DRONES: THE FUTURE OF WARFARE? A 101 Beginners Guide to Drones.

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What Are Drones?

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones, are remote-controlled, pilotless aircraft used primarily in military conflict zones for:

  • reconnaissance missions,
  • targeted killings,
  • strategic bombings, and
  • aerial surveillance[1].

A Brief History of Drones

The idea of using unmanned weapons delivery systems dates as far back at the US Civil War during which both sides launched balloons carrying explosives in the hopes they might fall on the enemy's munition supplies. The results were largely unsuccessful as the balloons were unable to be controlled when the wind shifted direction [2].


As in many areas of life, need dictates technological advancements. This has been the case with UAVs; each major conflict the US became engaged in spurred improvements in the field. There are basically four major stages that have given way to today's UAVs: " automatic stabilization, remote control, autonomous navigation weaponization, and satellite connectivity" [3].



In 1918 Elmer Sperry developed a "gyrostabilizer" for the US Navy, which enabled the aircraft, controlled by radio signals, to fly a straight course without a pilot. The craft was only used to sink a German battleship just before World War I ended [4].

Shortly thereafter, Sperry was once again briefly commissioned and this time designed the "Messenger Aerial Torpedo" to deliver messages between headquarters. "[H]e added a remote-control feature and used a chase plane to broadcast course corrections" to compensate for changes in wind direction [5].

As would be the case until the start of the Cold War, however, interest for the program waned with the end of each conflict. It wasn't until World War II that technological developments in television and radar briefly allowed for their practical use in the Pacific in 1944. The US Special Task Air Group used the drones themselves as weapons, flying them into Japanese anti-aircraft batteries to a 46% hit rate. They held the advantage of surprise and confusion as the Japanese believed the craft to be flown by US "kamikaze" pilots. With the end of the war, the US again lost interest [6].

By the start of the Vietnam War, technological advancements in electronics allowed for yet more control, enabling the military to collect visual data, to interfere with enemy communications, and to locate surface-to-air missile batteries (missiles launched from the ground to hit planes or in-transit missiles)[7].

 Until the end of the Cold War, drones were mostly used for reconnaissance in Vietnam and China. It was also during this time period that the CIA began its own drone program that would remain a secret for the next forty years [8]. Despite having a high crash rate and being relatively expensive, the drones completed approximately 3,450 recon missions during a 10-year period.

The modern era of UAVs is rooted in Israeli innovation, who used unmanned decoys in 1982 to occupy Syrian air forces in Lebanon. The US Navy re-engineered their design and use them in the first Gulf War; the MQ-1 Predator, also of Israeli origin, was heavily used in the former Yugoslavia at the end of the decade.  In 1998, the CIA had identified Osama bin Laden, but the al-Qaeda leader was allowed to escape because the Predator was at the time not fitted with firing capability[10]. It was then "fitted with a 'Multi-Spectral Targeting System' (MTS) that included an improved sensor suite and laser target designator...and two 'Hellfire' missiles," bringing the craft from a recon role a full multi-role assault weapon. It had previously relied on a limiting GPS guiding system, but switched to satellite; and, at only $4 million a piece, were considered a bargain[11].

Current Technological Capabilities

Able to be controlled in real time from thousands of miles away, today's drones possess:

Advanced Imaging Technology:

  • enables operators to see through clouds and in the dark;
  • allows for ground control to detect individuals through solid objects, such   as walls, with thermal imaging; and
  • facilitates confirmation of targets by providing detailed images of individuals faces.

Greater Precision:

  • allows crafts fitted with small bombs to hit their targets with greater accuracy; and
  • ensures less widespread damage.

Increased Speed, Decreased Size:

  • surveying targets above cloud cover, they can deliver surprise attacks;
  • enabling less detection and fewer opportunities to be shot down; and
  • hovering for up to 40 hours at a time, fuel efficiency allows for drones to keep a visual on a target for a much longer period of time.


Drone Use in Today's Conflicts

The drones of today are revolutionizing warfare. The US currently operates two drone programs: First, is the military program. This is deemed to be operating within the realms of conventional warfare within the recognized war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan where US troops are stationed. The targets are predominately militants and insurgents engaged in conflict with US forces in the region.


Then there is the CIA program which operates along the Durand line in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Northwest Pakistan under Taliban control, and in Somalia and Yemen where US troops are not necessarily stationed. Targets are al-Qaeda and its affiliates and Taliban commanders.




When the Bush administration began the program in 2002, there were few drone attacks; when Obama took office, we saw a significant spike in the frequency of attacks. The reason for this is that the definition of who is considered a target was expanded. This was laid out in a Senate on Foreign Relations Committee report outlining the challenges in combating the Taliban.


The report suggested hitting the Taliban's funds by expanding the military's Joint Integrated Prioritized Target List (JIPTL) to include drug lords with financial ties to the Taliban and al-Qaeda:

           "The military places no restrictions on the use of force with these selected targets, which means they can be killed or captured on the battlefield; it does not, however, authorize targeted assassinations away from the battlefield. The generals said standards for getting on the list required two verifiable human sources in addition to substantial additional evidence."

The kill list was further expanded to include al-Qaeda allies and the Pakistani group, Tehrik-i-Talibani. The program is classified as covert, with no public access to information as to how targets are selected, who orders the strikes, exactly how many strikes have been executed, how many casualties have resulted, and what the post-attack review process is. There is reason to believe that decisions for both programs may be made by the CIA. For this reason, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) took the CIA to court this past September 20th for its refusal to respond to the organization's access to information requests.

* Estimated deaths depicted are calculated using the average of high and low statistics.


  • the targeting and killing of US citizens known or suspected of being affiliated with a terrorist group without access to their constitutional right of due process;
  • collateral damage, mainly in Pakistan. Since 2004, approximately 3,100 people have been killed in strikes, of which 700 were civilians, 176 of whom were children;
  • the legality of the attacks under international humanitarian and human rights laws;
  • the violation of Pakistan's territorial sovereignty; and
  • abuse of executive powers and the blurring of the separation of powers.

John O. Brennan, Chief Counterterrorism Advisor to Barack Obama speaks about the drone program:


Drones and the Future of Warfare


During the third presidential debate this past Monday, October 22, Republican presidential hopeful, Mitt Romney, endorsed Obama's drone program, and stated he would definitely continue to use them in Pakistan if elected. It is soon expected for tiny, armed drones that can enter houses to be deployed in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa for use in the War on Terror.

The US has signed legislation for domestic drone use, where it is estimated that by 2015 upwards of 30,000 unarmed drones will  dominate US airspace.They will primarily assist law officials, but there are a growing number of privacy concerns. Further, groups are concerned about potential fatalities caused by malfunctioning and crashing units. Finally, there is a rising awareness of the potential for terrorists to intercept the drones and use them for attacks. Recently, students at a Texas university showed how easily drones can be intercepted and manipulated by civilians when they did just that during a military practice run--for under $1000.

The Canadian government announced in May its plans to purchase at least three "Global Hawk" unarmed surveillance drones from the UAV manufacturer, Northrop Grumman, for a price of $150-170 million per unit. The Royal Canadian Air Force intends on using the craft to patrol Canada's quickly thawing arctic region.

Globally, it is estimated between 44-70 countries have drone programs in various stages of development. International law has not caught up with the new technology nor has the international aviation associations regulation of them in international air space. There have been several incidences to date in which US drones have nearly collided with civilan passenger aircraft.

Moreover, there is concern that this gap in international law will allow countries to justify extensive targeted killings in the name of the war on terror; not only will citizens' liberty of life be violated, but that having drones overhead, threatening to strike at any time will also have a traumatic emotional impact on communities.

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