Drone Warfare, Put Simply

By Campaign Agent Alasdair Fraser

Drones are remotely piloted or autonomous vehicles. Today, they are commercially available as hobby and professional platforms for aerial photography and search and rescue. However, their larger cousins have been utilised by armed forces across the world since WWII for covert surveillance, air support, and targeted killing missions.

These larger drones are usually referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), and unmanned aerial systems (UAS, singular and plural). They have seen most of their action in the Middle East and Horn of Africa, utilised by the United States, United Kingdom, and Israel against insurgent groups.

On paper, the most well-known large combat drones, the General Atomics MQ-1B Predator and MQ-9 Reaper, are highly discriminate, accurate, and safe surveillance and kinetic strike platforms. They use highly advanced Hellfire air-to-ground missiles for precision strikes and can hover for up to a day for target acquisition. However, in practice, drones suffer from a range of strategic and ethical flaws:

  • Today, drones are almost entirely operated by humans. As with traditional pilots, they are subject to errors in judgement such as confirmation bias.
  • Drones are highly dependent on This information often comes from signals intelligence (SIGINT) and tip-offs, which are subject to bias, falsification, and misinterpretation.
  • Drones almost entirely preclude the ‘winning hearts and minds’ of traditional counter-insurgency (COIN)
  • Drones can attack targets with no chance of reciprocity.
  • Drone strikes often cause extensive collateral damage

Additionally, the way drones are used by the states above is often legally dubious. While their use in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya is justified under the assumption that Britain and America were in armed conflict in these countries, they have also been used for targeted kill missions (assassinations) in Yemen, Syria, Somalia, and Pakistan, against various non-state actors. The debate continues over whether or not Drones are “the only game in town” as former CIA director Leon Panetta once said. What is clear, however, is that our laws and traditions of what is just in war are often ill-equipped for new military hardware.

However, there are further issues with drones; they are expensive investments. While some academics and armed forces argue they are cost effective, when you factor in failure rates and logistics, drones are vastly more costly than conventional aircraft (Reaper drones require over 170 personnel to operate). The UK government maintains a fleet of 10 MQ-9 Reapers, which they purchased from the US for approximately £500m, with plans to buy another 10 for £100m. Additionally, between 2007 and 2012 the UK government spent in the region of £2B procuring or developing drones (the original Reaper purchase included), with over £1B going to the Watchkeeper, a failed unarmed drone prototype with less than 200 hours of active service.

Drones may look good on paper as tactically expedient systems. However, politicians have historically been unable to view them in a larger strategic context, where the blowback from their use in targeted killings and their propensity to kill civilians cause more harm to the UK and US’s perception in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Drones have been used successfully to damage the capacity of insurgent groups, but the costs, both financial and strategic, may end up being too high.

Further Reading:

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

The Intercept

A Brief History of Drones by John Sifton

Drone Warfare by John Kaag and Sarah Kreps

The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government’s Secret Drone Warfare Program by Jeremy Scahill and the staff of The Intercept

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