Military Drones: Evolutionary, Not Transformative, Not Revolutionary

By Kenneth Anderson
Wednesday, June 29, 2016, 2:05 PM

Over the past decade, military drones, whether weaponized or merely equipped for surveillance, have been at the center of many heated arguments, whether about targeted killing, counterterrorism, the supposedly "too easy" resort to force through drones, and a host of other controversies. Philosophers, anthropologists, and other academics have given us social theories of the drone. Some military strategists have seen armed drones as the coming — at long last — of strategic airpower able to win a war from the air. Many commentators have predicted the proliferation of military drones and made extravagant analyses of what this portends. An assumption underlying many (though not all) of these controversies, arguments, and theorizing is that drones — UAVs, unmanned aerial vehicles, however exactly one terms them —  are a genuinely "transformative" military technology. Transformative, even perhaps "revolutionary."  

There have been dissenters from this view of the technology and its role in military strategy and operations. And it is probably fair to say that within the US military (and perhaps other militaries, such as the UK, with the most operational experience with them), the idea that UAVs are a strategically revolutionary or even transformative military or weapon technology has long since evaporated (or at least shrunk to a modest puddle) in the light of experience. In addition, a handful of researchers (Gilli and Gilli, particularly) who have looked not so much to operational realities about drones, but instead to the military-industrial complex required for a state to acquire or manage to operate drone systems (drone systems, that is, beyond those that more closely resemble an hobbyist toy than a Predator or Reaper), have concluded that the infrastucture required is far more than most commentators imagine, and argue that this will act as a significant constraint on the military use of drones.  

A recent paper posted to SSRN, "The Consequences of Drone Proliferation: Separating Fact from Fiction," by University of Pennsylvania political scientist Michael C. Horowitz, Cornell University government professor (and author of a new book on drones that will be reviewed soon at Lawfare) Sarah E. Kreps, and Texas A&M political scientist Matthew Furhmann, is an important and much-needed contribution to lowering the temperature and tempering the apocaplytic tenor of much of the drone debate. There are many important strategic, operational, legal, and moral questions surrounding military drones, but it is increasingly clear to many of those who deal with or study military UAVs up close that this new family of military technologies is evolutionary, not transformational. SSRN abstract:

What are the consequences of drone proliferation for the international security environment? Despite extensive discussions in the policy world concerning drone strikes for counterterrorism purposes, myths about the capabilities and implications of current-generation drones often outstrip reality. This paper separates fact from fiction by examining the effects of UAVs in six different contexts — counterterrorism, interstate conflict, crisis onset and deterrence, coercive diplomacy, domestic control and repression, and use by non-state actors for the purposes of terrorism. We show that, while current-generation drones introduce some unique capabilities into conflicts around the world, they are also unlikely to produce the dire consequences that some fear. In particular, drone proliferation carries potentially significant consequences for counterterrorism operations and domestic control in authoritarian regimes. Drones could also enhance monitoring in disputed territories, potentially leading to greater stability. However, given their technical limitations, current-generation drones are unlikely to have a large impact on interstate warfare. Our analysis has important implications for a range of policy issues, including the management of regional disputes, the regulation of drone exports, and defense against potential terrorist attacks on the homeland.