Combat Drones: The Brave New World of the Conventionalization of Unmanned Warfare

Twenty years ago, the US Air Force began to develop the next generation of fighter aircraft aimed at securing total air superiority. The F-22 Raptor was intended to triumph over the relics of Soviet imperialism – Flankers and Fulcrums, Sukhoi and MiGs. Yet as the 20th century drew to a close, the attacks of 9/11 heralded a new kind of war; the United States prosecuted the Global War on Terrorism with the purpose of destroying terrorist organizations and regimes sympathetic to the cause of terror. Amid this war, the Raptor also came under threat – its aerial dominance challenged not by fighters fielded by rival powers, but a propeller-driven and aerodynamically obtuse creation: the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). At barely two percent of the unit cost of an F-22, the US military is increasingly deploying drones such as the Predator to undertake missions and operations previously reserved for manned combat aircraft.

As of 2010, approximately forty-one percent of the total aircraft in the US military are UAVs.[1] This number is expected to rise dramatically in the coming decades, as the USAF pursues aggressive development of new drone technology and weapons platforms. In a 2009 publication concerning the future of UAVs, the USAF sees drones as the harbinger of the “revolution in the roles of humans in air warfare” through the development of a “fully autonomous capability” that includes emerging swarming and Hypersonic technology to put the enemy off balance by being unable to almost instantaneously create effects throughout the battlespace.”[2] In other words, the US Air Force intends to transform how wars will be fought by replacing pilots with artificial intelligence. Combined with emerging and future technologies, the result would be combat drones so advanced and powerful, air superiority would not be a question, but a certainty. The American military establishment seeks a new revolution in military affairs (RMA) through the conventionalization of unmanned warfare by developing warfighting assets and capabilities in a brave new world more reminiscent of yesteryear’s science fiction thrillers than the realities of the wars of tomorrow. And this is just the US; China, Russia, and other lesser powers are actively developing UAV technology along such lines, with similar objectives in mind.

The prospect of a fully autonomous drone with pre-programmed directives to determine whether it should kill, and with enough firepower to take out an entire city block remains a chilling prospect and certainly redefines the words, ‘killing machine’.

The present debate concerning UAVs focuses on questions of “how many individuals are killed” and “which of [the] two categories the individuals killed fall into – militant or civilian.”[3] In defense of drone strikes, the US argues that “extremely few civilians have been killed” due to “the precision of drone technology,” whereas critics allege “that deaths, and civilian deaths in particular, are much higher than US officials admit.”[4] In February of last year, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) admitted that an estimated 4,700 people have been killed in a decade of US drone attacks. Most tellingly, he said, “sometimes you hit innocent people, and I hate that, but we’re at war, and we’ve taken out some very senior members of Al-Qaeda.”[5]

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch accuse the US of “contraven[ing] the laws of armed conflict, international human rights law and [President] Barack Obama’s own guidelines on drones.”[6] In a speech last May, President Obama outlined a set of “(still classified) guidelines codifying standards for lethal drone strikes” in which the US acts “against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people,” in addition to “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can set.”[7] However, the fact that “a grandmother [in Pakistan] was killed while she was picking vegetables” seems contrary to the classified guidelines the Obama Administration set out in regards to constraining the breadth of drone attacks.[8]

The debate and question should not just be on the issue of who qualifies as a legitimate target on the business end of a UAV. Rather, a discussion in a similar vein to the Landmines and Cluster Munitions Conventions should be undertaken to clarify norms of acceptable state behavior in terms of increasing conventionalization of drone warfare. The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), while representing a meaningful step in seeking to regulate the global arms trade by the United Nations, neither addresses nor scrutinizes the specific question of UAV proliferation in the modern battlefield and non-battlefield.[9] Like landmines and cluster munitions, combat drones possess the potential to kill and maim across a broad spectrum of lawful and unlawful targets. Therefore, it remains necessary for an international legal framework to constrain and outline the context through which drones could be deployed. When grandmothers find themselves inadvertently targeted by Hellfire missiles, there is something terribly wrong with the way drone strikes are conducted.

Legal questions must be addressed before a discussion of structural constraints of combat drones could be made. Indeed, common questions include “location of the operator” and “CIA operation of drones for lethal combat-type operations,” which raise doubts about the legality of such operations.[10] The very nature of drone strikes “presents serious challenges to the law of war framework,” because “having a human responsible for his or her actions serves as a deterrent to the violations of the law.”[11] When an artificial intelligence inherits such responsibility, it becomes problematic as the erosion of “life or death decisions” associated with an operator and his/her rules of engagement “sever this chain of responsibility.”[12] Finally, “robots do not meet the definition of lawful combatants and may not participate independently in combat operations,” so it remains to be seen how the USAF plans to develop fully autonomous killing machines and not violate the laws of armed conflict and international humanitarian law.[13]

The conventionalization of unmanned warfare will remain the primary question of the next decade and beyond. As Vogel concludes, “there are more than enough rules for governing drone warfare – from the laws governing aerial and missile warfare to the fundamental principles of the law of armed conflict, to specialized treaties and the Hague and Geneva conventions, and from customary law to the UN Charter.”[14] Disarmament advocacy groups and NGOs alike have a grave responsibility to compel both governments and citizens to understand the implications of a failure in constraining the extent through which unmanned warfare could be conducted. The world currently stands at crossroads in a new revolution of military affairs: do we simply accept that the wars of tomorrow will be fought with automated killing machines, with blurred boundaries between battlefield and non-battlefield, between the insurgent planting an improvised explosive device and the grandmother picking vegetables, or could we endeavor to establish a new paradigm in the conduct of unmanned warfare?

 By Zhenan Tong, MA Candidate, International Studies and Diplomacy, SOAS

Works Cited

1. Gertler, Jeremiah. (2012). US Unmanned Aerial Systems. Congressional Research Service. Available at: <> [Accessed 15 January 2014].

2. Headquarters, United States Air Force. (2009). United States Air Force Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan 2009 – 2047. Available at: <> [Accessed 15 January 2014].

3. Human Rights Clinic. (n.d.). Counting Drone Strike Deaths. Columbia Law School. Available at: <> [Accessed 15 January 2014].

4. Ibid.

5. Al-Jazeera. (2013). US senator says 4,700 killed in drone strikes. Available at: <> [Accessed 15 January 2014].

6. Boone, Jon. (2013). US drone strikes could be classed as war crimes, says Amnesty International. The Guardian. Available at: <> [15 January 2014].

7. The Economist. (2013). Out of the shadows. Available at: <> [Accessed 15 January 2014].

8. See Boone.

9. Bowie, Nile. (2013). UN Arms Trade Treaty’s Deadly Loophole. Counterpunch. Available at: <> [Accessed 15 January 2014].

10. Vogel, Ryan J. (2011). ‘Drone Warfare and the Law of Armed Conflict.’ Denver Journal of International Law and Policy, Vol. 39, No. 1, pp. 101-138.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

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