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Expert blog: Understanding the Growing Role of Drones in Warfare

By Dr Colin Alexander, senior lecturer in political communications

A drone
A generic image of a military drone

Expert blog: Understanding the Growing Role of Drones in Warfare

The recent shooting down of, what is claimed to be, Chinese reconnaissance vehicles is one a growing trend of military incidents involving UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) This episode over North American airspace sits alongside drone activity by the North Koreans over the south of peninsula, Ukraine’s drone strike on a Russian airbase in December 2022, and the US’s use of a drone in the assassination of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in August last year as examples of UAV use in military strategy and aggressive international posturing.

Drones may at first appear to be largely uncontroversial, the main protest being Luddite-esque concerns about the erosion of human job opportunities by technology. However, the growing use of drones brings several important ethical questions into sharper focus surrounding the manufacture of our acceptance of war as a legitimate option within national policy decision-making.

The American historian Melvin Kranzberg famously said that "[t]echnology is neither good nor bad; [but] nor is it neutral.” The important aspect to consider when it comes to technology is the intent of the user to cause harm or to assist humanity and/or the natural world. Rather than thinking of drones as a happening within technological advancement, it ought to be recognised that their use, and the broad acceptance of their use, impacts upon our worldview and what we consider to be acceptable and unacceptable conduct.

Parcels can be delivered by drones. Media companies use drones to film wildlife or sporting events (downhill skiing, for example, now uses racer drones to capture footage). The police use drones to survey large crowds. Drug gangs have been known to use drones to deliver their products. Mountain rescue now use drones to locate casualties on a hillside. Whereas aeronautical enthusiasts fly drones simply for the pleasure of doing so.

In each of these situations the use of the drone has a clear motive. It lowers costs, lowers risk to humans or provides a perceived advantage or improvement in the execution of a task.

War – ancient and modern – involves terrifying and traumatic acts of barbarism. It decimates families, communities and economies. There is a reason why so many former soldiers have PTSD and end up engaging in a range of dysfunctional behaviours once back in civilian life. Rather than the epitome of gallantry and heroism as is often spun by media entertainment and the tabloid press, war is actually a deeply unnatural and disturbing event to be a part of and is despicable to encourage in others. There is no such thing as a ‘just war’. Just talented war propaganda.

During the 1920s there were extensive efforts to make warfare illegal, or, if not illegal, then to establish stricter rules and expectations around how it can be fought. There has been renewed attention to the horrors of World War I following the release on Netflix of the German film All Quiet on the Western Front (dir. Edward Berger, 2022), which takes the very clear position of war’s ghastliness at every level. European publics of the 1920s were keen to see the end of mass human slaughter and the physical and psychological maiming of those who survived (usually through sheer luck).

The establishment of the League of Nations in 1920, the Locarno Treaties of 1925, the Kellogg – Briand Pact of 1928 and the Geneva Conventions of 1929 all made strenuous efforts to eliminate or reduce the likelihood of future wars. However, the rise of Nazism in Germany after 1933 and the UK’s subsequent rearmament plan after 1935 laid bare the voluntarism of their applicability.

Propaganda has thus been an essential ingredient of war for millennia. Indeed, rather than a part of conflict, as it is usually depicted, propaganda is the crucial pre-requisite if wars are to occur at all and to keep on happening. Soldiers fight an anonymous ‘enemy’ (not fellow human beings with families and friends) based on the stories they are told about their barbarism. While publics largely accept conflict in their name because of stories of ‘motherlands’, assaults upon our ‘way of life’ and the support of ‘our boys’. War, this deeply unnatural repeating occurrence in human history, thus has to be sanitised, rationalised, glorified and essentialised if it is to be viewed as acceptable. This propaganda serves as a distraction and obscuration of its real motive: violent competitions for wealth and power usually by those who don’t do any of the suffering.

In comedic fashion, there is a scene in the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth (BBC Productions, 1989) that makes this point well.

Baldrick: “No, the thing is: The way I see it, these days there’s a war on,
right? and, ages ago, there wasn’t a war on, right? So, there must
have been a moment when there not being a war on went away, right?
and there being a war on came along. So, what I want to know is:
How did we get from the one case of affairs to the other case of

Blackadder: “Do you mean “How did the war start?””

Baldrick: “Yeah.”

George: “The war started because of the vile Hun and his villainous empire-

Blackadder: “George, the British Empire at present covers a quarter of the globe,
while the German Empire consists of a small sausage factory in
Tanganyika. I hardly think that we can be entirely absolved of blame
on the imperialistic front.”

Baldrick: “I heard that it started when a bloke called Archie Duke shot an
ostrich ’cause he was hungry.”

Blackadder: “I think you mean it started when the Archduke of Austro-Hungary got
But the real reason for the whole thing was that it was too much effort *not* to have a war.”

The big question that emerges then, surrounds the extent to which drones assist with continued public acceptance of warfare through their ‘cleansing’ of the battlefield. If spy planes do not have to be manned anymore or if enemy combatants can be killed with a precision strike from a drone operative on the other side of the world then these are good things, right? Maybe. Maybe not.

Perhaps the implementation of these technologies in military operations contributes to the accumulation of distorted perspective that war amounts to reasonable national policy from time-to-time. Interestingly, the war researcher Peter Gray has found numerous examples of military drone operatives experiencing PTSD. Distance may help, but it seems the sense of ‘knowing’ remains.

Furthermore, with new technology usually first in the hands of the powerful, and at least initially out of reach of those trying to alter the dynamics of world power on account of its perceived injustices, UAV technology may be another example of the ‘haves’ preserving their status by overpowering the ‘have nots’ regardless of the legitimacy of the grievances that they may have.

As Blackadder satirically said of the use of superior weaponry during his colonial experiences: “[b]ack in the old days when the prerequisite of a British campaign was that the enemy should under no circumstances carry guns — even spears made us think twice. The kind of people we liked to fight were two feet tall and armed with dry grass. […]. […] ten thousand Watusi warriors armed to the teeth with kiwi fruit and guava halves. After the battle, instead of taking prisoners, we simply made a huge fruit salad.”

Dr Colin Alexander is a senior lecturer in Political Communications in the School of Arts and Humanities

Expert blog: Understanding the Growing Role of Drones in Warfare

Published on 21 February 2023
  • Category: Press office; Research; School of Arts and Humanities

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