Drone technology and the future of ‘modern’ warfare

Dennis Phillips

For the victims of most drone strikes, there is no warning at all. Undetected surveillance drones may have spied on the targeted individuals for days or weeks before an armed drone is directed to release its Hellfire missile. The result, of course, is devastating. Victims may hear a brief hissing sound as the missile approaches, then a powerful blast kills or severely injures everyone in the targeted building or area. One survivor of a drone attack that killed more than a dozen others suffered ‘a fractured skull and received shrapnel wounds and burns all over the left side of his body and face’ (Nolan 2012).

A drone, otherwise known as an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is an aircraft without a human on board. It may be guided either autonomously by computers or by a human ‘pilot’ using a joystick. The pilot may be situated thousands of miles away from the targeted area. US military personnel who guide drones to targets in Afghanistan, for example, may be on or near the battlefield, but they may also be working from an air-conditioned office at Creech Air Force Base, 40 minutes drive from the casinos of Las Vegas, Nevada (Benjamin 2012, loc. 1072–1086; Turse & Engelhardt 2012, loc. 132, 428, 993).

Drones have been with us longer than most people realise.

Military ‘killer’ drones receive most of the publicity, but even military drones are more often used for reconnaissance and surveillance than for lethal strikes. Far more drones are ‘armed’ with powerful cameras than with explosive ‘Hellfire’ missiles, the ‘weapon of choice’ for US ‘killer’ drones (Benjamin, loc. 275, 558–568). In general, UAVs come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes and serve many purposes. They can be as small as an insect or as large as a 747 airliner. They are even commercially available in a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) kit at a relatively modest price (Turse & Engelhardt 2012, loc. 169). Drones are used for a multitude of beneficial tasks, most of which have nothing to do with ‘killing by remote control’. Meteorologists use them in weather forecasting, emergency crews use them in search and rescue operations, police in crime control, stockmen and ranchers to count and manage livestock, surf lifesavers to ‘patrol’ beaches. They are also used in scientific research, oil and gas exploration and in many other civilian activities (Benjamin 2012, loc. 200–208).

Drones have been with us longer than most people realise. During the First World War precursors of modern UAVs were launched to serve as target practice for artillery and anti-aircraft training. Since there is nothing as effective as war to spur military research and development, the ‘technology rush’ of the Second World War led to rapid progress in drone design. Hitler’s scientists experimented with unmanned aircraft. In Drone Warfare, Medea Benjamin points out that Joe Kennedy, US Navy pilot and older brother of future president John F. Kennedy, died at the age of 29 during World War II in an early drone operation gone wrong (Benjamin 2012, loc. 187; ‘The secret drone mission that killed Joseph Kennedy Jr.’ 2013).

The US military, realising drones (then known as ‘remote piloted vehicles, or RPVs) could be used for a multitude of purposes, continued research and experimentation when World War II ended and the Cold War began. A turning point occurred in 1960 as a result of a famous incident when the Soviet Union shot down a high-flying American U2 spy plane and captured the pilot, Francis Gary Powers, alive. Eager to avoid repeating the embarrassment of more pilots careless enough to have themselves shot down and captured, the Eisenhower Administration promptly decided to accelerate development of unmanned spy aircraft (Ehrhard 2010, p. 8).

Drones were used during the Vietnam War, primarily for photographic reconnaissance. However, the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, followed by the Iraq War, led to a huge boom in drone and related robotic warfare technology (Benjamin 2012, loc. 214). The US military dubbed its two most popular lethal drones the ‘Predator’ and the ‘Reaper’. Both can be armed with a variety of weapons, including laser-guided ‘Hellfire’ missiles (Turse & Engelhardt 2012, loc. 409; Sanger 2012, loc. 3967–3972).

Today, the manufacture and sale of both civilian and military drones is a major international commercial enterprise. The United States alone spends at least $5 billion annually on the manufacture of drones. Many are built by the San Diego-based contractor ‘General Atomics’, although giant defence firms such as Boeing and Northrop Grumman each have a piece of the action (Benjamin 2012, loc. 507–530).


Because drones are useful for a wide variety of tasks, many are exported. To cite but one prominent example, the United States sells the Predator (‘for reconnaissance purposes only’) and other drones to its NATO allies, as well as Australia, New Zealand, Japan and other eager buyers. And the United States is not the only nation to manufacture and export drones. Dozens of countries, including China, Russia, Israel, Turkey, India and Iran, manufacture, deploy and export drones. Israel alone sells drones to more than 40 countries (Benjamin 2012, loc. 391, 641–674).

For its part, the Australian Government was initially divided over the acquisition of drones. In 2008 Australia turned down a US Navy proposal to sell the Northrop Grumman manufactured MQ-4C Triton drone for use in large-scale maritime surveillance. Then, in December 2009, as part of its contribution to the allied reconnaissance effort in Afghanistan, the Royal Australian Air Force began leasing Israeli-built ‘Heron’ drones from Canada (Corcoran 2012).

The United States is not the only nation to manufacture and export drones.

Interestingly, virtually all of Australia’s participation in the drone business has occurred with little public attention or debate. While some Australians are aware drones are used for a variety of domestic purposes, most know little or nothing about their nation’s role in robotic warfare (Corcoran 2012). Meanwhile, the Australian federal government is currently considering plans to spend up to three billion dollars in a drive to catch up and stock up on current drone technology (McPhedran 2013).


David Sanger argues drones and other products of ‘cyberwarfare’ are changing the way nations will fight future wars (2012, loc. 4321). The United States has already used drones to attack targets in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya. Many of these strikes have raised sensitive questions about American violation of the territorial sovereignty of targeted nations. Under what authority, for example, does the US strike ‘insurgents’ within the borders of allied or neutral countries? Initially, the government of Pakistan, ostensibly an American ally, got around this problem by publicly condemning while secretly approving US ‘anti-insurgent’ drone strikes within its borders. That practice ended in late 2011 when 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed by a misdirected US drone (Benjamin 2012, loc. 1758).

The post-9/11 war on terror, along with the associated US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has provided an enormous boost for drone technology. Drone use grew during the presidency of George W. Bush (2001–09) but greatly accelerated after Barack Obama entered the White House early in 2009 (Benjamin 2012, loc. 780–794). In Confront and Conceal, David Sanger argues Obama’s use of drones and ‘cyberweapons’ (against Iran’s nuclear program, for example), exposed the surprisingly tough side of the president’s professed policy of conciliation and restraint. While his political opponents harped about Obama’s ‘softness’, the president repeatedly displayed his willingness to forcefully confront the nation’s enemies. Rejecting George W. Bush’s heavy-handed ‘boots on the ground’ approach to foreign policy crises, Obama opted for a ‘get-in-and-get-out’ strategy aimed at eliminating terrorist leaders. This resulted, among other things, in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and the selective but increasing use of lethal drones in the war on terror (Sanger 2012, loc. 114, 128, 143.)

For some national security experts, drones served as an ideal weapon in the war on terror. In addition to range, accuracy and selective targeting, lethal drones were also defended because their ‘pilot’, or operator, was rarely at risk. The pilot usually worked at a safe distance, often thousands of miles away from the targeted area. Since a top military priority has always been to minimise the threat to one’s own soldiers while maximising the impact on the enemy, drones had the distinct advantage of assuring the personal security of the pilot (Hussein 2012).


Theoretically, drones seemed a perfect instrument in the war on terror. In order to be effective, most drone strikes are necessarily carried out in secret. Initially, there was very little public criticism of the legal and moral problems inevitably associated with the use of lethal drones. The shock of the 9/11 attacks sharply polarised American public opinion on questions of legal rights for accused terrorists. Since most terrorists were not American citizens protected by rights specified in the US Constitution, extensive debate ensued over the legal entitlements of foreigners who plotted attacks on American citizens or facilities (Goux, Egan & Citrin 2008).

Further, America’s growing use of drones in the war on terror prompted increased public attention to by-stander or innocent casualties of drone attacks. It soon became clear that drones were not as ‘discriminating’ and ‘clinical’ as the government claimed. In June 2011, John Brennan, President Obama’s top counter-intelligence adviser, declared in a statement he soon had to correct, that in the previous year not a single innocent death had occurred as a result of a US drone attack. The British-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism took a very different view. Surveying the period between 2004 and 2011, the Bureau estimated between 2,372 and 2,997 people had been killed by drones. Of that number between 391 and 780 were civilians, 175 of them children (Benjamin 2012, loc. 1330–1345).

Initially, the US government dealt with the ‘collateral damage’ problem by counting as an ‘insurgent’ everyone who died in a drone strike. When pressed on the matter, the Obama administration used the traditional argument that drone strikes were so precise and so carefully planned that few, if any, civilian casualties occurred (Sanger 2012, loc. 4025–4041). The matter became even more controversial in September 2011 when a US drone killed Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, both of whom held US citizenship but worked as propagandists for a Yemini-based terrorist organisation. A few weeks later, Awlaki’s 16–year-old son was also killed by a drone (Benjamin 2012, loc. 836–851; Sanger 2012, loc. 4171).

Theoretically, drones seemed a perfect instrument in the war on terror.

Since all American citizens, no matter how heinous their crimes, are entitled to due process and the protection of their constitutional rights, the debate over summary execution ‘by drone’ without benefit of a trial or even a public hearing has become more volatile. The White House continued to defend the legality of drone strikes on grounds of national self-defence in the war on terror. The problem was, given the enemy was often described as ‘stateless’, no actual declaration of war had occurred. Critics charged that after 9/11, the US government had granted itself ‘a de facto license to kill’ and the Obama administration had adopted a drone-oriented ‘kill-don’t-capture’ policy, in part to avoid the controversies associated with lengthy Guantanamo Bay-style imprisonments. (Benjamin 2012, loc. 1604, 1712, 2617).

For its part, the Obama White House argued the ‘Authorization for Use of Military Force’ (AUMF), passed by Congress in 2001 and reaffirmed in the 2012 ‘National Defense Authorization Act’ provided the president with all the legal power necessary to prosecute the war on terror, including the use of drones when necessary (Benjamin 2012, loc. 1591–1611). And Obama appeared to have public opinion solidly on his side. Even after years of mounting controversy, a March 2013 Gallup Poll revealed 65 per cent of Americans supported the use of drones to attack terrorist networks abroad (Brown & Newport 2013). Nevertheless, the long legal and moral debate over the use of drones continued to bother Obama.

Meanwhile, in an attempt to answer criticism of drone strikes as a form of extra-judicial killing in which innocent lives were being lost, proponents of drone warfare worked hard to defend their position. Harold Koh, the State Department’s top lawyer and former Dean of Yale Law School argued the United States had the right to use lethal force, including drones, to counter the threat of imminent attack. Drones, he said, were the ideal way to deal with ‘the strategic challenge posed by non-state actors hiding in remote outposts …’ (Benjamin 2012, loc. 1396–1403).

Koh pointed out all wars involve the death of innocent people. But drones, due to their selective use and precise targeting, kill far fewer innocents than bombs or artillery (Benjamin 2012, loc. 1846–1852). Koh described drones as tools of ‘smart power’ (Sanger 2012, loc. 4087–4125). While rarely stated publicly, drones were also popular with policy-makers and the military because they attracted less public attention and therefore less criticism and popular resistance than older, Vietnam-style bombing raids.

From a public opinion point-of-view, the use of drones served to keep war a low profile event. The American public paid little attention to individual drone strikes, partly because drones were launched secretly and rarely involved any US casualties. Some observers even noticed a ‘play station effect’ involved in drone warfare. Drone operators worked with a joystick, surrounded by computer screens and in a safe environment. There were even YouTube clips of actual drone hits. It made war seem like a game, a bit gruesome at times, but still just a game in which the ‘bad guys’ got what they deserved (Benjamin 2012, loc. 1878–1987).

The ‘play station’ effect began to erode when it became apparent that some drone pilots were seriously and clinically affected by their role in remote control killing. While they may be physically safe thousands of miles from the actual strike, they were not invulnerable. In May 2013, for example, America’s National Public Radio featured a story on ‘the hidden cost of the drone program’. Former drone operator Brandon Bryant, aged 27, discussed the psychological and emotional toll he experienced as a drone operator. He had launched lethal drones in 2006 while ‘sitting in a kind of trailer’ in Las Vegas. Because cameras associated with drone attacks usually relay pictures showing the devastating results of a strike, including dismembered bodies, Bryant came to the point where he simply could not do it any longer. At the time of his NPR interview, he was receiving treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (National Public Radio 2013).

America’s ability to strike its enemies halfway around the world was clearly a technological advantage.

The personal experiences of individual like Brandon Bryant did nothing to stem America’s growing reliance on drones. By 2012, the US Air Force had more drone pilots in training than regular ‘top gun’ jet fighter pilots (Turse & Engelhardt 2012, loc. 1170). Even as debate continued on the legality, morality and strategic utility of lethal drones, so too did UAV innovation and technological progress. In 2013 serious discussion focused on eventual development of fully autonomous drones and robotic warfare. Technicians currently discuss the feasibility of systems capable of conducting a totally robotic war—totally robotic, that is, for the perpetrators but not the victims. Theoretically, a combination of surveillance and weaponised drones, combined with a variety of computer models and other ‘autonomous’ systems could detect, track, analyse and decide whether to ignore or destroy a potential threat—all based on calculations made by machines not directly under the control of any human decision-maker. As Peter Singer has put it, the world (or at least part of it) would be completely ‘wired for war’ (Singer 2009; Benjamin 2012, loc. 2017–2025).


On 23 May 2013, after months of mounting public pressure for an explanation of America’s ‘cyberwarfare’ strategy, President Obama responded with a major speech on national security delivered at the National Defense University in Washington D.C. The President had three major objectives in this important address. The first was to explain the legal and moral justification for the long war on terror; the second to explain why his pre-election promise to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay had not been fulfilled, and the third was to articulate policy governing the lethal use of drones (Obama 2013).

Obama reminded his global audience that shortly after the terrorist attack on the United States on 11 September 2001, the US Congress authorised the use of force to combat an enemy that had vowed to kill as many Americans as it could. The President then declared, ‘Under domestic law and international law, the United States is at war with al-Qaida, the Taliban, and their associated forces, … so this is a just war, a war waged proportionally, in last resort and in self-defense’. America’s ability to strike its enemies halfway around the world (with drones) was clearly a technological advantage, but it was not one taken lightly or used indiscriminately. The use of drones, he said, was always measured and ‘heavily constrained’:

Beyond the Afghan theater, we only target al-Qaida and its associated forces, … America cannot take strikes whenever we choose. Our actions are bound by consultation with partners and respect for state sovereignty. … We act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people. … And before any strike is taken, there must be near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured, the highest standard we can set (Obama 2013).

Obama then admitted American drone attacks were not as precise and ‘clinical’ as the US Government had always claimed. There were innocent casualties—not as many, he thought, as some unofficial sources claimed, but still a significant number:

For me and those in my chain of command, those deaths will haunt us as long as we live. … But as commander in chief, I must weigh these heartbreaking tragedies against the alternatives. To do nothing in the face of terrorist networks would invite far more civilian casualties, not just in our cities at home and our facilities abroad, but also in the very places, like Sanaa and Kabul and Mogadishu, where terrorists seek a foothold.

Remember that the terrorists we are after target civilians, and the death toll from their acts of terrorism against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes.

So doing nothing’s not an option (Obama 2013).

President Obama then considered other options (such as the use of troops, special operations units, etc.) for dealing with terrorist threats and found them all more likely than drones to lead to both military and civilian casualties.

Obama recognised the precision of drone strikes, combined with the necessary secrecy involved could tempt an administration to use drone strikes ‘as a cure-all for terrorism’. To guard against an imperial presidency where the executive made all the key decisions, Obama declared forcefully that he had briefed the appropriate committee of Congress on every drone strike America had taken, including the one that killed US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki. This action was both necessary and legal, the President said, because when a terrorist holding US citizenship goes abroad to avoid the reach of American law and actively plots the killing of Americans, ‘his citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a SWAT team’ (Obama 2013).

The use of drones has played havoc with international law and the rules of war.

Obama declared his willingness to explore ways in which more transparent oversight of the decision making process concerning the use of lethal drones could be achieved. This, he said, must be coupled with a more creative and thorough discussion on a comprehensive counterterrrorist strategy that ranges far beyond the use of force. Ultimately, drones, special operations and troop deployments will not solve the highly complex problems posed by the growth of extremist and violent ideologies. The United States must continue patiently supporting transitions to democracy in the Middle East and worldwide.

In his 23 May speech President Obama also explained his concern over possible expansion of US governmental power in the war on terror. He stressed the importance of Congressional liaison and oversight in the development of national security policy, especially with regard to implementation of the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF). The Afghanistan War, he said, ‘is coming to an end’ and al-Qaida ‘is a shell of its former self’. Taking care to avoid civilian casualties, the United States would continue to use highly selective drone strikes, but the war on terror, like all wars, would end and so too would the AUMF mandate and the necessity to use lethal drones.

On 29 May, six days after Obama’s national security speech, a US drone strike in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan killed seven people including Wali-ur-Rehman, the second-in-command of the Pakistani Taliban (Ahmad 2013). Western press reports described the strike as reassurance of American support for the government of Pakistan and a timely boost for the US drone program (Hodge 2013, p. 7).


In the first decade of the 21st century, drones became what Tom Engelhardt has called ‘the shiniest present under the American Christmas tree of war’. UAVs appeared to be ‘the perfect weapon to solve our problems when it comes to evildoers lurking in the global badlands’ (Turse & Engelhardt 2012, loc. 1782–1793). Time and experience, however, soon proved otherwise. The use of drones has played havoc with international law and the rules of war. They make war easier to conduct, easier to conceal, and easier to run out of control. What happens, for example, when other nations follow the American example and begin to use drones to ‘take out’ their enemies? What happens when terrorists and deranged individuals use DIY drones to attack or threaten anyone they wish, including the United States? Nick Turse, among others, fears we are moving toward an uncontrollable ‘drone-eat-drone world’ in which ‘victory’ means nothing and all of humanity is the loser (Turse & Engelhardt 2012, loc. 1968).


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Before retiring in 2010, Dennis Phillips taught US politics and foreign policy at Macquarie University and at the United States Studies Centre at The University of Sydney. Born in Colorado, he has lived in Sydney since 1972. His PhD in American diplomatic history is from the University of Wisconsin (Madison).