How drones alter the character of warfare

By Ömer Erkut Bulut
Europe Analyst

When the USA invaded Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, its military used brand new tactics and weapons to eradicate Taliban. An article published on Foreign Affairs by Professor Stephen Biddle back in 2003 pictured “the future of warfare”, based on what was seen as the US victory in Afghanistan back in 17 years ago.[1] It mentioned drones only once, for their effectiveness to detect Taliban militants in the mountainous terrain. While observing the effect of reconnaissance drones for surveillance in addition to the other systems such as satellite surveillance, airborne radars, hypersensitive electronic eavesdropping systems and thermal imaging, he probably had no idea that drone warfare would dominate the political science and international law discussions as well as the skies of conflict zones.

Back in 2001, the US army had 50 drones in its inventory, mostly for surveillance purposes. By 2011, it had 750. Only 5% of those were armed.[2] Yet by the 2010s, drones had become an essential tool for the US’s “war against terror”. The advancement in drone technology coincided with the mentality change in the White House with the election of Barack Obama. President Obama promised to pull out US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and refraining from future military (mis)adventures overseas. So, the Obama administration accelerated drone strikes to replace the “boots on the ground” in the war against terror. Meanwhile realising the true potential of drones, other countries such as China, UK, Turkey and Israel stepped up their own drone programmes.

Although there are different kind of drones for the military purposes, the combat drones or UCAVs have made the significant change in aerial warfare, proving that in many cases they can be more effective or beneficial than the fighter jets. The UCAVs have certain advantages over conventional manned aircrafts. First of all, the average production cost of a combat drone is much cheaper than a fighter jet. UK’s Secretary of Defence Ben Wallace recently drew attention to this point and announced the British military decided to prop up its drone programme after the success of the Turkish drones in several theatres of armed conflict.[3] The cheap production costs of the Turkish drones enabled the military to follow bolder tactics by risking loss of several in action if necessary. In summer, the footages appeared showing TB2 Bayraktar drones eliminating several Russian Pantsir air defense system batteries in the Libyan conflict where Turkey and Russia back opposite sides.[4] Earlier in 2020, the Turkish drones destroyed several Pantsir systems and military equipment operated by the Assad regime in Syria. Although Turkey lost several combat drones in the process, the trade-off appeared to be worth it. The approximate cost of a TB2 drone is around $1 million, while a Pantsir battery costs $14.6 million. A researcher from King’s College London likened the situation to “trading a pawn for a knight,” in The Economist.[5]

The advantage of a combat drone is not only in the production costs. The unmanned aerial vehicles do not involve the risk of losing pilots flying over enemy territory either. In addition, while an F16 jet stays on the air up to 6 hours before needing refuelling on the ground, a Predator drone can stay on the air for 40 hours, simultaneously surveying the area and engaging with enemy targets. This capability also unveils both a futuristic, yet even more brutal age where a drone operator at the Creech Airbase in Nevada, US can decide over the life of a suspected militant in the Waziristan region in Pakistan.[6] And when strike capabilities unites with the blurred and controversial rules of engagement, grave human rights questions arise. The Obama Administration was accused of indiscriminate use of the drone warfare in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. In particular, the practice of guilt-by association increased the number of civilian casualties and marginalised the official data related to militant and civilian fatalities. A New York Times report in 2012 revealed that the US military then classified “all military-age males in a strike zone” as “militants” unless clear evidence proving the opposite emerges after the drone strike.[7] New America Foundation estimated that 20% of all fatalities in the US drone strikes were civilians while the Bureau of Investigative Journalism gave a lower figure of 9% in 2012.[8] Though, it is impossible to determine the exact rate of civilian casualties since most drone strikes happen in remote areas of the world. Still, the humanitarian controversy of the drone warfare might be overcome with a clearer and more transparent legal framework for the use of drone strikes.

Apart from the humanitarian concerns, the combat drones are still not capable of carrying large (and more effective) munitions like bunker-buster missiles as the fighter jets. They cannot reach to the similar speed or altitudes with them and their range are much more limited compared to the fighter jets. Yet, the combat drones rapidly overcome their disadvantages thanks to a number of contributing factors. Electronic warfare systems provide drones the option of coordinated strikes “in squadrons” and suppressing air-defence systems as in Turkey’s mass-UAV attacks in Syria’s Idlib in February 2020.[9] The Chinese Wing Loong II can fly almost as far as a fighter jet thanks to the satellite links. Thermal imaging and smart ammunitions increase the precision of the drone strikes.

Giving Turkish drones’ records as an example, Secretary Wallace described the performance of lightly armed drones as “game-changing.”[10] Former US Ambassador Matthew Bryza underlined how easily combat drones could take out the Armenian military equipment whether tanks or air-defence systems during the recent Nagorno-Karabakh War.[11]  In an interview with France 24, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev said that only with drones acquired by Turkey, $1 billion-worth military equipment of Armenia was destroyed.[12]

The genie is out of the bottle. The drone technology will keep developing and more countries will want to produce or acquire them one way or another. In the meantime, some militaries update their air defence systems to counter drones better, militant groups change their tactics and human rights activists try to increase awareness on the humanitarian impact of the drone warfare. But, one thing is clear: the presence of drones on the skies will increase, not diminish. Whatever the intention is, everyone should adopt to this reality.



[2] Zenko M, Reforming US Drone Strike Policies (Council on Foreign Relations Press 2013).











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