The article explores the consequences of drone proliferation on international security.
Understanding the impact of drones requires separating fact from fiction by examining their effects in six different contexts—counterterrorism, interstate conflict, crisis onset and deterrence, coercive diplomacy, domestic control and repression, and use by nonstate actors for the purposes of terrorism.
Drones may also be a useful military tool for nonstate actors. But why would militant groups need them? They already have a variety of potential means to attack targets, including nail bombs and explosives that may be less expensive and more deadly.
Small drones could generate military benefits for militant groups as a precision weapon where the drone, likely with explosives attached, is the weapon itself.
Some groups initially turned to suicide bombing partially because this tactic provided accuracy against either important civilian or hard military targets. Drones offer a similar level of precision, potentially allowing groups facing personnel shortages to use drones instead of suicide bombs in some situations. Groups might even be able to accomplish useful (for them) levels of destruction without advanced drones. A hobbyist drone mounted with a small amount of explosive could potentially have the ability to generate damage and terrorize the population, while having the advantage of being too small to detect for air or even ground defenses that keep more traditional threats in their sights. Take, for example, the drone that landed on the White House lawn in 2015. Although the drone was unarmed, its ability to transgress fortified boundaries illustrates how drones could be used for more sinister purposes.
Smaller drones could also be attractive for lone-wolf actors inspired by militant groups around the world. For example, individuals similar to those who carried out attacks in Sydney, Australia, in December 2014 and at the Boston Marathon in April 2013 might consider using hobbyist drones armed with explosives or simple firearms to create psychological terror. In 2014, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested a suspect who allegedly planned to fly a drone armed with a bomb into a school.
Of course, the logistical constraints that make it difficult for some nation-states to operate state-of-the-art drones will undoubtedly apply to nonstate actors as well. Nevertheless, Hezbollah’s and Hamas’s use of drones for surveillance purposes demonstrates the way that violent nonstate actors may be able to use even simple surveillance drones to do the kind of reconnaissance necessary to plan attacks. Moreover, if operating armed drones, even at reasonably short ranges, continues to become easier for militaries without vast logistical support as the technology improves, they could become more useful for militant groups as well.
Even small drones could prove useful for militant groups that deploy drones attached with inexpensive and rudimentary explosives as weapons. Countries such as the United States tend to have sophisticated air defenses that are focused on larger aerial objects, or advanced ground defenses geared toward stopping a truck full of explosives, but nonstate groups seeking to wreak havoc could do so with drones that become the equivalent of suicide bombs.
The Authors Michael C. Horowitz is Associate Professor of Political Science and Associate Director of Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania. Sarah E. Kreps is Associate Professor of Government at Cornell University. Matthew Fuhrmann is Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University and Visiting Associate Professor at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.
This is a scholarly piece from the MIT Press Journal on International Security.
Most of the drones under discussion are larger with the apex predator being the MQ-9 Reaper, which as the article points out is so challenging to deploy that very few countries can manage or afford it. Of course, that leaves many other drones and indeed there is a mini arms race underway being fed by China. The article is extensively footnoted.
Though it gets relatively little coverage, I have excerpted some of the remarks about the proliferation of prosumer drone use by nonstate actors which is what we are seeing in the Middle East.
That the US military is taking this extremely seriously is again confirmed this time in an article in WarIsBoring.com which reported that
The Islamic State has weaponized small commercial drones. And in response, the U.S. military has deployed to the Middle East an undisclosed airborne electronic-warfare system.
Anti-drone planes reportedly scored their first kill in October 2016. The service was coy about the exact nature of the counter-drone system. Air Force spokeswoman Erika Yepsen told Air Force that two USAF intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets worked together to force down the ISIS drone near Mosul in less than 15 minutes.
Following the links:
Air Force magazine reported that Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James called for the rapid development of counter-SUAS capabilities in light of the emerging threat.The small, cheap drones are proliferating in the Middle East and with explosives on them “they can do damage,” she said.
Speaking at an Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International event in Arlington, Va., on Wednesday, Brig. Gen. Brian Killough, Director of Strategy, Concepts and Assessments, Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Plans and Requirements, Headquarters U.S. Air Force, said the Air Force needs to take a close, hard look at counter-SUAS capabilities even if commercially available drones don’t pose a major military threat yet.
Killough compared the use of SUASs to Germany’s use of V-1 and V-2 rockets, “which were highly ineffective militarily, but they were incredibly effective psychologically,” during World War II. “So similar to being under mortar attack if you’re on a [forward operating base] or something along those lines, if you’re under attack from a UAS, even if it is militarily insignificant, leads to mission degradation, and so we’re going to have to get after some of those capabilities.”
It seems appropriate to give the scholars the last word.
It is clear that current-generation drones are not uniformly transformative. When it comes to future developments, however, it may be a different story.