Defining the Strategic Utility of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

by Jack Miller

A hot topic of discussion in the upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR)—the legislatively mandated review of Department of Defense (DoD) strategies and priorities set to begin this fall—will be the future role of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Representing an increasingly viable alternative for maintaining American military capabilities at cost-effective levels, UAVs have the potential to reshape how the world conceptualizes war. As such, the discussion on the future deployment of unmanned aircraft will not simply occur from a military-technological perspective, but in a social context as well. Because international norms have yet to solidify around UAVs, it is vital that the U.S. seize upon the QDR—which is chaired by the Secretary of Defense, and includes Pentagon leaders, representatives from each of the military branches, and civilian subject experts—to define the social construct of drones and set international precedent on their use before these norms are set for us. There are several key areas U.S. officials and military leaders in the QDR need to consider in order to do so.

First, the QDR must define what scenarios—ranging from attacks against non-state actors to border security or surveillance of civilian populations—are acceptable for the deployment of UAVs. The aggregate result of the increased use of UAVs, global communications, and the diffusion of military threats is that the nature of military engagement is changing. This necessitates a new understanding of the use of force as it relates to UAVs. As such, QDR representatives have an opportunity to create a new social construct surrounding drone deployments, one that is more conducive to national policy than the negative connotation that has surrounded drones for the past several years. By defining the means and ends of drone use within the U.S. force structure, the QDR will be able to build an international consensus on the future of drone use.

Second, the QDR must make clear who is an acceptable target for drone strikes. The rise of low intensity insurgencies and international criminal organizations has blurred the lines between combatants, criminals, and noncombatants. Members of the QDR must take the first step in restricting UAV targeting to enemy combatants in order to avoid a situation where nations are left to their own discretion in selecting targets. Without international norms in place, it would be possible for political dissidents or visiting foreign officials to be targeted by host nations. Defining acceptable drone targets would protect international norms and prevent nations from using armed drones for non-military purposes.

Finally, officials should formulate a plan for the oversight of drone systems in order to assuage both public and international fears of the abuse of such systems. In order to understand the military significance and potential of drones, there is a need to separate the platform from the public backlash and credibility gap the Obama Administration has faced due to the opaqueness of drone deployments in countries like Pakistan and Yemen. This would reconcile the growing rift between members of the “anti-drone” community whose sometimes baseless and uninformed criticism impedes the successful implementation of national policy and thus the achievement of strategic objectives. Thus the QDR presents an opportunity for the formulation of a new drone policy and social construction that will support the platform rather than hinder its utility.

UAV procurement is poised to grow dramatically as foreign nations seek to take advantage of the platform. Failing to capitalize on the QDR as outlined above would allow global competitors such as China and possibly Russia to develop their own drone policies. This could conflict with American interests and result in nations exercising less restraint in utilizing this weapon. For example, due to the relatively low cost of drones and the absence of risk to a human operator, nations may become quick to deploy UAVs to conflict zones or flashpoint areas. This could lead to a proliferation in the indiscriminant application of force while wreaking havoc on international humanitarian laws.

For a decade, the dimensions of the drone war have been driven by short-term objectives: the degradation of al-Qaeda and the prevention of a follow-on, large-scale attack on American soil. Given the rapid advancement of UAV technology and its global accessibility, it is time to define the future application of the platform. We are on terra incognita in terms of UAV usage and desperately need a new strategic framework for warfare that is characterized by rapidly advancing automated technological systems. This begins with using the upcoming QDR to outline a comprehensive strategic framework for the role of unmanned systems for the next several years. Doing so will have a stabilizing effect on the international use of UAVs as well as provide NGOs, lawmakers, and civilians with a shared understanding for a weapon system that will likely become a platform of choice in future warfare.

About the Author

Jack Miller received his degree in political science from the University of Pennsylvania with high honors in May 2014. He recently served as the Joseph S Nye, Jr. Technology and National Security Intern at the Center for a New American Security in Washington D.C. He has also spent time at the Center for Strategic and International Studies working for their Transnational Threats Project.

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