The Encyclopedia is a project of the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights launched on 2 December 2013. The Enyclopedia aims to provide accurate, up-to-date information on weapons, the effects of their use, and their regulation under public international law, in a format that is accessible to non-specialists.+ Find out more
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are not regulated by specific international treaties that relate to their use, production, or trade. To determine the legality of the use of UAVs in warfare, there must be an examination of current treaty law as well as its application and regulation to conventional weapons. Armed UAVs are conventional weapons and are therefore regulated under the many treaties which regulate such weapons, including the Geneva Conventions, the Hague Conventions, and the Arms Trade Treaty.
The Geneva Conventions are at the core of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), compromising of four international treaties and three additional protocols, and are considered one of the earliest forms of treaty law that relates to the laws of war. The Conventions focus on protecting those who are not taking part in the war and those who no longer can take an active part in the war. Although it is a new type of warfare, armed UAVs are regulated under the Geneva Conventions in regard of the protection of civilians in areas of armed conflict. Specifically, the Fourth Geneva Convention and Additional Protocols I and II deal with the protection of all civilians, be they in occupied territory or not. Therefore, a UAV attack within any territory that may cause civilian casualties must be avoided at all costs. It is the responsibility of the state to take all precautions to protect civilians from harm, further emphasizing that civilian life is more important than the military objective.
While the Geneva Conventions focus on the rights and protections of people in war, The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 address the use of weapons in warfare. The Hague Conventions are considered to be among the first treaties to discuss warfare and therefore they embody rules of international law and are legally binding on all states, whether or not they were parties to the treaties. The Conventions focus on the issue of weapons in warfare and therefore apply to armed UAVs. The Conventions specifically mention who is to be considered an enemy, how the enemy is to be treated, and who may be attacked. Article 22 of The Hague Conventions mentions that 'the right of belligerents to adopt means of injuring the enemy is not unlimited.' 1899 The Hague Convention (II) with Respect to the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its annex: Regulations concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land, Article 22
Additionally, the Preamble of The Hague Convention of 1899 contains a declaration that was read by Professor von Martens, delegate of Russia at the Peace Conference of 1899. It reads:
Until a more complete code of the laws of war is issued, the High Contracting Parties think it right to declare that in cases not included in the Regulations adopted by them, populations and belligerents remain under the protection and empire of the principles of international law, as they result from the usages established between civilized nations, from the laws of humanity, and the requirements of the public conscience. 1899 The Hague Convention (II) with Respect to the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its annex: Regulations concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land, Preamble Para 8.
This 'Martens Clause' has been used consistently in various treaties which regulate armed conflicts and determines that where existing regulation does not clarify an issue, public conscience and the principle of humanity will be the guide. As regards the non-existent specific regulation on armed UAVs, the Martens Clause suggests that international norms and public conscience have to determine the legality of strikes by UAVs.
The trade of armed UAVs is regulated by the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). The ATT establishes international standards for the regulation of international trade of conventional weapons while also preventing and eliminating the illegal trade of arms for the purpose of reducing human suffering and achieving peace in the world. Article 2(1) of the ATT specifically categorizes conventional weapons, including combat aircraft and attack helicopters, while Article 3 concerns the regulation of munitions. 2013 Arms Trade Treaty, Articles 2, 3 The regulation of UAVs through the ATT is very complex considering the vast differences among the weapon itself. UAVs are considered to be a type of combat aircraft, attack helicopter, or munition depending on their size and capacity.
During military operations, a state must take all possible precautions to avoid civilian casualties, as defined by Article 57 Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions. 1977 Additional Protocol I, Article 57 Due to the ability of staying airborne for a long period of time, UAVs are capable of collecting enough information for the state to be able to avoid civilian casualties. M. Wagner, “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles”, Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law.
Regarding jus ad bellum, Article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter prohibits the 'threat or use of force against territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nation', protecting state sovereignty from the interference by another state. 1945 Charter of the Untied Nations, Article 2(4) When it comes to UAVs, the installment of command and control infrastructure can be perceived as indirect use of force if allowed by the state to be used within their territory to commit an act of force against another. 'Study on Armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles' Prepared on the Recommendation of the Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters, October 2015, p. 17.
Of course there are exceptions to Article 2(4) United Nations Charter, e.g. the right to self-defence. Under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, if an armed attack occurs against a Member State of the United Nations (UN), the state has the right to self-defence which must be reported to the UN Security Council. 'Study on Armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles' Prepared on the Recommendation of the Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters, October 2015, p. 20. According to the UNODA Study on Armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, not every threat or use of force can be used to justify self-defence unless an armed attack occurs. This begs the question of whether it is legal to act in self-defence when a non-state actor uses an armed attack against a state. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) fully recognizes the legal right of a state to act in self-defence, but only between states. The ICJ has disregarded the possibility of an armed attack by non-state actors and therefore has left a grey area in the law. 'Study on Armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles' Prepared on the Recommendation of the Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters, October 2015, p. 21-22. After 11 September 2001, when Al-Qaeda attacked the United States, the US Government decided to act in self-defence against this non-state actor. This reaction led to an agreement among the international community that a state is legally able to justify the use of force against non-state actors. 'Study on Armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles' Prepared on the Recommendation of the Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters, October 2015, p. 22-23. This justification has led to the use of armed UAVs to strike in areas where no international armed conflict takes place, but rather simply because there is a non-state actor in the area.
The principles of distinction and proportionality must also be taken into account. The principle of distinction demands that the parties to an armed conflict be able to distinguish military persons and objects from civilian persons and objects, and to only target military objectives. 'Study on Armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles' Prepared on the Recommendation of the Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters, October 2015, p. 32. This means that the state must be absolutely sure that the person or object that is going to be attacked is military and if any doubt occurs, the persons or objects must be assumed to be civilian. Additionally, the principle of proportionality states that civilian casualties caused by an attack cannot be excessive when compared to the military objective. 'Study on Armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles' Prepared on the Recommendation of the Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters, October 2015, p. 34.
According to Principle 5 of the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms, when the use of force is unavoidable, law enforcement officials must a) exercise restraint effectively and act to the full capacity to the urgency of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved; b) minimize any damage or injury while respecting and preserving human life; c) ensure medical assistance and aid are provided at the 'earliest possible moment' for injured or affected individuals; and d) prioritize notifying relatives or close friends of injured or affected individuals at the earliest possible moment.
Under Article 5 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, there is a restriction for any state, group or person to engage or perform in any activity whose sole purpose is the destruction of the rights comprised in the Covenant including 'any of the fundamental human rights recognized or existing in any country'.
In agreement with human rights law, a targeted killing is legal only if it is deemed necessary in the protection of life as well as in the prevention of a threat to life. Therefore, the use of drones for the purpose of targeted killing outside the context of armed conflict is considered illegal. Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Addendum, Study on Targeted Killings, UN Doc. A/HRC/14/24/Add.6, 28 May 2010.
As reported in the Study on Armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, the use of lethal force is required to be used only as a 'last resort' in order to protect the life of an individual from a targeted attack or killing. In accordance with human rights law, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, stated in 2013 that 'lethal remotely piloted aircraft attacks will rarely be lawful outside a situation of armed conflict, because only in the most exceptional of circumstances would it be permissible under international human rights law for killing to be the sole or primary objective of an operation.' 'Study on Armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles', Prepared on the Recommendation of the Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters, United Nations, October 2015, p. 27.
According to The Hague Rules of Air Warfare, a legal document that was drafted but not legally adopted, the use of aerial bombardment is legitimized when used directly at a military objective and should only be directed at military forces or affiliated military works. The bombardment of populated areas is prohibited unless it is in the confines of operating of land forces and if there is a legitimate and 'reasonable presumption that the military concentration is sufficiently important to justify such bombardment' that is applicable to the use of unmanned aerial vehicles in armed conflicts and in the context of international criminal law. 1922-1923 Hague Rules of Air Warfare, Article 24.
Under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the intentional launching of an attack with the prior knowledge of 'incidental loss of life or injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects', including severely damaging the natural environment in an attack is categorized as a serious violation of the laws and customs applicable in the international law framework. 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, Article 8(2)(b)(iv). Other violations include v) the attack or bombardment of non-military objectives such as towns, villages, dwellings, or buildings; 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, Article 8(2)(b)(v). and (ix) the intentional directing of attacks against infrastructure in populated areas designated for 'religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals and places where the sick and wounded are collected'. 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, Article 8(2)(b)(ix).
On 17 February 2015, the US Department of State released a report detailing new policy in guiding the international auction, trade and use of unmanned aerial vehicles produced in the United States. The new policy included a mandated requirement on the exportation of US-based military drones to occur through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program, an effort to maximize multilateral transactions and to ensure beneficiaries comply with international law. ‘U.S. Export Policy for Military Unmanned Aerial Systems’, U.S. Department of State, 17 February 2015.
During the early 1990s, Israel had repeatedly refused to admit it was operating targeted attacks. In November 2000, Israel confirmed the existence of a policy that stated its justification of targeted killings under self-defence and international humanitarian law. According to Israel, the Palestinian Authority was 'failing to prevent, investigate and prosecute terrorism and, especially, suicide attacks' that were stated to be directed towards Israel. Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Addendum, Study on Targeted Killings, UN Doc. A/HRC/14/24/Add.6, 28 May 2010, p 6. This statement was later reinforced in 2002 by the Israeli Defense Force Judge Advocate General on the specified conditions with which Israel justified its use of targeted attacks or killings as being legal. In December 2006, it was established that the customary law of international armed conflict was applicable, which permitted the 'targeted killing of civilians for such time as they "directly participated in hostilities"'. The targeted attacks were considered to be legal if they met four conditions. Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Addendum, Study on Targeted Killings, UN Doc. A/HRC/14/24/Add.6, 28 May 2010, p 6. The four conditions state that targeting forces must verify the identity and confirm the 'direct participation' of terrorist activity of the target; state forces cannot kill an individual if less harmful and extreme means are available; there must be a comprehensive investigation after the targeted attack is successful; and any harm of civilians must meet the requirement of proportionality of international humanitarian law. Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Addendum, Study on Targeted Killings, UN Doc. A/HRC/14/24/Add.6, 28 May 2010.
In the summer of 2006, a law permitting the Russian security services to attack or kill 'alleged terrorists overseas' was passed by the Russian Parliament. Under the law, the President is required to 'seek the endorsement of the Federation Council to use regular armed forces outside Russia' in an attempt to combat terrorism. Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Addendum, Study on Targeted Killings, UN Doc. A/HRC/14/24/Add.6, 28 May 2010, p 9. According to the Report of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, the law was 'designated to target terrorists hiding in failed States' which Russian legislators contended the law was 'emulating Israeli and US actions in adopting a law allowing the use of military and special forces outside the country’s borders against external threats'. Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Addendum, Study on Targeted Killings, UN Doc. A/HRC/14/24/Add.6, 28 May 2010, p 9. Unfortunately, public information about the implementation of 'safeguards' to ensure that targeted killings executed by Russia are lawful, whether attacks are precedent for those who may be or are targeted, and if there are procedures established in reviewing targeted killing operations are unavailable Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Addendum, Study on Targeted Killings, UN Doc. A/HRC/14/24/Add.6, 28 May 2010.
Last updated on: 03 August 2017
Drones have become a key military tool in warfare and have gained considerable attention in recent years. The most well known drones are the MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper drones. Most people assume Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are a new concept but they have actually been around for decades.
One of the first times UAVs were used was by the Austrian Army in 1869 when two hundred pilotless balloons were attached with bombs against the city of Venice. R. Naughton, ‘Remote Piloted Aerial Vehicles: An Anthology’, Monash University, 2010. UAVs have come a long way since then and are only becoming more complex and more lethal.
The founding father of unmanned vehicles was Nikola Tesla. On 8 November 1898, Tesla was the first to patent a remote control for unmanned vehicles. This patent became one of the primary reasons drones exist today. R. Naughton, ‘Remote Piloted Aerial Vehicles: An Anthology’, Monash University, 2010.
Modern Drones emerged shortly after WW1 with the 'the US Navy’s flying bomb, a propeller-driven Curtis biplane.' G. Alley-Young, 'Drone (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle)', Salem Press Encyclopaedia, 2015. During WW2, the US Navy started using UAVs although they weren’t completely effective. 'In World War II, the US Navy’s Operation Anvil used remote-controlled B-24 bombers to bomb German and French targets, though many crashed or prematurely exploded.' G. Alley-Young, Drone (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), Salem Press Encyclopaedia, 2015.
After the Vietnam War the US military allocated a great deal of money to be spent on UAVs. It started when the Air Force used 'small experimental drones called Fireflies' A. Callam, ‘Drone Wars: Armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles’, XVIII International Affairs Review 3 (2010). used for reconnaissance over Southeast Asia. When the experimental drone budget was more expensive than the Pentagon originally planned for, the program was suspended.
When the Israeli Air Force used a weaponized drone, 'the Pioneer', in the 1982 war in Lebanon, the US once again became interested in drones. 'Impressed with the Pioneer, the Navy purchased several and the Reagan Administration began increasing procurement and research in 1987'. A. Callam, ‘Drone Wars: Armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles’, XVIII International Affairs Review 3 (2010).
The terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 changed and accelerated the use of drones in a historic way. The terrorist attacks that day suddenly created a new demand for Hellfire-equipped Predators to hunt down terrorists in remote areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. During the first year of use the US Air Force hit approximately 115 targets in Afghanistan. These drones continued to be used to target al-Qaeda operatives in other remote parts of the Mideast including Yemen.
'On February 4, 2002, the CIA first used an unmanned Predator Drone in Paktia, Afghanistan, in an attempt to assassinate Osama Bin Laden. When the United States first went into Afghanistan in 2003, it had a few unarmed drones (none on the ground), but by 2013 it had 8,000 aloft and more than 12,000 on the ground.' A. Callam, ‘Drone Wars: Armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles’, XVIII International Affairs Review 3 (2010).
At first, drones were mainly used for surveillance but they have now become a critical player in the war on terror and the United States is not the only nation using them.
According to the LA Times, 'The United States and Britain fly U.S.-made armed MQ-1 Predators or MQ-9 Reapers, and Israel builds its own. But the three newcomers — Nigeria, Pakistan and Iraq — all took advantage of China's growing exports of the unmanned aircraft systems that are reshaping modern warfare.' W.J. Hennigan, ‘A Fast Growing Club: Countries That Use Drones for Killing by Remote Control’, Los Angeles Times, 22 February 2016. Almost 80 countries deploy surveillance drones and of those 80, more than 20 either have or are developing armed drones. The use of drones by so many nations is becoming a huge challenge for those involved with international law and the rules of engagement.
Not only did the 9/11 terrorist attacks change the way the US military targeted and attacked its enemies, it also changed the way international law defined its enemy. 'This is why drones and the employment of drones as launch vehicles for missiles present such a challenge for lawyers and human rights advocates.' R. Brooks, ‘Drones and the International Rule of Law’, 28 Ethics and International Affairs 1 (2014), 83-104. It is not that US drone strikes actually violate international law. Ironically, US drone strikes challenge international law because they don’t conform to a straightforward legal categorization used in international law prior to 11 September 2001.
Along with the rise of the use of drones came new legal theories to justify the use of these weapons. Also words like 'armed attack', 'civilian', 'self-defence', and 'proportionality' gained new meanings, as war zones had no defined boundaries. R. Brooks, ‘Drones and the International Rule of Law’, 28 Ethics and International Affairs 1 (2014), 83-104.
Another controversial issue is what constitutes hostile territory and what constitutes a battlefield. 'While much of drone use is shrouded in secrecy, it is widely known that the U.S. has attacked targets by drone in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. All of these places are outside of what is considered by international law to be a “hot battlefield”. In Pakistan alone the number of suspected strikes rose from 4 in 2007 to a peak of 122 in 2010.' R. Brooks, ‘Drones and the International Rule of Law’, 28 Ethics and International Affairs 1 (2014), 83-104.
Finally, most important for the future use of drones is the question of what constitutes self-defence. Is there a danger that different interpretations of those words can lead to greater conflicts as the use of unarmed drones expands internationally? This is the challenge for diplomats, military leaders and human rights advocates in the 21st century.
Countries with Armed Drones: China, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, South Africa, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States. P. Bergen, D. Sterman, A. Sims, A. Ford, C. Mellon, ‘World of Drones 3: Who Has What: Countries With Armed Drones’, New America.
Countries with Drones Used in Combat: Iran, Iraq, Israel, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States. P. Bergen, D. Sterman, A. Sims, A. Ford, C. Mellon, ‘World of Drones 2: Who Has What: Countries With Drones Used in Combat’, New America.
Non State Actors with Drones Used in Combat: Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIS and Libyan Rebels. P. Bergen, D. Sterman, A. Sims, A. Ford, C. Mellon, ‘World of Drones 5: Non-State Actors With Drone Capabilities’, New America.
Countries Developing Armed Drones: France, Greece, India, Italy, Pakistan, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, and Turkey. P. Bergen, D. Sterman, A. Sims, A. Ford, C. Mellon, ‘World of Drones 4: Who Has What: Countries Developing Armed Drones’, New America.
Countries Producing Drones Domestically: Algeria, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, China, Columbia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Egypt, Estonia, Ethiopia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Latvia, Malaysia, Mexico , the Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines,Poland, Portugal, Republic of Serbia, Russia , Singapore,South Africa, South Korea, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay, Venezuela, Vietnam. P. Bergen, D. Sterman, A. Sims, A. Ford, C. Mellon, ‘World of Drones 4: Who Has What: Countries Developing Armed Drones’, New America.
Last updated on: 03 August 2017
Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) can have severe humanitarian, environmental and societal consequences.
An armed drone is an Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV). It is an aircraft piloted by a military drone pilot sometimes thousands of miles away. It is a UAV delivery system outfitted with offensive munitions. Armed drone is a delivery system of offensive weapons and munitions. G.Udeanu, A. Dobrescu, M. Oltean, ‘Unmanned Aerial Vehicle in Armed Operations’, Proceedings of the Scientific Conference AFASES 1 (2016), 199-205. Typically it is armed with Air to Surface (ASM) or Air to Air missiles (AAM). The most commonly used armed drones are the MQ-9 Reaper and Predator variants flown by the US Air Force. Armed Drones have become so prevalent that the US had 167 drones in 2001 and more than 7000 in 2012. International Human Rights And Conflict Resolution Clinic (Stanford Law School) And Global Justice Clinic (NYU School Of Law), 'Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, And Trauma To Civilians From US Drone Practices In Pakistan', September 2012.
To seek more information on the impact of the weapons/munitions used by armed drones, refer to Air to Surface or Air to Air missile systems.
The Reaper and Predators are used often against time-critical High Value Targets (HVTs). This target is one which is considered valuable and offers a limited time window to strike. A limited time window is also referred to as 'dynamic'. The drones are used against HVTs regularly because of their stealth capabilities that allow them to get close and observe from medium altitude without risk of life. The Reapers and Predators can also circle above and wait for hours, until an opening appears, to strike. 33 Armada International 4 (2009), 20-47.
Signature Strike: The US often will target 'individuals that match a pre-identified "signature" of behaviour that the US links to militant activity or association.'
Personality Strike: Strike intended for an identified individual. HVTs fall under this category.
The drones are most often used against low-level militants. Since 2008, of the 500 militants that the CIA has believed to have killed 25 were mid-to-high level organizers, 14 were top-tier militant targets, the rest were low-level militants. International Human Rights And Conflict Resolution Clinic (Stanford Law School) And Global Justice Clinic (NYU School Of Law), 'Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, And Trauma To Civilians From US Drone Practices In Pakistan', September 2012.
Armed drones weapon systems are being created to 'conduct pre-emptive and reactive suppression of enemy air defence missions effectively and affordably.' Armed drones can also strike armoured targets or structures depending on the payload. Armed drones are almost a one-size-fits-all because the target can be anything depending on what weapons systems can be outfitted. They can handle many different operations: fire suppression, psychological warfare, anti-aircraft, anti-armour, anti-personnel, shock and awe, general bombing.
Armed drones are designed to be efficient and precise to minimise collateral damage. Armed drones originally were not that precise but over time the technology and research has improved to minimise error. International Human Rights And Conflict Resolution Clinic (Stanford Law School) And Global Justice Clinic (NYU School Of Law), 'Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, And Trauma To Civilians From US Drone Practices In Pakistan', September 2012.
The MQ-9 Reaper is generally equipped with four (ASM) Hellfire Missiles and two GBU-49 Enhanced Paveway II bombs. The Hellfire Missiles are meant to strike fast and with great accuracy to ensure destruction of target. The Hellfire Missile is fast and accurate enough to strike a moving vehicle. The missile was designed for long-range supersonic precision attacks on heavily armoured cars. The bombs are for larger targets like a strategic building or bunker. Some experimental drones are being developed to dogfight and deliver Air to Air missiles. 33 Armada International 4 (2009), 20-47. (For more information refer to 'Aerial Warfare' below).
Armed drones are dual-use, they have anti-personnel and anti-material uses. Armed drones are designed to carry a variety of payloads. The payload is specific to the mission objectives. Common weapon systems railed on an armed drone are air-to-surface/air-to-air missiles or laser guided bombs.
They are continually developed to allow new weapons systems and payloads.
For example, directed energy weapons such as high-powered microwave (HPM) may be on armed drones in the future to 'suppress enemy air defences, and disable command-and-control nodes and other electronic equipment.' Weapon/munition developments will only increase the effectiveness of armed drones.
Armed drones are designed to mitigate the penalties of having a human pilot: weight, size, cockpit, armour, flight controls, ejection seat, and environmental concerns like oxygen and pressure. This leads to less maintenance required which is a logistical advantage.
Drone technology allows some armed drones the ability to fly for 40 hours straight. Many can refuel mid flight. This allows combat drones to stake out a location for hours waiting for the ideal moment to strike. 'Drones' 40 Military Technology 5 (2016) 73.
Armed drones are currently in research and development in many companies and states to engage in aerial warfare. Systems are being developed to replace manned aircraft with AI pilots that have greater dogfighting abilities.
For example, since 11 July 2016, Kratos Defence & Security Solutions. Inc has a contract with the US government of $40.8 million, with a potential of an additional $100 million, to create armed drones with aerial warfare capabilities. ‘Kratos Receives Low-Cost Attritable Strike Unmanned Aerial System Demonstration Contract Award’, KRATOS, 11 July 2016.
Armed drones humanitarian impact is addressed in the entries dealing with Air to Surface and Air to Air Missiles (health impact of explosives). Material damage and environmental damage in relation to missiles are also addressed in the above mentioned entries.
The US has very low civilian casualty numbers and it is attributed to their definition of a civilian, presuming that, unless proven otherwise, individuals killed in strikes are militants.
Information on casualties from armed drones are widely disputed. The information is laid out to show who reports what information.
New America Foundation’s Year of Drone reports that in Pakistan since 2004, there has been an estimate of 1,584 to 2,716 'militants', between 152 to 191 'civilians', and 130-268 'unknowns' killed. 'Unknowns' are those whose remains are far past recognition or whose past as either civilian or militant was unknown. P. Bergen, D. Sterman, A. Sims, A. Ford, 'Drone Strikes: Pakistan', New America.
The Long War Journal reports that drones have killed 2,396 leaders and operatives from Taliban, Al Qaeda, and allied extremist groups in Pakistan since 2006, as well as 138 civilians. B.Roggio, A. Mayer, 'Charting the Data for US Air Strikes in Pakistan, 2004-2012', Long War Journal, 16 September 2012; as cited by International Human Rights And Conflict Resolution Clinic (Stanford Law School) And Global Justice Clinic (NYU School Of Law), 'Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, And Trauma To Civilians From US Drone Practices In Pakistan', September 2012, p 32.
According to United States Air Force data, 963 missions with at least one weapon release were conducted, with 2,127 total weapons released.
For concrete numbers of deaths and injuries through drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, see 'Drone Warfare', The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
Example of casualties:
'In one drone attack in Pakistan, instead of striking a Taliban hideout, missiles hit the house of Malik Gulistan Khan, a tribal elder and member of a local pro-government peace committee. Five members of his family were killed. “I lost my father, three brothers, and my cousin in this attack”, said Adnan, his 18 year-old son. Adnan’s uncle claimed, “We did nothing, have no connection to militants at all. Our family supported the government and in fact…was a member of a local peace committee.” The family provided the Center for Civilians in Conflict with detailed documentation of the deaths of the five family members, including a report from the Assistant Political Agent of South Waziristan and a local jirga requesting that the government pay compensation.' 'The Civilian Impact of Drones: Unexamined Costs, Unanswered Questions', Center for Civilians in Conflict and Columbia Law School, 2012, p 21.
Even with the report and facts found it is unlikely for the family to receive any compensation. Strikes like this can encourage terrorism from the close and extended family, or the situation is used as propaganda for terrorists.
Armed drones often use the Hellfire Missile against surface targets, both personnel and material. The blast radius of the Hellfire can be around 15-20 meters. The missile can injure or kill through shrapnel, pressure, or incineration. Common missile strike wounds are shrapnel, burns over body, vision/hearing loss, and limb amputation.
'They destroy human beings….There is nobody left and small pieces left behind. Pieces. Whatever is left is just little pieces of bodies and cloth.' International Human Rights And Conflict Resolution Clinic (Stanford Law School) And Global Justice Clinic (NYU School Of Law), 'Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, And Trauma To Civilians From US Drone Practices In Pakistan', September 2012, p 94.
Armed drones impact the ability of medical services to reach the victims. Many targets are struck numerous times in what is referred to as a 'double tap'. This creates an environment where the emergency health services or nearby citizens can not start to save the injured for fear of a second strike. First responders have been killed attempting to rescue the injured. Some humanitarian workers have a six hour mandatory delay when going to a strike site, to avoid a double tap. International Human Rights And Conflict Resolution Clinic (Stanford Law School) And Global Justice Clinic (NYU School Of Law), 'Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, And Trauma To Civilians From US Drone Practices In Pakistan', September 2012, pp 74ff.
Armed drones can destroy strategic installations: radio centres, missile launch sites, weapon caches, bunker, small-medium structures. Armed drones are a delivery system that carries a payload of missiles/bombs that can severely damage or destroy any structures listed above.
The armed drones of aerial combat in the near future will have offensive capabilities to destroy any air threats. The weapons system will most likely be Air to Air missiles or a laser based weapon.
The weapon systems and munitions on the armed drones do the real damage to the environment and society. Armed drones themselves only do damage against the atmosphere. Drones pollute in the same way any other aircraft does. The fuel burned in flight creates carbon monoxide. The US Navy is planning on replacing a third of its fuel use with biofuels, including for combat drones. D. Carrington, ‘US Military Combines Green and Mean to Fly Drones on Biofuels’, The Guardian, 15 March 2012.
Drones further create noise pollution. The production of noise from military aircraft has variable impacts on wildlife, which encompass primary, secondary, and tertiary effects. These effects can occur over an acute or chronic timescale representing both sub-lethal and lethal impacts that have the potential to cause permanent damage; a factor that is influenced by acoustic duration, intensity, and the biology of the specific species. Primary effects can include eardrum rupture, shifts in hearing abilities (either temporary or permanent), and/or auditory signal masking (e.g. unability to identify noises from prey, predators, or mates). Secondary effects are related to physiological impacts, which can lead to impediments in reproduction, foraging behaviour, and natural habitat use of wildlife residing in areas where aircraft noise is prevalent. Tertiary impacts consist of a combination of primary and secondary effects that can lead to population declines, species extinction, and habitat degradation. M.J. Lawrence et al, 'The Effects of Modern War and Military Activities on Biodiversity and the Environment', 23 Environmental Reviews 4 (2015) 443, 444.
Air-to-ground strikes can destroy natural habitat and also increase wildlife mortality rates. Both of those can lead to a localized population decline. The armament used can deforest an area, create craters, and destabilize and contaminate soil. M.J. Lawrence et al, 'The Effects of Modern War and Military Activities on Biodiversity and the Environment', 23 Environmental Reviews 4 (2015) 443, 444.
Armed drones attempt to limit collateral damage but many civilians have been killed. The US is the main country that operates combat drones but yet rarely investigates into strikes that have occurred. The US doesn’t always recognize the strikes either. This lack of transparency and acceptance of guilt leads to much social anger and conversation on the topic of combat drones. 'The United States pays heavily for its statements denying the civilian impact of drone strikes. It loses support in affected communities who feel lied to and drives peoples into the arms of militant groups who capitalize on US silence to shape the narrative. Refusal to satisfactorily disclose accurate information about civilian deaths outrages human rights groups and compels them to assume that the numbers are too horrific to fathom.' 'Drones Reports Reveal Problems', Friends Committee on National Legislation. Terrorist organizations create propaganda videos using footage of drone strikes and killings to further their public support and gain membership. Drone operators can only estimate the number of civilians killed because they do not have eyes on the ground. Human rights groups demand that compensation be paid for innocent deaths. 'Drones Reports Reveal Problems', Friends Committee on National Legislation. Compensation is unlikely given the fact that state actors have not taken responsibility for all strikes.
'Along with the human costs, drones also destroy local infrastructure, cripple local economies, challenge local customs and increase poverty. The emotional and psychological costs of such dislocation and devastation, particularly on children, are deeply felt.' 'Drones Reports Reveal Problems', Friends Committee on National Legislation. This emotion is exploited by terrorist and rebel groups to recruit men and women into their ranks. The US has seen these effects the most from drone strikes in Pakistan. 'The ill-will spread by drone strikes in Pakistan are not reducing the threat of terrorism but increasing it. While many in Pakistan’s northwest once had positive views of the United States, new polling demonstrates the anti-American effect of drone strikes.' 'Drones Reports Reveal Problems', Friends Committee on National Legislation.
Local infrastructure can be destroyed in drone strikes. There have been reports of local schools being destroyed in Pakistan. 'The Civilian Impact of Drones: Unexamined Costs, Unanswered Questions', Center for Civilians in Conflict and Columbia Law School, 2012, p 25. If any place of business is destroyed the local economy can suffer for years after a single strike. A farmer could have property loss if a drone strike destroys his equipment or damages his crops. If homes are destroyed, people become displaced and thrown into poverty. In Yemen, drone strikes have contributed to the violence that has displaced over 100,000 individuals. 'The Civilian Impact of Drones: Unexamined Costs, Unanswered Questions', Center for Civilians in Conflict and Columbia Law School, 2012, p 25.
Drone pilots are impacted by armed drones physiologically. The pilots can have a hard time adjusting to being at work and making a decision that kills people across the globe, and then going back to a domestic home after work. 'The US Air Force conducted a survey that showed that 46% of Reaper and Predator pilots and 48% of Global Hawk sensor operators suffered from "high operational’ stress.”' E. Bumiller, 'Air Force Drone Operators Report High Levels of Stress', The New York Times, 18 December 2011.
An argument has arisen that armed drones dehumanize war. Without a person present, a robot is doing the dirty work and many feel this is wrong. Some drone pilots become desensitized to drone strikes. The morality of using armed drones continues to be debated.
Drones do not have an immense impact by themselves; but rather the weapons systems aboard the drone. Once weapons are on board the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) becomes an Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV). The armed drone weapons can cause massive physical harm to people in the blast/shrapnel/burn radius, depending on the weapon used. Armed drones are harmful to psychological health with people fearing drones, leading them to 'shy away from social gatherings, and inhibited their willingness to carry out day-to-day activities and important community functions.' International Human Rights And Conflict Resolution Clinic (Stanford Law School) And Global Justice Clinic (NYU School Of Law), 'Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, And Trauma To Civilians From US Drone Practices In Pakistan', September 2012, p 55. The weapons can destroy local economies through loss of infrastructure and primary income earner homes. Armed drone strikes can make a local economy struggle to keep up with the cost of rebuilding infrastructure.
Last updated on: 03 August 2017