hundreds of dumb bombs to take out a single target, there has been definite reduction overall in the number of civilian casualties via the use of smart weapons.  The issue then becomes, does that make their use more palatable and therefore potentially more frequent?


The Future of Standoff

            The future of the military seems to hinge on precision and standoff.  Wars to seize and hold territory seem less likely, while the need to target very specific locations and/or persons is on the rise.

            The Airborne Laser (ABL) initiative is well underway and on track for deployment by 2006, and demonstrates a new form of precision standoff.  It consists of a Boeing 747 with a Chemical Oxygen-Iodine Laser (COIL) capable of staying airborne for up to 18 hours, able to fire 40 “shots” before reloading and striking targets—both air and ground—up to 400 miles away.  The technology being developed will be transferable to a space-based laser (SBL) which could be deployed by 2020 (Rogers, 2001).[2]

            The U.S. Department of Defense has obtained funding for the initial development of a high-speed armed drone, able to launch attacks anywhere in the world within two hours of leaving a U.S. base.  The intended timeline is to have at least an early version of the weapon ready for use by 2010 ( report).  The Bush Administration is also pushing for new tactical "bunker buster" nuclear weapons, which could lead to more prevalent use of nuclear weapons on the battlefield of tomorrow (Nesmith, 2003).


The Relationship between Standoff Weapons and Modern Warfare

            Asymmetric warfare is what the U.S. practices.  It is the use of uneven or unbalanced forces, information or capabilities to gain advantage against an enemy.  Standoff cruise missiles are an excellent example—Iraq does not possess effective countermeasures for cruise missiles, therefore the U.S. has an asymmetric advantage.

            However, U.S. foes have asymmetric advantages as well.  The most obvious are guerilla warfare and terrorism.  Cruise missiles are fairly ineffective against dispersed forces, especially when centered in non-combatant populations.  Terrorism is often an unexpected and geographically separated event—never where or when expected, and a concentration of defensive forces proves ineffective when the next strike is in a different part of the world compared to the last act.  An increase in asymmetric warfare attacks against the U.S. (e.g., terrorism) may well be the outcome of an increase in the use of standoff by the U.S., a way for enemies to bring the same kind of surprise attack to the U.S. as is done to them (Rogers, 2001).

            Even when the risks of escalation are acceptable, the economic and political costs for military action appear to have increased—specifically, increasingly expensive weapon systems and rupturing of commercial and/or diplomatic relations (Orme, 1997).  At one million dollars each, the 1998 Tomahawk cruise missile strikes against Iraq cost the U.S. nearly a half-billion dollars in four days.  The recent Iraqi operations have strained relations between the United States and a number of formerly-friendly nations, underscoring the diplomatic risks of military action. 

            Standoff weapons are also the instrument of choice for preemptive strikes.  The ability to lob a cruise missile at a potential enemy while sitting safely within your borders sounds good on paper but often falls short in practice.  When possessing this capability, at what point do you preemptively launch, and what are the safeguards to prevent accidents with tragic consequences?  The use of standoff weapons in a preemptive manner by the U.S. has affected other nations as well, which could lead to worldwide de-stabilizing effects.  Japan is presently undergoing national discourse on whether a first-strike capability should be developed as a means of self-defense—some of the arguments are that first-strike is a defensive measure to assure their security (Asahi, June 2003).  Australia's Prime Minister has made recent comments concerning the need to take preemptive action to prevent "credible terrorist strikes" against his country.  However, as the Canberra Times points out, it's very difficult to obtain the high level of proof necessary in order to launch a military strike on foreign territory, and is likely to drive a "who's next?" mentality among neighboring nations.  The preemptive policy is likely to result in less security for Australian interests and citizens and in a worst-case scenario may start a war (Brown, 2002).

            And there are other unanticipated effects of preemptive action: Israel's bombing of Iraq's nuclear facilities in 1981 resulted in Iraq not building a nuclear weapon, but it also resulted in Iraq (and other countries) becoming very good at decentralizing and masking their weapons of mass destruction (WMD) research (Gholz, Press, & Sapolsky, 1997).  This caused problems during and after the 1991 Gulf War for the coalition and then the weapons inspectors, and more recently has resulted in the U.S. being unable to find any WMD despite complete occupation of Iraq for months now.[3] 

The U.S. has established a precedent of using standoff weapons for "sending a message," as demonstrated by the strikes on the homes of bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar during Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF).  According to Pentagon sources cited in an ABC News story, the homes were bombed not because the owners were expected to be there, but so they'd know the U.S. had been there and could come again (Jennings, 2001).  The quagmire associated with sending messages via standoff is the collateral damage involved, and the possibility that the message will be misinterpreted.  Explosions lack a universal interpretation and, given cultural differences, may not send the signal desired.  The strikes against the two homes were believed to have killed 20 civilians (Jennings, 2001).

            This tendency toward use of standoff military force to settle scores, send messages or preemptively co-opt a potential adversary underscores a potential pitfall: if standoff is so risk-free to the user, what is the downside of execution?  And further, what if, in the heat of passion or anger, you could launch a drone strike which could take place within two hours?

            Another consideration for preemptive strikes is that terrorists rarely have concern for the lives of the innocents—after all, if you're willing to sacrifice your life for the cause, why not the schoolchildren's across the street from your bomb-making factory?  As Army Major Bill McKean put it “the problem is our weapons can kill at a greater range than we can identify a target as friend or foe” (Correll, 2003).

            The effectiveness of standoff strikes is as-yet undetermined.  The 1998 strikes at Taliban training camps within Afghanistan apparently did little to slow the Taliban down—and in fact, those same camps had to be re-targeted during OEF, as they'd been rebuilt and were once again in use.  The 1986 strike against Libya had no real effect, but long-term diplomatic efforts are what finally resulted in the extradition of Libyan intelligence agents for the bombing of PanAm flight 103 (Dyer, 1999).  Did any of these "messages" or punitive actions actually further U.S. goals?

            The bottom line is, sending messages via limited-engagement, standoff strikes is a difficult business.[4]  If standoff weapons ease traditional restraint on the use of the military instrument for achieving diplomatic ends, will they make the world more peaceful—or far less peaceful?  And will the use of standoff technology further the values we hold dear or erode them?


What are the Primary Values and Ethics at Stake?

            The fundamental underlying value is national security.  The purpose of precision-guided standoff weapons—any weapons when used by a nation—is to protect the security interests of the nation.  The more precise the weapon, the fewer which need to be used, and the less collateral damage (i.e., civilian deaths and/or destruction of civilian structures) which may be incurred.  The farther away you are when you fire it, the less likely you will be subject to counterstrikes and the fewer of your military personnel who will be placed in harm’s way.

            Preservation of life has always been a core value to citizens of the United States and many other parts of the world.  The recent trend toward extreme reluctance to lose any U.S. military members in contingency operations has placed even greater emphasis on the need for standoff weaponry (Orme, 1997).  Also, precision standoff strikes generally reduce casualties on both sides of the conflict, and can significantly reduce the civilian casualties.[5]  The desire to reduce civilian casualties is also related to the values of compassion and wisdom—compassion for fellow humans and the wisdom of minimizing international outrage over military actions.

            A long-held value of the United States is one of “fair play” or the intent to take the high road where and when possible.  A temptation of standoff weapons is that one may be able to strike with impunity and so will tend to do so more often.  Further, proportionality—using a reasonable amount of force relative to the threat, especially with respect to civilian lives—comes into play.  A fundamental component of a “just war” is proportionality, and the use of standoff weapons may exceed international norms for a reasonable amount of force (Gardam, 2003). 

            Finally, the twin values of liberty and freedom—that the ideal society encourages citizens to engage in free expression and the pursuit of happiness.  An intent of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) was to liberate the peoples of Iraq, and the first launches against Iraq were a standoff strike against Saddam.  Viewing just this aspect of OIF shows there are circumstances in which liberty and freedom could be promoted via use of standoff weapons.

            With values come ethics, and the primary ethics involved are responsibility, justice and restraint.  Responsibility for one’s actions, should missiles go off course, intelligence be incorrect or high numbers of civilians injured while striking an opponent.  Justice is important and related to the value of fair play—but the need for punishment should not cloud one’s judgment and result in a loss of restraint.  A way to evaluate these ethics is the use of transference: if bin Laden’s home were in downtown New York, would the U.S. launch a cruise missile at it?  And so should the U.S. launch a cruise missile at his home in another part of the world, just because it is “over there” and it’s harder to see the collateral damage?


Ethical Considerations and Standoff Weapon Policy

            Presently, there is no formal policy on the use of standoff weapons other than the general military guidelines on selecting the proper weapon for the task at hand.  Standoff weapons are normally used only during time of war or when specifically directed by the Commander-in-Chief (the President), after consultation with the Secretary of Defense.[6]

            The Libya strikes in 1986 were the last occurrence of non-standoff strikes for non-declared-war operations[7]; overhead aircraft launched precision-guided bombs at targets.  Since then, the use of standoff weapons such as Tomahawks or Conventional Air Launched Cruise Missiles (CALCMs) has been on the rise for these non-declared-war operations, and an opening salvo marked the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  See table below:
















#/Type of Weapons[8]

Estimated Civilian Casualties[9]





Dozens of laser-guided bombs from aircraft


Retaliatory (Berlin bombing)

1993 (January)


Weapons Factory

40x Tomahawk


Punitive (Believed to be a nuclear weapons facility)

1993 (June)


Intelligence Complex

23x Tomahawk


Punitive (Bush Assassination Plan)



Command and Control, Air Defenses

40+ Tomahawks


Retaliatory (Antiaircraft Missiles against No-Fly Patrols)



Alleged WMD Factories

425+ Tomahawks,[10] plus numerous aircraft-dropped





Alleged WMD Factory

20 Tomahawks





Terrorist Training Camps

50+ Tomahawks


Retaliatory (Embassy bombings)



Saddam Bunker

40+ Tomahawks plus aircraft-dropped bunker-busters


Assassination/Start of Conflict


            Note that these strikes occurred with war not formally declared and generally no warning given, but ethical justification provided nonetheless.

            The range of ethical positions is quite broad, with the deontologists (Immanuel Kant: “Do no evil, though the world shall perish”[11]) at one end and the consequentialists (anything in defense of the nation state is acceptable) at the other (Johnson, 1992).  Clearly, the national discourse finds proponents on both sides of the spectrum.

            The following charts the range of ethical issues within a consequentialist framework:

Table 2.  The Broad Framework of Consequentialist Ethics





Public Support (U.S.)

Public Support


Sovereign Nation Violated


Technology allows quicker and more destructive responses, therefore increases the need for responsible behavior.

A thorough strategic review process usually explores a range of options and shows greater responsibility than a quick strikes.

Use of the political instrument of diplomacy is generally a responsible way to handle situations.

U.S. leaders showing greater responsibility will improve U.S. public support for necessary actions.

U.S. leaders showing greater responsibility will improve international public support for even unilateral actions.

The sovereign nation bears some responsibility for activities of persons residing within borders, and for its actions. 


The ability to act does not equal a just act.  Justice may be reduced by overuse of standoff to “solve problems quickly.”

Deliberate strategy allows time for reviews and a broad range of inputs to ensure a proportional and just response.

Politics is always a lengthy and convoluted process, but usually results in an overall just solution to a situation.

When the U.S. public is convinced actions are just they will show a greater degree of support for operations.

If U.S. allies and the international community in general is convinced of the justness of actions, they will show greater support for operations.

The strike can effect justice, but also cause a demand for justice from citizens of the foreign nation, if they feel the strike unjustified.


Technology is likely to reduce restraint due to the ease and quickness of execution.  A two-hour strike window may be entirely too tempting and not have sufficient review processes in place.

Deliberate strategy generally results in more restraint in dealing with objectives, and restraint allows more time spent exploring options.

Political solutions will usually have more restraint built in as they are a consensus of many viewpoints and provide a middle-of-the-road solution.

The more restraint U.S. leaders show, the more likely the U.S. public will support strikes when U.S. leaders finally feel they have no other choice.

The more restraint U.S. leaders show, the more likely the international public will support even unilateral actions when U.S. leaders finally feel they have no other choice.

Restraint on the part of the U.S. can induce desired behaviors on the foreign nation, but intent and motives of the actors must be carefully discerned.

            As is shown by the chart, the increases in technology work to decrease responsibility, justice and restraint.  However, strategy and politics can work to offset technology by increasing those characteristics if they are employed consistently and effectively.

            “Smart weapons are really only lethal to dumb opponents”—consider the invasion of Iraq compared to the still on-going hunt for bin Laden—but they may overcome the reluctance of democracies to go to war.  Additionally, warfare is now shifting from a defensive posture to an offensive one (Orme, 1997).  Generally, powerful nations cannot easily convince by military force; for example, despite the 1991 Gulf War, cruise missile strikes and the current OIF, Iraq/Saddam was still not convinced to acquiesce to U.S. demands.  Therefore, use of other political factors (e.g., economic) is more likely to produce the desired outcomes while reinforcing values (Orme, 1997). 

            Further clouding the ethics involved are the continuing difficulties with the definition of "terrorist."  For example, one person's terrorist is another's freedom fighter, which increases the responsibility for making good decisions about which side to support.  Despite Presidential Decision Directives that the U.S. will "deter, defeat, and respond vigorously" to terrorist attacks, there will always be the problem of identifying which terrorists or freedom fighters to target.  After all, at one point the U.S. supported Saddam Hussein, and nearly two-thirds of Latin America's governments are perceived by their citizens and investors as corrupt (Johnson, 2001).  Israel has hundreds of nuclear weapons, yet the U.S. actively aids them despite the new "Bush Doctrine" which specifies preemptive strikes against terrorists or states that seek to develop weapons of mass destruction (Editorial: On National Security, 2002).

            In order to reinforce U.S. values, national security must be closely coupled with preservation of life—both foreign and domestic, military and civilian.  Dead civilians have no opportunities for liberty and freedom, and disfigured civilian casualties seldom feel strikes were “fair play” or just.


Policy Recommendations

            Using the questions and discussion presented here, the following policy recommendations for use of standoff weapons in a non-declared-war operation are provided:

1.      Should never be used in haste—quick decisions without thorough research may lead to injustice and unintended consequences.  A strong effort to obtain all relevant information must be made, to include estimates by independent[12] experts on weapon reliability, quality of targeting coordinates and evaluations of casualty probability.

2.      Appropriate, detailed review by civilian authority and intelligence sources to ensure correct information and targeting.  A small bipartisan committee composed of both appointed and elected officials should bear responsibility for final launch authority.

3.      National sovereignty should never be violated without prior consent of the foreign government, except for declared war or UN-sanctioned events.  Standoff weapons overflying third-party airspace may have military implications for the third party[13], potentially causing instability in the region.  Even when a third-party country is not involved, showing disregard for another nation’s sovereignty demonstrates lack of restraint and is likely to produce international backlash.

4.      Assassination by standoff will almost always involve collateral damage or extremely short decision-action loops, which tends to reduce review time and could lead to poor decisions.  Therefore except in extreme cases—such as imminent death to large numbers of U.S. citizens—assassination should not be allowed.

5.      All other national and international means of coercion (“soft power”) should be exhausted prior to resorting to military means.  The use of international economic sanctions (and/or aid), diplomatic pressures, law enforcement and/or international tribunals may all be a means of furthering U.S. goals while minimizing the need for direct military action.

Careful conformance to these guidelines will inhibit overuse of standoff weapons, prevent/reduce tragic consequences, eliminate use of standoff for punitive message-sending and overall improve international stability.



            The best way to promote U.S. interests is to promote U.S. ideals and values (quoted in Johnson, 1992).  The U.S. must ensure that it does not become a terrorist nation, or engage in on-going one-upmanship, in its desire to protect national security interests.  As advanced standoff weaponry provides quicker and quicker strike capability, the possibility of overlooking situational nuances and collateral issues increases.  While terrorism requires a strong response, the U.S. must always ensure it is a measured, appropriate response within the framework of the U.S.’ ethics and values.


Brown, G.  (2002, December 5).  PM’s Pre-emptive Plan Dangerous.  Canberra Times.

de Borchgrave, A.  (2003, April 28).  War by Remote Control.  The Washington Times.

Correll, J. T.  (2003, June).  Casualties.  Air Force Magazine, 48-53

Dyer, G.  (1999, April 18).  Lockerbie, Gadhafi… and Chance.  The Washington Times, Part B, p. B1.

Editorial: On National Security: The Bush Doctrine – Will It Protect Us?  (2002, June 23).  San Francisco Chronicle, p. D4.

Editorial: Preemptive Response.  (2003, June 26).  The Asahi Shimbun.

Gardam, J. G.  (2003).  Proportionality and Force in International Law.  The American Journal of International Law, Vol 87, Issue 3, (July 1993), 391-413.

Gholz, E., Press, D. G. & Sapolsky, H. M.  (1997).  Come Home, America: The Strategy of Restraint in the Face of Temptation.  International Security, Vol 21, Issue 4 (Spring, 1997), 5-48.

Iraq’s America Problem.  (1998, December 24).  Global News Wire.

Jennings, P.  (2001, October 8).  U.S. Continues Air Strikes Against Taliban.  ABC News.

Johnson, L. K.  (1992).  On Drawing a Bright Line for Covert Operations.  The American Journal of International Law, Vol 86, Issue 2 (April 1992), 284-309.

Johnson, S.  (2001).  U.S. Coalition Against Terrorism Should Include Latin America.  Heritage Foundation Reports, (2001, October 9), No 1489, p. 1.

Nesmith, J.  (2003, June 2).  U.S. Wants ‘Agile’ Nuclear Weapons.  Cox News Service.

Orme, J.  (1997).  The Utility of Force in a World of Security.  International Security,  Vol 22, Issue 3 (Winter, 1997-1998), 138-167.

Rogers, P.  (2001).  Towards an Ideal Weapon?  Military and Political Implications of the Airborne and Space-based Lasers.  Defense Analysis, Vol. 17, No. 1, pp 73-88.

U.S. Seeks Two-Hour Strike Ability.  (2003, July 3).  Retrieved July 19, 2003 from

Wilson, J.  (2003, July).  Smart Weapons Under Fire.  Popular Mechanics.

[1] Tomahawks presently have a range of over 1500 miles.

[2] Note that political considerations prevent deployment of space-based weapons at this time.

[3] Could it be argued that Israel’s preemptive action is responsible for Operation Iraqi Freedom?

[4] It is especially dependent on well-refined and dependable intelligence, which is often difficult to come by.

[5] If military targets not located at schoolyards, and if the weapon programming is correct.

[6] Collectively, the President and the Secretary of Defense are called the National Command Authorities (NCA).

[7] May also be called Military Operations Other Than Warfare (MOOTW) or Low Intensity Conflict (LIC).

[8] The military does not always announce the number of weapons so some are estimates based on news reports.

[9] Civilian casualties are almost always estimates and vary widely; median numbers are used here.

[10] More cruise missiles in four days than in the entire 1991 Gulf War (Iraq’s America Problem, 1998).

[11] Johnson believes Kant would reject most forms of international covert operations as immoral (Johnson, 1992, p. 293)

[12] Meaning an individual not in the chain of command, on an authorizing committee or with a stake in the go/no-go decision or outcome.

[13] Such as lack of early warning radar systems, defensive capability, or even just distraction at an inopportune moment.