Drones and the Changing Nature of Warfare: Hold the Presses!

Has the accelerated use of drones opened a new chapter in the history of warfare, as David Cortright asserts? If so, what is the title of that chapter? It certainly is not “Drones Make War More Likely, Indiscriminate or Bloodier.” As recent landmark studies by Goldstein and Pinker clearly document, societal violence in general and armed conflict in particular are on the decline.[1] The fact that we live in the historical shadow of the air raids on Dresden and Tokyo but are focused on a few hundred strikes by unmanned aerial systems in Pakistan underscores this dramatic change in the way air power is employed today.

Drones are not new. The V-1 was a drone, but lacked a man-in-the-loop and precision guidance capabilities. Modern drones emerged from the overall revolution in precision navigation and networked communications which began more than two decades ago. This revolution centered on improvements in technologies for position location, remote sensing, automated flight controls, computer-based target designation, high bandwidth communications, high capacity computing and smart fusing. These technologies were combined to provide a capability for long-range precision strikes, as demonstrated in the first Gulf War. Most often this capability required both a platform/launcher and a “smart” weapon such as a laser-guided bomb or Joint Direct Attack Munition that would be flown to a release point, then fly to a specific target based either on laser illumination or pre-programmed GPS coordinates. Cruise missiles, which have been widely proliferated, are essentially drones.

Modern drones provide many of the best features of both cruise missiles and manned aircraft. Most significantly, they provide the tactical and operational flexibility of manned platforms with the reduced risk to personnel associated with cruise missiles. Unlike the former, they allow for man-in-the-loop control and vehicle recovery. Unlike the latter, they can operate at altitudes and in environments unsuited to manned systems and, in some cases, for extended periods of time.

Despite the proliferation of drones, particularly by the United States, at best it can be argued that the proliferation of unmanned aerial systems (UASs) is changing tactics, particularly with respect to operations on land. The predominant mission of drones today is to collect information, primarily electro-optical data in the form of pictures and full motion video. The overwhelming majority of drone flying hours are conducted by systems such as Aerovironment’s Wasp, Puma, and Raven; Insitu’s ScanEagle; and Textron’s Shadow for the purpose of providing overwatch for maneuvering Army and Marine Corps units. Even the vaunted Predator, a variant of which, the MQ-9 Reaper, is the platform employed for armed strikes, is predominantly employed for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions. The larger systems such as Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk and Lockheed Martin’s stealthy RQ-170 Sentinel are intended solely to gather intelligence.

Armed drones serve a niche function. They are useful in situations where real-time tactical intelligence is required in order to launch a weapon and the operating environment is extremely benign. Because they can loiter in the area of a suspected target, waiting for positive identification and the proper time to strike with the least possibility of inflicting collateral damage, they are far less lethal than any other aerial weapons system.

Attempts to connect an increased tendency to use force are supported neither by the evidence nor by logic. The frequency and intensity of conflicts has declined even as the ability to conduct remote combat has increased exponentially. There were only a handful of drones available to the U.S. military when Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom began. The lack of unmanned systems appears to have posed no obstacle to the decision to initiate either operation.

It is difficult to accord any serious influence over the conduct of air operations in past or current conflicts to the presence of armed drones. In the era before drones, the U.S. imposed ten year long no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq. In addition, the number of drone sorties in total is but a tiny fraction of all aerial sorties. Armed drone sorties constitute only a small fraction of total drone missions. Cortright notes that since 2009 there have been 239 drone strikes into Pakistan. However, for the month of January 2011, Coalition forces in Afghanistan flew 387 sorties in which guns were fired or munitions expended.[2] These statistics suggest a clear preference on the part of the military for manned aerial systems and not drones in the conduct of tactical air operations.

Cortright also reports that 145 drone strikes were conducted during Operation Odyssey Dawn—the liberation of Libya. Actually this is an incorrect statement. While drones were used over Libya, these were not armed flights, hence they were sorties and not strikes. But this is good example of the breathless quality of much of the analysis today of the implications of drones for warfare. Look at the numbers. The U.S. alone conducted some 3,500 sorties during Operation Odyssey Dawn. So drones amounted to 4% of the total. By the way, the United States and United Kingdom also launched 228 Tomahawk cruise missiles during this operation, 112 on the first night of the conflict. If we are to accord to weapon systems influence over the decision to use force, then in the case of Libya, precedence must be given based simply on the number of sorties conducted to cruise missiles, aerial refueling tankers, tactical fighters, and even cargo planes before we come to the little-used drone.

The availability of unmanned aerial systems in no way makes conflict more likely or more brutal. Quite the opposite, in fact, seems to be the case. The presumption that were it not for the availability of drones, the U.S. would refrain from conducting military operations against terrorists based in Pakistan is highly dubious. We have an example of an alternative military option: Operation Enduring Freedom. As Joshua Goldstein pointed out in a recent article, the use of armed drones in Pakistan may have prevented the use of far bloodier means. “Armed drones now attack targets that in the past would have required an invasion with thousands of heavily armed troops, displacing huge numbers of civilians and destroying valuable property along the way.”[3] According to Robert Woodward’s reporting on President Obama’s decision to deploy additional forces to Afghanistan in 2009, a number of senior advisors proposed a lower-cost, smaller deployment based on increased use of special operations forces and unmanned aerial vehicles.

I might go even farther than Goldstein and argue that Cortright should advocate the greater use of drones, armed and otherwise, precisely due to his interest in reducing the frequency, intensity, and costs of conflicts. Just as dash cameras in police cars and cell phone cameras have led to a decrease in police brutality and the ability to bring those who violate procedures to account, the electro-optical sensors on drones can be used to increase oversight over military forces in the field. In fact, cameras can reduce what Cortright calls “the psychological distance that separates the launching of a strike from its bloody impact.” It can also help reduce the alleged isolation of the American people from the use of force in their name.

Unfortunately in view of its title, the primary focus of Cortright’s article is not on drones and warfare. Rather, it centers on the subset of the role of drones in current counterterrorism operations. A number of the issues he raises are frankly much more relevant to the rather murky legal and operational circumstances surrounding the global campaign against al Qaeda. Cortright is closer to the mark when, as the title of his article suggests, he connects the nature of drones, notably the lack of a person in the cockpit, to the sense that both the George W. Bush and, most particularly, the Obama Administration saw such systems as supporting if not promoting a “license to kill.” Critics of the use of drones against unlawful combatants in Pakistan and elsewhere would be on firmer ground by connecting the disembodied features of “Nintendo warfare” to our seeming tolerance for the weakening of legal safeguards for criminal terrorists.

In conclusion, I would suggest that there is nothing in the current employment of drones or in plans for future unmanned aerial systems that poses the kinds of dangers suggested by Mr. Cortright. They will not make war easier or cheaper. There is no evidence that armed drones have reduced the political inhibitions against the use of deadly force. The use of drones in no way threatens to weaken the moral presumption against the inappropriate or excessive use of force that is at the heart of the just war doctrine—the emphasis is mine, but the qualifiers have always belonged to just war theory. Mr. Cortright’s problem is not with drones but the policies of those who employ them. I almost hate to say it, but we should remember that drones don’t kill terrorists, governments do.


[1] Joshua Goldstein, Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide, Penguin Group, New York, 2011; Steve Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, Viking, New York, 2011.

[2] Marc Schanz, “Afghanistan and After,” Air Force Magazine, April 2011.

[3] Joshua Goldstein, “Think Again: War,” Foreign Policy, September/October 2011.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • David Cortright argues that drones are making warfare cheaper and less visceral — for us. This may sound like a good thing, but it also means that we may be drawn into more wars, and we may inflict more harm on innocent bystanders. This collateral harm is not only immoral, it’s also against our best interests, because it encourages terrorist retribution against us.

Response Essays

  • Benjamin Wittes and Ritika Singh argue that drones certainly do increase the distance at which deadly force can be delivered. In this they resemble the large majority of weapons that have ever been developed. Humanitarians, they add, should welcome drones’ precision, which makes possible a new level of caution in avoiding civilian bystanders. They conclude that the question is not whether the United States can prevent drones from proliferating. It is whether the United States will lead or follow in this new field of military technology.

  • Daniel Goure argues that if drones are making warfare more deadly, it’s certainly not showing up in the aggregate numbers. Casualties and warfare itself have declined substantially in recent years—and, he suggests, drones might be one part of the reason why. Drones remain a small part of our overall military forces to date. They are overwhelmingly used for nonviolent purposes such as surveillance. When they do exert deadly force, they often accomplish objectives that would have been impossible without them, barring a full-scale invasion. Legitimate concerns do exist over specific acts perpetrated via drone technology, but there is at least a plausible case that drones in general are making warfare less deadly, not more.

  • Tom Barry argues that the U.S. Congress and other policymakers have uncritically accepted drone warfare as both effective and cheap, with little regard to its actual costs and benefits. Defense contractors obviously stand to gain a great deal, and they have recently been lobbying to ease restrictions on drone technology export controls. The United States should lead the way in forming international agreements to prevent the proliferation of these high-tech weapons. At home, the proliferation of drones in drug enforcement and other local law enforcement tasks is also a worrying trend.