Drone warfare: an evolution in military affairs
Over the past three decades, remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs) – also known as drones – have acquired increasing importance in modern warfare. Originally designed to perform surveillance missions during the Cold War, drones gained prominence during the post-Cold War era through their ability to gather real-time intelligence over conflict-prone areas, particularly in support of humanitarian interventions. Following the onset of the global war on terror, drones acquired a further, arguably more significant function: armed with precision-guided munitions, they enabled Western armed forces to identify, track, and accurately strike targets from afar, reducing the need for troops on the ground.1 Simultaneously, drones’ allegedly low costs, limited technological sophistication, and ease of employment also enabled their rapid proliferation to dozens of countries around the world.2 According to some, the major implications are yet to come: drones’ unique capabilities promise in fact to revolutionize warfare. Consequently, militaries could eschew complex and expensive force structures to wage war: they would just need drones. As countries face stronger incentives and fewer constraints for using force, the growing availability of drones coupled with their capabilities deserve attention because this trend risks ushering in a new era of global instability and conflict.3
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* (back) Senior researcher, NATO Defense College.
1 (back) R. Whittle, Predator: the secret origins of the drone revolution, Picador, New York, 2014.
2 (back) M. Fuhrmann and M. C. Horowitz, “Droning on: explaining the proliferation of unmanned aerial vehicles”, International Organization, Vol.71, No.2, 2017, pp.397-418.
3 (back) C. Coker, Warrior geeks: how 21st century technology is changing the way we fight and think about war, Hurst, London, 2013.