March 9, 2021

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How drones have added a new dynamic to conflicts

5 min read

Unmanned aircraft vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, have become an integral part of international conflicts in recent years. However, the increase in use and a correlating enhancement of accessibility has added a new dynamic and volatility to modern warfare.

Military drones for killing purposes have been in use for 20 years. However, Turkey’s victory in Nagorno-Karabakh impressively displayed how fighting has changed and how pivotal drones have become in combat.

Countries worldwide are increasingly relying on drone technology, especially since UAVs are no longer just reconnaissance and killing machines but are utilised to coordinate artillery, tanks, and infantry.

The drone spectrum now ranges from regular combat drones to kamikaze models. Some drones even possess the ability to disrupt the enemy’s air defences and communication systems. Given their high level of effectiveness, the relatively affordable price ticket, and the high degree of deniability drones offer, their rise to indispensability does not come as a surprise.

The US first utilised drones on a broad scale for target killings against members of al-Qaeda and other suspected “terrorists” under former President George W Bush, a programme that was so successful that the next American leader expanded it.

By now, several nations possess a vast array of drones, including significant players such as China, Israel, and Turkey, all of whom are manufacturing and selling the technology around the globe at the same time.

The drone market has grown accordingly. In 2019, it was worth $10.53bn. By 2027, the market is forecast to reach $23.78bn, a figure hardly surprising given that about 30,000 military drones are already in use.

However, the increased use and reliance on drones also raises questions. For one, there is the potential of states neglecting other, more conventional aspects of their military arsenal in favour of drone-focused warfare.

Mauro Gilli, senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies, Polytechnic of Zurich (ETH), believes the latter will always largely depend on the parties involved.

“For countries with established armed forces, the risk may be to think of drones as a silver bullet, and thus forgetting the other important elements of military power.”

However, this risk does not seem to exist, at least with NATO countries, he argues.

Nonetheless, Gilli acknowledges, drones have significantly expanded combat options.

“While 15 years ago, the main threat for countries and populations was that of improvised explosive devices [IED] that could be remotely activated with only a mobile phone, today these IEDs can be flown towards the target of choice to enhance their impact and effectiveness, or aim at more politically salient targets.”

Particularly non-state actors have recognised these new possibilities. Drones have somewhat levelled the playing field, essentially making non-state actors a factor in conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.

The armed group ISIL (ISIS) began using commercially available mini-drones on a large scale, initially to investigate possible targets for a moving car bomb. However, with the technology becoming more sophisticated and more accessible, ISIL successfully utilised drones armed with explosives rather swiftly and with devastating results.

Most recently, the Houthis in Yemen have benefitted from drone warfare and potentially delivered a blueprint for other non-state actors moving forward.

Although militarily inferior to Saudi Arabia, drones have allowed the Houthis to attack anywhere and at any time, including the country’s vital infrastructure in the Gulf and its oil refineries. This has created a deterrence, making it extremely risky for Saudi Arabia to bomb Yemen’s sensitive targets.

“These developments have shown that without serious countermeasures, counter-systems, and training, even these relatively unsophisticated capabilities can exert significant effects and damage,” Gilli told Al Jazeera.

Drone attacks have made it apparent they have become the means of the first choice in modern warfare and are used by state and non-state actors.

An aircrew from the 163d Attack Wing, California Air National Guard, fly an MQ-9 Reaper drone [Crystal Housman/National Guard via Reuters]

However, the status quo is not necessarily one that will be maintained in its current form.

Gilli sees limits to drone capabilities with an international community that has reacted to the challenge. “Several countries are investing massively in counter-drone capabilities, to cancel or at least significantly degrade such risks”.

As counter-drone systems proliferate, the threat from non-state actors and less capable countries will hence shrink significantly, at least for nations with the ability to develop the required technology, he argues.

The risks, the use of drone entails has been the subject of a controversial debate, particularly regarding “collateral damage” – the loss of innocent civilian life. Critics of drone warfare often point out governments’ proclivity to publish videos of what appear to be surgically accurate hits from their drones, but with the result of an increase in civilian casualties.

According to international human rights organisations, the American drone operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen have seemingly proven these arguments.

However, while the loss of innocent life was vast during the early employment of drones and remains morally unacceptable, Gilli urges caution concerning figures and statistics.

“The proper and accurate counting of civilian casualties and fatalities is part of the political confrontation, often resulting there in a war of narratives that aims at mobilising public opinion for its own cause, with the inevitable result that numbers are often disputed,” he said.

Moreover, while the number of civilian casualties of drone attacks may still be high, it remained “pale in comparison to those resulting from traditional technologies such as artillery, car bombs, as well as small arms and light weapons – as observed in the war in Iraq or the Syrian civil war”, said Gilli.

“Overall, when in fact we look at available statistics, it seems that over the past 20 years, the primary source of civilian casualties in conflicts was not drone strikes but small arms and light weapons.”

The latter notwithstanding, drones have certainly simplified actors’ engagement in conflicts. With the element of boots on the ground removed, war has become easier to excuse and to facilitate. It is a development that must not be underestimated but addressed coherently, especially given that the forecast increase in drone circulation appears inevitable in light of recent “successes”.

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