This comprehensive review of military drones covers a wide range of the issues related to this technology. Strategic importance, law, technology, and policy are covered to a degree that this should be one’s first choice if you need to come up to speed on drone issues. Now that the United States has relaxed export regulations for U.S. drones for India, with other countries sure to follow, drones are going to become ever more central to war, policy, and diplomacy. This book, then, is a good place to start to analyze the wider proliferation of an important technology.
The book begins with Peter Bergen and Daniel Rothenberg making the point that drones have come to symbolize the new character of modern conflict – both in diplomacy and war. The drone gives a new way to project lethal force, they argue. More, they provide continuous surveillance and a “we are watching” factor. For diplomacy, arms control, and just plain curiosity about what’s taking place inside a country this is a powerful implication of the technology. Syria, for example, cannot be confident that moving chemicals won’t be detected. Indeed, drones have figured importantly in Israel’s recent effort using air strikes to counter Iran’s supply of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon with advanced weapons. This puts a big demand on projecting surveillance into a theater, and here drones are quite essential. This example gives a feel for the strength of the book. Most chapters include a wider discussion of things you haven’t thought about before involving drones.
A point I didn’t see in the various chapters, but one that I think most of the individual authors and the editors would agree with is that there has been a very steep learning curve in the use of drones. For example, as other kinds of war like cyber and even nuclear have developed over the last fifteen years the importance of a good intelligence regime for surveillance and targeting has also increased.
Drone Wars has especially interesting chapters on the future of war. The authors tackle the subject with a broad strategic vision, rather than a narrow description of how hardware will change. Werner Dahm, for example, writes on what to expect over the next ten years. He describes a targeting process today that is still largely manual and bureaucratic. With the increasing push toward autonomous systems this is likely to intensify the problems of governance, targeting, and law. Also quite interesting is Dahm’s point that because the improved technology is so much more effective that what exists today the acquisition system has been streamlined to bring the new technology in faster. This phenomena is occurring in many technology areas, from cyber to hypersonic missiles. It’s one reason why most of us feel that the arms race is speeding up.
Saba Imtiaz takes on a particularly sensitive topic related to drones: how civilians in countries that are attacked with them feel about it, in this instance Pakistan. The sheer number of countries subject to U.S. intervention, or intense surveillance is staggering. So the issue of tailoring operations for local conditions, and the risks of a centralized one size fits all template are important subjects. Imtiaz, a free-lance journalist in Pakistan, goes through the history of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, from a 2004 assassination of a militant to more integrated operations between the two countries. This growth in cooperation - or collusion as Imtiaz calls it – was seen inside Pakistan as an indication of President Pervez Musharraf’s secret support of U.S. policies. Americans agonize over the legality of drone attacks which look a great deal like acts of war, and should therefore be voted on by the Congress. But in Pakistan the agony is over violated sovereignty. A resentment built up, and was fueled by WikiLeaks releases in 2010 that showed the close cooperation between the two governments.
As the United States exports more drone technology to India, and likely to many other countries as well it isn’t hard to project where Imtiaz’s descriptions could develop. The intensity of a debate about sovereignty is only going to increase. So too are Indian drones flights over Pakistan. American political scientists are now rediscovering nationalism as a driver of policy and politics. This is especially apparent in South Asia. It can only sharpen the demand for sovereignty on many political fronts, and it opens up the issue of the sale to Pakistan of advanced technology drones manufactured by other countries. There are no shortage of potential suppliers.
David True takes on the subject of drone attacks and just war theory. He opens his chapter on this topic with a keen observation that fits the overall theme of the book. This is the maturing view away from a global war on terror to a more specialized approach that analyzes the many constraints on an expansive effort to create a U.S. led international order. Professor True notes that for all of the attention given to just war theory on American campuses these days, the number of such strikes goes up. Concern about just war theory among specialists has not caught on to wider segments of public or elite opinion, and has had almost no impact on U.S. policy. A number of studies show that most Americans care a great deal about U.S. casualties, and little about collateral civilian casualties as long as there is an attempt to avoid these and that they are kept to a reasonable level. Drone strikes have become like cruise missile attacks, they are now a routinized element of foreign policy.
True draws on Reinhold Niebuhr’s insightful argument that there is a self-interested element at work in just war theories. Logics for self- imposed restraint on U.S. power would mean thinking in a way that interferes with that self-interest. And that’s not going to happen, especially in a world where the new military technologies are proliferating.
The book is a multidimensional analysis about drones. But much of it would apply to other new technology areas, like cyber, AI, and hypersonic missiles. For this reason it’s worth reading because it exposes the short term politics of self-interest that can drive policy. While the book has no chapters on grand strategy there are some lessons that logically follow from many of its chapters. One is that other countries are going to go through a similar evolution as they acquire drones, and other advanced technologies. This by itself seems likely to restrain U.S. use of the new technologies. So far, the technology balance is one-sided in favor of the United States. In the future, others can overfly U.S. ships, bases, and cities with drones.
A second geostrategic consequence is that U.S. restraint might be matched by other great powers. The result may be a tenuous new stability arising from multipolarity and technology combing to make any great power war too risky and devastating. Things might be different between smaller states. The arguments is that an international stability based on major power technological capacity, and probably arms races, is better than no stability at all. This is all a way of saying that the arguments in Drone Wars applied to a global scale show that a new international order is forming, right before our eyes.