(This analysis was also published in The Conversation.)
Much of the current debate about drones (or unmanned aerial vehicles, UAVs) is about whether their deployment to countries such as Pakistan and Yemen is legal or ethical. This debate is predominantly focused on armed drones and their use to carry out targeted and signature strikes against known or suspected terrorists and insurgents. To the extent that these debates engage with the effectiveness of drones, the predominant argument is that they are counter-productive because they infuriate local populations and governments, alienate potential allies, and serve as recruiting agents for insurgent movements and terrorist networks. The counter-argument is about drones being effective in limiting insurgent and terrorist capabilities, minimising civilian casualties and collateral damage, and reducing the risk to “our own” troops, while being more flexible and cost-effective to deploy.
Regardless of where one stands, drones are here to stay. As a technology, they have a vast number of applications beyond their use in combat operations. Their development is in part driven by commercial and civilian uses from crop-spraying to traffic management. Banning drone technology is thus neither possible nor desirable.
One of the questions that arises, then, is about the regulation of drone use. For commercial and civilian purposes, some regulatory frameworks already exist (such as in the areas of air traffic and telecommunications). Arguably, international humanitarian law and the law of armed conflict also offer some initial guidelines for the military application of drones, although their interpretation by the US Department of Justice in a white paper on the legality of lethal drone strikes against US citizens abroad is disputed. While these debates go on, drone technology, military and otherwise, rapidly proliferates, including to non-state actors.
National and international regulation of drone warfare to one side, there are also a number of practical implications of the current, and future, technological advances. To date, the overwhelming majority of lethal drone strikes has been carried out by the United States in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. These are countries, in contrast to Iraq, Afghanistan, and arguably Libya, with which the United States and its allies are not at war.
In pursuing individuals as part of its War on Terror, the US and its allies are also beginning to extend their drones campaign to North Africa. Currently only using unarmed Predator drones for surveillance purposes, the initial threshold for the first targeted strike is likely to be high – such as terrorist mastermind Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the man behind the attack on the Tigantourine gas plant, in eastern Algeria.
Yet, as we have witnessed in Pakistan, and less so in Yemen, drones, combined with human intelligence, are highly effective in locating and targeting known terrorist operatives, and inevitably there will be a shift from targeted to signature strikes with very different thresholds applied to decisions to kill.
Another implication of drones is that they have shifted the cost calculations of warfare significantly. Drones can be deployed quickly, for long periods of time, and to lethal effect at lower financial cost and risk to life for those using them, compared to piloted aircraft or ground forces projected over great distances. This makes it more likely that we will see more covert drone warfare, but less declared war.
With countries as diverse as Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Russia and China also investing in their own military drones programmes, proliferation risks via the international arms market increase, as does the risk that ever more countries will use drones for military purposes at home (for example, in counter-insurgency) and in neighbouring countries (for example, to target rebel camps).
Use of drones on the territory and/or directly against a presumably hostile neighbour increases the risk of retaliation and further military escalation, although not necessarily to full-scale war. Yet, proliferation of drones is only one step short of an impending drones arms race, already foreshadowed in recent developments of both anti-drones defence systems and stealth drones (which have been used by the US for almost a decade, but are now also in Chinese and Russian arsenals).
As drone technology advances and proliferates ever further, national and international security interests will increasingly come to be seen being served better by drones than by expeditionary campaigns. That said, the temptation for more state (and non-state) actors to use drones and to do so more often, will not necessarily make the world a safer or less violent place.