Are drones the future weapon of choice for the conduct of war?

Posted on Posted in Analyses, Intelligence and Security, Strategy & Defence, Terrorism, Organized Crime & Security

By Olga Aristeidou, International Relations Expert

The phenomenon of war has undergone significant changes over the years. Until the 20th century, it mostly involved and concerned the Great Powers, but currently Great Powers “do not war among themselves”. “War for the West has become increasingly remote and distant, increasingly utilitarian and instrumental”[1]. It also involves destabilized and failed states, as well as non- state actors (for example terrorist and criminal organizations). It is said that war is mostly conducted as risk management and thus, new questions are raised. If we only fight to manage possible, future risks, do we need to sacrifice our soldiers? What if we only use unmanned weapons?

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs or drones) are not a new discovery, but they have been increasingly used for the conduct of war since 2002. They are considered as the ideal weapon of choice for war as risk management. This is linked with the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) which is defined as “the introduction of a new technology or organization, which in turn creates a whole new model of fighting and winning wars”[2]. Their operation mode and their size range significantly: small helicopters and planes which operate small distances, but also long-range surveillance airplanes, which can operate long- distances and carry munitions. The most common drones are the following: the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator, the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper and the Elbit Hermes 450. The concept of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles is simple: “design an unmanned vehicle to do that normally done by a manned aircraft”[3].

It is estimated that “fifty countries have built or purchased drones, and of these, three have used them to shoot at targets on the ground: Israel, the United States and the UK. In 2005, Hezbollah also used a reconnaissance drone against Israel”[4] . The Israeli state was the first that used UAVs for targeted killings, in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and was initially criticized for these actions. From then, Israel has used drones many times, including the 2006 Lebanon War, the 2009 Gaza conflict and in general it conducts cross-border attacks targeting suspected terrorists. The British Army has mainly used armed drones in Afghanistan. Among the countries possessing drones, it is estimated that China and Iran are satisfactorily trained and prepared to use them during a crisis.[5]

The United States has deployed drones over battlefield zones (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya), such as in non-battlefield settings (Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Iran, the Philippines and Syria) and it routinely flies them along the U.S.-Mexican border. The first U.S. strike by the armed drone  MQ-1 Predator in Afghanistan took place in February 2002.The victims of the strike were proven to be just innocent civilians, because of a wrong estimate by the CIA, which thought that one of the men was Osama Bin Laden. Even if these campaigns began under the Bush Administration in the aftermath of 09/11 attacks, they were intensified under the Obama Administration. Such operations include targeted killing and the so-called “signature strikes”, which does not target specific individuals, but instead they target suspicious groups engaged in possible terrorist activities.

But what does make the drones so specials? The first characteristic is the absence of physical risk to the agent country’s personnel. The drones are controlled via satellite by an agent being in a control station miles away. Therefore, it is like a military dream that becomes reality: “fight in a way that involves a maximum of risk to the enemy and a minimum of risk to one’s own side”[6]. Secondly, it is easier to persuade the public opinion of your country to approve a war , when you use unmanned weapons instead of soldiers. As a result, governments will be able to conduct military campaigns, without having to worry about any decrease in their domestic popularity. Thirdly, unmanned systems are relatively less expensive than having a big and trained army.

Nevertheless, the use of drones raises concerns about the legitimacy, ethicality and the possible problems and implications of the use of drones. One of the main problems regarding the use of drone strikes is their accuracy, which has been severely- and not unjustifiably- contested. It is proven that drone strikes have several times mistaken their targets, killing a lot of innocent people. A second problem arises by the distance between the agent and the victims of the drone strikes. This distance is not just physical and geographical, but psychological and emotional too. The drone operators, instead of focusing on their human targets, they focus on the screen, killing fighters with a few computer keystrokes.”[7] Obviously, this is why drone warfare is often compared to video games and is said that it dehumanizes more the war.

Moreover, it is admittedly worrying that there are no regulations and norms for the use of unmanned weapons, as well as for the war against terrorism in general. This new type of war which is used for risk management, is a peculiar one. Another problem that arises, is the reaction of the public inside the countries where the drone strikes programme is held. The collateral damage of the programme, which has already caused the death of hundreds innocent people, including a high percentage of children, has engendered anti- Western sentiments, fear and anger among the local population. This anger could potentially be transformed into a more violent reaction and these people might be more easily recruited as militants and terrorists against the Western states.

Finally, one last argument against drones, is that they cannot totally replace the boots on ground. Ground intelligence will continue to be indispensable, at least until drones accuracy be improved. In addition, we should not forget that when you kill someone, you cannot extort information by questioning him, like ground forces do.

If we wanted to make a prediction for the future, we would say that Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Systems in general, are here to stay and they will play an increasingly crucial role in the future warfare.

[1] Heng, Yee-Kuang, War as Risk Management. Strategy and Conflict in an Age of Globalised Risks (London: Routledge, 2006), p.5

[2] Singer, Peter Warren, Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century (New York: Penguin, 2009), p. 181

[3] Holder, Bill, Unmanned Air Vehicles- An illustrated Study of UAVs.(China: Schiffer Publishing, 2001), p. 5

[4] Gusterson, Toward an Anthropology of Drones, p. 193

[5] Zenko, Micah and Kreps,Sarah, “Limiting Armed Drone Proliferation”, Council on Foreign Relations Special Report 69, (2014), p. 6-7

[6] Enemark, Christian, “Drones, Risk and Perpetual Force”, Ethics & International Affairs 28 (3), (2014), p. 366

[7] Sandvick & Lohne, “The Rise of the Humanitarian Drone”, p.155