- Edward Khatchatrian
Drones: A New Age in Warfare
Image courtesy of CNN
In March of 2023, the self-proclaimed island state of Taiwan unveiled a new fleet of domestically produced combat drones as it looks to “fully implement the national policy of defense self-sufficiency.” Taiwan is one of about three dozen states that have sought to domestically produce or otherwise acquire their own armed combat drones. While drones are by no means a novel technology—modern reconnaissance drones made an appearance in the 1970s and combat drones made an appearance in the 1990s—the sheer scale, accessibility, and cost effectiveness of these weapons are what make them the weapon of choice for many militaries, militias, and paramilitary groups around the world. Given this enormous level of drone use across the world, drones are likely to continue to be powerful and effective weapons that will be in most, if not all, conflicts of the foreseeable future.
Drones became infamous during the War on Terror. In response to 9/11, The United States developed two drone programs, one operated by the military, which was subject to more scrutiny by politicians and bureaucrats, and one by the CIA, shrouded in secrecy and inaccessible to all but a few select people. While the military and, by extension, its drone program were subject to limitations, such as targeting those who were in direct conflict with the US military and only being able to operate in countries where the US military was based, the CIA’s program had no such restrictions and could be used anywhere in the world. Some of its most notable uses were in Yemen—where US soldiers were not stationed—targeting Al-Qaeda terror suspects and leaders of the group. While the legality of the CIA program is still heavily debated, there is no question that this drone program greatly increased the military capabilities of the US government. The US was essentially able to target anyone, at any time, and anywhere in the world. This could all be done while not risking the loss of US military personnel, CIA agents, or US fighter jets which are several times more expensive and require more maintenance than drones.
As a result of the military successes that the US has had with its drones during the War on Terror, other countries sought to acquire drones of their own. One of these countries was Turkey. Turkey intended to use these drones to turn the tide of a decades-long Kurdish insurgency by gathering intelligence on insurgent movements and assassinating top Kurdish commanders in Turkey and in neighboring countries. However, due to security concerns stemming from tensions between Turkey and Israel, the US refused to sell armed drones in Turkey. Regardless, the Turkish military pushed ahead with their already existing drone program and in 2015 the infamous Bayraktar TB2 drone entered into service. The drone can carry four guided bombs and costs only five million dollars per unit as opposed to the twenty eight million dollar US MQ-9 Reaper Drone. This cheap yet effective weapon has enormous demand internationally, with over thirty countries having purchased or seeking to purchase the drone. The TB2 has seen action in the Kurdish insurgency, Syria, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh, Ethiopia and most recently, in Ukraine. It has proven critical in destroying sophisticated air defenses and turning the tide towards the side that possesses the drone. Ultimately, the TB2 has allowed countries to obtain deadly air power for a fraction of the price of other equipment, such as attack helicopters, fighter jets, or even drones from other countries. It has increased drone proliferation amongst developing nations at levels never seen before and will likely continue to be a deadly presence in conflicts around the world for years to come.
The drone market, however, is not only limited to drones that carry guided bombs or missiles. Loitering munitions, or “kamikaze drones” as they are otherwise known have also had a big impact on battlefields around the world. These drones can often be launched from portable or mobile platforms, stay airborne and search for a target for hours at a time before finally diving and ramming into a selected target with great accuracy, exploding on impact. Notable loitering munitions include the Harpy and Harop drones from Israel, the Switchblade from the US, and the Shahed 136 from Iran. The Shahed drone in particular is extremely cost effective, reportedly costing as little as 20,000 US dollars per drone. It is also infamous for its use in swarm attacks, where multiple drones are launched at the same time to overwhelm air defenses. While Iranian drones are only in service with five countries, they are extensively used by Iranian backed militias and other proxies, presenting a threat to US interests and allies in the Middle East. These drones were used by Iranian linked militants to attack a US base in Syria in late March 2023, killing one US contractor and wounding several other personnel. With lethal drones increasingly ending up in the hands of non-state actors, it is likely that we will see drones become not only a part of conventional warfare, but also part of an asymmetric warfare strategy used by terrorist and militant groups internationally.
While some organizations have called for increased measures to prevent the proliferation of armed drones, it seems naive to expect that most countries will agree to any such measures or be able to enforce them. In fact, some armed groups and countries alike, such as the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Ukraine have even used commercially available quadcopter drones to fulfill military objectives. These drones are extremely cheap, costing less than a thousand dollars to procure, and are modified to drop grenades or homemade bombs on enemy positions. Essentially, armed groups can easily acquire and use crude armed drones quite easily. They simply need to have access to an electronics store or an online shopping account. Even when these civilian quadcopters are not modified to carry weapons, they can still be used to accurately guide artillery strikes, allowing militaries to save time and money in accomplishing their military objectives. It is difficult to imagine how civilian quadcopter drones can be efficiently regulated to prevent them from being used for military purposes. As such, the question seems to be not if, but when all militaries and non-state actors will have drones as part of their arsenal, and how warfare will change as a result.