The New Evolution of Drone Warfare

Now that we’ve moved past the holidays, let me ask: What did you get for Christmas? A new camera? A tablet? How about a drone?

It might seem like a joke, but toy drones such as the Parrot AR.Drone Quadricopter are gaining in both popularity and capability. The average enthusiast can now spy on their neighbor from the comfort of their home with a high-definition camera that broadcasts straight to a smartphone or tablet. The little plane even contains its own “black box."

Of course, all of this is well and good if it’s just a toy (unless it’s your neighbor that picked one up for Christmas). But as drones become such a part of everyday life that a 10-year-old can be seen flying one through the park using nothing more than an iPad, Americans are beginning to question their use.

10 years after the first strike by an armed U.S. drone killed an Al-Qaeda leader and five associates in Yemen, drone warfare is more sophisticated than ever. Far beyond the attack capabilities of the more well-known Predator Drone, small military drones like the Raven and Puma provide remote controlled Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) at a fraction of the cost of larger systems. If you’re unimpressed by tiny spy planes with no firepower (they have those at Toys “R” Us, after all), the single-target Switchblade pairs expendable ISR with a guided missile small enough to fit in a backpack. The plane can fly for a total of 10 minutes, giving it the ability to hit targets that are reasonably far away. And even more advanced systems are in the works.

Beyond strictly military use, the employment of drones by livestreaming journalists during the 2011 Occupy Wall Street campaign could have greater implications for the technology’s use down the road. Insofar as the Arab Spring was amplified through social media and smartphones, a camera with the ability to travel where journalists can’t could provide future protesters with an invaluable tool.

The debate over drone warfare as a counterterrorism tactic is only just beginning to take shape. Drones provide the U.S. with an option for precise long-range strike that poses fewer risks to men in uniform. But they also raise moral and ethical questions that have yet to be addressed. Drones’ relative ease of use and antiseptic nature, along with the ever-increasing reach of the U.S. drone war and expansion of U.S. “kill lists,” has raised questions over the legal and political consequences of such a strategy. The president himself has noted that, “There’s a remoteness to it that makes it tempting to think that somehow we can, without any mess on our hands, solve vexing security problems.”

In coming weeks, the nomination of the president’s counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, to head the CIA is likely to reignite the drone debate. During his hearings, Brennan may be asked to detail the administration’s rationale for a drone program he has defended, and greatly expanded. In the past, Brennan has argued for greater transparency and restraint. 

Brennan is not alone. The Obama administration is reported to be in discussions to develop explicit rules surrounding the rationale for drone strikes for both the current administration and any that might follow. In an interview for a new book on the killing of Osama bin Laden, the president said that “creating a legal structure, processes, with oversight checks on how we use unmanned weapons, is going to be a challenge for me and my successors for some time to come.”

While owning your very own drone might not quite pose the same challenges, it does suggest that Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, however they come, are here to stay. As the issue continues to gain steam, the ever-expanding capabilities of drones will move ahead, creating possibilities like never before and raising tough questions that can only be answered through the process of a heated debate.

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Laicie Heeley

Heeley is senior policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, where her work focuses on weapons proliferation, military spending and global security issues. Heeley has published widely and serves as a regular commentator to the media. She is a regular contributor to the blog Nukes of Hazard, and a Truman Project Partner and regular contributor to the Truman Doctrine blog. Heeley holds a B.A. in Political Science from The George Washington University and an M.A in International Relations from St. Mary's University.

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