Small Wars Journal

Coming to Grips with Thinking about Drones

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Coming to Grips with Thinking about Drones

Robert Potter and Chris Sheahan

The use of drones in warfare is controversial but the lines of the debate are not fixed. In order to come to grips with thinking about drones, one needs to think in advance and to think in terms of rapid change. So far many analysts have failed to appreciate these two things. They have become, to some, an emblem of a military that has become reliant on advanced technology in warfare. Divorced from the imminence that contemporary counter-insurgency operations imparts to the matter, the discussion would continue indefinitely within theory. Conflict is a prism through which we view and develop the applications of technology on the battlefield but it is not the independent variable of change. Analysts however, insist on discussing the matter through the prism of contemporary conflict.

The reality is that more drones are sold on the civilian market than they are to militaries. The development of drones within a contemporary counterinsurgency context is an interesting look at their application but under different circumstances the same technology could have been applied in another manner. Commentators who frame the debate in terms of the contemporary use, fall into the trap of treating the conflict they are viewing as the mechanism that causes change, when it is more accurately seen as the mechanism that facilitates it. What then made drones different?

What makes the drone useful is not necessarily its lethality, it is the technology’s versatility. A modern drone is just as capable of being developed for civilian policing as it is for patrolling the Hindu Kush and this development is neither linear nor predetermined. As such, arguments that present dichotomies of choice, discussing drones in terms of ‘widely recognized’ advantages or disadvantages fails to engage with the reality that the space is fluid and the drone is just a tool designed to do a task. The technology behind it is not bound to the same application. Rather than being considered as an end-state drones are better analyzed through the technological advantages that were leveraged that made them so commonplace.

Analysts who frame their debate in terms of the present application of drones are often bypassed by technological development. This is evident in how little coverage of drone strikes has changed. Comparing reports from 2002 to the present day it becomes clear how fused the lines of debate have become. In 2002 the then editor of Jane’s Defence Weekly Clifford Beal stated “This is the beginning of robotic warfare”, the issue with that comment is that the revolution had already happened, the tipping point in the economies of scale had already been reached. By the time of the first lethal drone strike, the widespread use of drones within warfare had already become inevitable.

This is a byproduct of the present nature of drones themselves. In general they are cheap, easy to deploy and adaptable. As a result, their use will come with immediate impacts and are subject to a low marginal cost to expansion. A Virginia Class Submarine might be equally decisive but one cannot cheaply be turned into one thousand, or one hundred thousand. Drones can. This is not something that is entailed in the platform, rather, what made drones susceptible to such rapid expansion was both strategic need, combined with modern technologies that could easily be leveraged. Drones represent a convergence in advances in technologies such as manufacturing, robotics and communications.

In the case of the War on Terror, the United States found it easy to use a surveillance platform to engage in targeted killing. Due to advantages in overhead persistence and cost it became a concept ripe for expansion. The United States then expanded the program enormously. Critics fault the program for not delving a total victory but miss the nature of their disruption. The speed at which this technology was adapted and deployed en mass speaks as much of the urgent need planners had to find an advantage as it does about the technology itself. Significant amounts of contemporary analysis focuses on the later, ignores the former and treats the technology as path dependent. This then cuts of the area where real analysis is poised to make gains, using the same convergence in technology to anticipate and capitalized on future areas of disruption.

The speed of the development and employment of drones must have come as a shock to many analysts who are used to dealing with asymmetric advantages from the perspective of enemy forces. It however means that the capability will overrun expectations, leading to perhaps, to overly optimistic views regarding the utility of the platform and moving past expectations of how to reason about their moral implications.

Rosa Brooks in her work ‘Drones and Cognitive Dissonance’ talks at length about the moral implications of drones but makes the critical error of engaging with drones in terms of how they are being used, not how the disruptive technology can overrun our expectations and the analysis suffers from an analytical version of future shock. Neither does she engage with the realities faced by contemporary strategic planners who find themselves leading large militaries developed with a focus on conventional operations, looking for cheap adaptability and facing urgent demands for success. Although the pressure for the military involved combat operations, other areas, including law enforcement and intelligence gathering sit in similar nexuses, ready to face disruption by this technology.

It should come as no surprise then that the employment of new technologies should overrun our sensitivities, especially since we fail to appreciate the rapid state of advances this technological alignment allows. The international laws on targeted killing were created in an era of assassinations on the ground. The first drone strikes were interpreted within contemporary debates on targeted assassination. What was envisaged by commentators at the time was a slow campaign that gave space for move and counter move. R. James Woolsey, a former CIA director even drew parallel to the Second World War and the assassination of Adm. Yamamoto. It is almost impossible to fathom, in the contemporary world to have reached so far for a comparative example. The precedents that were drawn upon show that a strategic understanding of the development of this technology did not exist at the time.

Drones are not special, they are simply representations of a type of innovation. The example of the development of the predator and the program that followed is one that has and will continue to be repeated across a range of capability spaces. The drone represents an extension of the space between combatants on the battlefield, a trend that has existed for centuries. The development of musketry, automatic weapons, artillery and rocketry, each has increased the size of the battlespace but taken together have transformed platforms but not reversed the overall trend. This will occur naturally and as result of low marginal costs and capability enhancement. Drones can challenge our conception of the size of the battlespace and can develop capability rapidly but they are not fundamentally different from past changes. The future shock is a byproduct of a failure to plan, not an unprecedented new state of affairs.

Analysts should think about drones ahead of time and in a manner that is not path dependent. They will be developed rapidly, adapted to task with a sense of urgency and if they are not considered ahead of time, they will overrun the ability of analysts to discuss them accurately. Drones however, are not new. Mass production created similar mechanisms to transform expectations. The development of new technology certainly adds something to the battlefield but it is no more transformative than previous revolutions in military power.

As such, drones overran the analytical framework that people were using in an entirely foreseeable manner. This trend will continue as robotics and low production costs are implemented in other areas. As a result, there is good reason to apply this lesson to other developments in capability that can identifiably fit this pattern. For thinkers who wish to reason about the legal and ethical implications of modern military technology, the same mechanism should be inducement to think proactively. Engaging with the change, in advance, is the best way to avoid being left behind. Failure to do so will ensure that critics miss the mark and are bypassed by facts on the ground. The drone debate is therefor a cautionary tale of a failure to see behind the direct application of the technology. Analysts have gotten lost in the direct application and missed the alignments of technology that occurred behind the platform. A failure to reason from the enabling factors is therefore a major factor in the stalled nature of the debate over drone technology.

About the Author(s)

Robert Potter is currently a PhD Candidate at the University of Queensland. Prior to this he was Research Assistant Volunteer at the John F Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. He took part in a research program in North Korea and China in 2013, and been a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University – Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, School of International and Public Affairs.

Chris Sheahan is a former Australian Army Officer and now works as a security consultant for Ludus Resources Group.