Availability and military use of UAVs

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In book: SIPRI Literature Review for the Policy and Operations Evaluations Department of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, pp.121-132
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Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA), or drones, are aircraft without an onboard pilot that are remotely controlled by a ground-based operator. This technology has existed for decades, but has attracted growing attention in the past 15 years due to its increased use in armed conflicts by a growing number of states. Furthermore, the technology has developed rapidly over the past 15 years, enabling new uses and presenting new challenges for regulation. This section discusses the state of the technology, maps out the key concerns related to its proliferation and use, and takes stock of the debate on the need for international regulation of armed UA Vs.
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2.3. The availability and military use of UAVs
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA), or
drones, are aircraft without an onboard pilot that are remotely controlled by a
ground-based operator. This technology has existed for decades, but has
attracted growing attention in the past 15 years due to its increased use in
armed conflicts by a growing number of states. Furthermore, the technology
has developed rapidly over the past 15 years, enabling new uses and
presenting new challenges for regulation. This section discusses the state of
the technology, maps out the key concerns related to its proliferation and use,
and takes stock of the debate on the need for international regulation of armed
Development and proliferation of UAVs
The history of UAVs goes back many decades, but they have only been armed
for the past 16 years. UAVs were originally developed as test dummies for
aircraft at the start of the 20th century, and saw incidental use in target training
and as decoys. Usage intensified in the Viet Nam War and the 1982 Lebanon
War with Israel, where the USA and Israel revolutionized UAVs and
employed them for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR). They
have only carried weapon payloads since the start of the 21st century, when
Predator UAVs were armed at the demand of US commanders who wanted to
have the possibility of striking high-value targets. The first drone strike took
place in Afghanistan in October 2001. Israel employed them in its conflict
with Palestine in 2002 and the USA decided to use armed drones for strikes
outside recognized combat zones in November 2002 (Keane and Carr 2013;
Freedman 2016; Sanders 2002; Shaw 2016)
Deployed UAVs have only limited survivability in contested airspace. They
are slower than most manned fighter aircraft and can thus easily be detected
and defeated by air defence systems. UAVs are therefore almost exclusively
used in asymmetric warfare between parties with greatly differing military
power, such as states versus non-state actors, and primarily for targeted strikes
(Kreps, Horowitz and Fuhrmann 2016). There are a number of armed UAVs
under development that are reported to feature capabilities for advanced
combat operations, such as fighting air battles (they are currently exclusively
used for air-to-ground strikes) and conducting airstrikes in theatres of
operation where operating manned aircraft is normally dangerous or
impossible to due to the enemy’s use Anti-Access/Area Denial technologies
(A2/AD), such as automatic air defence systems and precision guided anti-
aircraft munitions (Sayler 2015).
The proliferation of armed UAVs in recent years has been remarkable, both
horizontally (the variety of systems has increased in terms of capability, size
and application) and vertically (a growing number of countries own and use
them) (see figure 2.3.1). As of February 2017, 21 countries had operational
armed drones in their arsenals, 26 countries are reported to be developing
armed drones indigenously,56 and 10 countries are known to have conducted
drone strikes in military operations (Bergen et al. 2016).57
Figure 2.3.1. Armed drones proliferation as of May 2017
Source: Adapted from Bergen et al. (2016).
The global market for armed UAVs is dominated by Israel and China. The
USA is also a key exporter but it places restrictions to limit the export of
armed UAVs to all but its closest allies (Stohl 2015). The USA also provides
training for use of armed UAVs (Sixta Rinehart 2017). The Netherlands is
currently planning to purchase Reaper UAVs from the USA. These vehicles
can be armed, which is the preference of the Dutch Armed Forces, but for now
the government has decided to purchase the unarmed variant. In 2016 it was
reported that Dutch pilots are scheduled to receive US training on how to use
Reapers, including on how to conduct strikes, which is a standard part of the
training repertoire (Modderkolk 2016).
Unarmed military UAVs have also proliferated extensively. In 2016,
90 states were reported to have operational unarmed military UAVs in their
arsenal (Kreps, Horowitz and Fuhrmann 2016). The market for civilian drones
has also developed substantially, opening for the possibility for non-state
actors (from criminal gangs to activists, and from terrorists to drug lords) to
access UAV technology and use it for various purposes, such as smuggling,
intelligence and conducting military strikes. In the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and
Ukraine, modified civilian UAVs have been used to deliver explosives,
56 In many cases, indigenous development is probably limited to funding development elsewhere,
copying foreign technology or producing foreign UAVs domestically.
57 Countries that have used armed drones are Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkey,
United Kingdom, United States and Yemen (Bergen et al. 2016).
thereby functioning as flying IEDs (Friese, Jensen-Jones and Smallwood
2016; Abbott et al. 2016).
The debate surrounding proliferation and use
Two issues dominate the literature on armed UAVs: the legal and military
implications of using UAVs for targeted strikes, and targeted killing in
particular; and the impact of the proliferation of UAVs on international
Specificity of drone strikes
A central issue is whether the use of UAVs raises fundamentally different
legal issues than the traditional tools of air power—such as cruise missiles and
fighter aircraft (Lewis and Vavrichek 2016). Some critics feel that the specific
characteristics of UAVs, such as their low cost, small size and the minimal
risk to operators, make them particularly susceptible to misuse in comparison
to other technologies (Kelton and Law 2015). On the other hand, some have
argued that because UAVs can loiter for an extended period over their target
before attack their use actually enhances the ability of military command to
respect the fundamental principles of International Humanitarian Law (IHL)
with regard to the conduct of hostilities, that is the obligation to respect the
rule of distinction, proportionality and precaution in attack. In this view,
UAVs are less likely to lead to violations of IHL (Lewis 2013). The question
of whether conventional air strikes create more civilian casualties than drone
strikes remains unresolved (Barela and Plaw 2016; Zenko and Wolf 2016)
Status of targeted killing under international law
Targeted killings have been defined as the ‘planned direct killing of an
individual because of their perceived membership (and often perceived
leadership) of a terrorist movement’ (Carvin 2012). Only the USA, the UK
and Israel are known to engage in these types of strikes. Such strikes have
triggered an intense debate among scholars and practitioners, notably on two
correlated issues.
First, there is the extensive debate about on what legal grounds targeted
killings may be deemed lawful (Pejic 2015; Brunstetter and Jimenez-Bacardi
2015). This debate is intrinsically related to the contentious question of when
and how human rights law applies in armed conflicts, and by extension if
combatants are protected by the principle of the ‘right to life’. Under human
rights law, the taking of life is only lawful if strictly necessary to protect
against an imminent threat to life. One view is that some of the strikes that the
US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has conducted against specific
individuals essentially amount to extrajudicial executions and violations of the
victims’ right to life and right to due process. Proponents of this view stress
that they took place outside established armed conflicts, a context in which
International Human Rights Law (IHRL) applies (House 2012; Aslam 2011;
Brunstetter and Jimenez-Bacardi 2015). An alternative view is that these
attacks were acts of pre-emptive self-defence, and that, because they
concerned hostile non-state armed groups, IHRL did not apply even though no
war had been formally declared (Anderson 2009; Kretzmer 2005)
A correlated legal issue is whether the targeted killing operations that the
USA conducted, most notably in Yemen and Pakistan, constitute a violation of
the national sovereignty of the countries in which they took place. This is a
legal concern that is particularly important to Russia and China (Ray et al.
2016; Kania 2017; Chase et al. 2015; Facon 2016). This debate on the legality
of targeting killings is particularly vivid in the Netherlands as it has been
established that the Netherlands has supplied intelligence to the USA that was
subsequently used in US targeted strikes (Manjikian 2015; CTIVD 2016;
Postma and Zwijnenburg 2017; Ducheine and Osinga 2014).
Transparency on reported use
Transparency in the use of UAVs is also a sensitive issue. A number of
scholars, NGO representatives and investigative journalists have criticized the
high level of secrecy surrounding the use of armed drones for targeted killings.
A number of scholars, NGO representatives and investigative journalists have
criticized the high level of secrecy surrounding the use of armed drones for
targeted killings, most notably by the CIA (Holewinski et al. 2012; McNeal
2014). Many experts have sought to draw attention to the targeting process
that the USA uses to identify targets and authorize strikes. Of particular
concern are the ‘signature strikes’, which the USA undertook until 2011. In
signature strikes, targets are picked based on their patterns of behaviour—
especially typical Islamic rituals such as praying and washing, which are
usually carried out before a terrorist attack (Moorehead, Hussein and Alhariri
2017). This practice was heavily criticized due to its alleged racial biases and
the high risk of civilian casualties (Holmqvist 2013; Wall and Monahan 2011;
Benjamin 2013; Cockburn 2015). The issue of transparency is also salient in
Israel. It is widely accepted by academics, governments and militaries
worldwide that Israel has been conducting drone strikes since 2002. However,
Israel does not admit this publicly, let alone provide any detail about civilian
casualties or targeting procedures (Haaretz Editorial Board 2016; Schweiger
A related discussion point is the question of the military effectiveness of
targeted killings in counterterrorism operations. Some civil society
representatives and strategists have raised questions about whether the tactic
of ‘taking out’ perceived members of terrorist organizations using drones
strikes makes a positive contribution to the US counterterrorism strategy.
Some claim that the high rates of civilian casualties have caused a popular
backlash against the USA, and that each killed leader is replaced very quickly
(Kreps and Wallace 2016; Walsh 2013; Enemark 2011; Gill 2015).
Impact on the nature of warfare
The increasing use of armed drones has triggered an active discussion within
academic and military circles worldwide about the changing nature of warfare.
Drone strikes are conducted over the entire globe, in and outside of established
battlefields, and at very short notice. According to some scholars, this has
ensured there is no longer any fundamental difference between wartime and
peacetime, as well as between warzones and zones of peace (Gregory 2011;
Shaw 2013; Graham 2010). Due to this constant nature, survivors and other
civilians living in affected areas suffer severe psychological damage as they
live under permanent threat of drone strikes as unlike fighter aircraft, UAVs
are operating night and day (Holewinski et al. 2012). There is also a debate
about whether the use of armed UAVs affects soldiers’ experiences of
violence. Some argue that the use of remote control dehumanizes the victim,
as the physical and mental distance between the target and operator are
increased (Holmqvist 2013; Wall and Monahan 2011). Others state that drone
operators are actually more engaged than fighter pilots, as they watch potential
targets for hours, and point to the high rates of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
(PTSD) to back their claim (Kirkpatrick 2015; Sparrow 2015; Fitzsimmons
and Sangha 2012; Asaro 2013; Chappelle et al. 2014; Otto and Webber 2013).
Impact of proliferation on international security
The second general issue area that is prominent in the literature is the risk that
the proliferation of UAVs poses to international security. Some scholars have
argued that the USA opened a Pandora’s box with its targeted strike
campaigns. They fear that the USA has set a precedent which might allow
other states to legitimize the use of drone strikes outside of declared armed
conflicts (Davis et al. 2014; Sayler et al. 2014). Furthermore, some military
strategists wonder whether the use of armed UAVs might undermine the
concept of deterrence, as states could be less restrained in sending in
unmanned aircraft than manned (Boyle 2013). Interestingly, the use of
unarmed UAVs has gained little attention in the literature, although
preliminary research indicates that their use is growing fast, and they are
considered a must-have, high-status weapon by militaries around the globe
(Franke 2015). Finally, policymakers around the globe are concerned about
the weaponization of civilian UAVs by non-state actors. While their use so far
has been limited to conflict areas, they could be used in non-conflict areas
(Rassler 2016; Bunker 2015).
Regulation of UAVs
The above-mentioned concerns have triggered three parallel discussions about
the regulation of armed UAVs: one about regulating their use, one about
transparency and accountability, and one about the trade in and availability of
The idea of regulating the use of armed drones, particularly for targeted
killings, has been driven by NGOs, the academic community, and UN
agencies and institutions. Calls by civil society have not yet resulted in
concrete international outcomes, apart from a number of statements by
30 different countries at the Human Rights Council and in the First and the
Third committees, as well as a number of reports by UN agencies (Kelton and
Law 2015; Heyns 2015). Many countries consider armed drones to be useful
military tools and therefore have little interest in putting limitations on their
use (Franke 2015). Even for those that consider drone strikes problematic,
there is disagreement on whether the problem is the impact of drones as a
technology or the impact of their specific use (Carvin 2015 ; Carvin 2012).
The Netherlands does not see the technology as problematic per se, but has
concerns about the legality of and transparency around targeted killings, the
impact of proliferation of armed UAVs on global security, and the lack of
export controls (van der Kwast 2016; Koenders and Ploumen 2016; Schuwen
The European Union and the US Government have each been reflecting
internally on the use of armed UAVs. The EU has been working on a Joint
Position on the use of armed drones since 2014, but progress has been limited
to debates in the European Parliament. Discussions are reportedly making
limited progress as some EU members states are reluctant to engage with the
issue due to the political sensitivity with regard to transatlantic relations,
diverging opinions on how problematic targeted killings are, and their own
military interests (Dworkin 2013; Paulussen and Dorsey 2015; Raemdonck
2012). There is no discussion on regulating use within the NATO, besides
coordination to ensure interoperability (Ploeger 2010; Nolin 2012). In general
there is little criticism of or interest in regulation on the military side, outside
of a handful of whistleblowing reports by former operators (Scahill 2016).
The US Government released several documents in 2016 that clarify the
procedures it follows when conducting drone strikes (American Civil Liberties
Union 2016). It also published official figures on the number of civilian
casualties that have been caused by US drone strikes. These releases were
reportedly a result of legal pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union
and President Obama’s desire to outline a clear policy for his successor to
follow (Chait 2016). It is not yet clear whether these policies are being
followed by the Trump Administration. Preliminary research by Zenko (2017)
suggests that the frequency of drone strikes and the proportion of civilian
casualties have increased, which might be the result of a general loosening of
the US rules of engagement on air strikes.
There have also been frequent international calls from NGOs and think
tanks to strengthen exports controls on armed UAVs (Stohl and Abizaid
2015). The sale of UAVs is currently controlled under the Wassenaar
Arrangement (WA), the MTCR (for UAVs with a payload over 500 kg), the
ATT and the EU Common Position on arms exports. Some experts deem these
regimes insufficient, most notably because two major exporters, Israel and
China, are not members of any of these regimes. These states claim to adhere
to the rules but this cannot be verified (Zwijnenburg 2015; Stohl 2015). Some
have also highlighted that these regimes are ill-suited to tackling current
technological development in the field of UAVs. Horowitz notes for instance
that UAVs were originally included in the MTCR out of fear they would be
used as delivery systems for WMD. In deciding on export licenses, states are
thus required to take this into account. In practice, however, this is not what
UAVs are used for at all, making the MTCR ill-suited to regulating UAVs
(Horowitz 2017).
The USA consequently proposed a new export control regime on the sale
and use of armed UAVs in the autumn of 2016, to which 41 countries,
including the Netherlands, signed up (Ewers et al. 2017).58 Israel and China
did not, however, and the extent to which the other countries involved will be
willing to restrict their own exports is unclear (Seligman 2016). The future of
this initiative under the Trump Administration is also uncertain (Mehta 2017).
As a result of the use of weaponized civilian UAVs by non-state actors, a
discussion has started on the possibility of controlling those too. However, this
is generally deemed extremely difficult as UAVs are dual use and the ones
used by non-state actors can be bought on the open market (Zwijnenburg
2015). Some experts have suggested that it would be more efficient to invest
in counter-drone technologies and increase controls on civilian airspace
(Wallace and Loffi 2015; Ruth Levush 2016).
UAVs have developed rapidly in the past 15 years and become a staple in the
arsenals of militaries all over the world. The debate on armed drones is
focused on the legal, ethical, political and strategic implications of their use
for targeted strikes. There have been calls for the creation of a dedicated
regulation. Competing attitudes, military interests and political sensitivity
have ensured, however, that there is no consensus on this matter. There is a
discussion on strengthening existing export control regimes, but little concrete
progress has been made in this field either.
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2.4. The development and discussion on LAWS
The development of lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS) is a recent
concern in the arms control community, and one of the new areas of attention
for the humanitarian disarmament movement. This section provides a brief
discussion of definitions, maps out the spectrum concerns related to their
potential proliferation and use, and takes stock of the current debate in the
arms control community on whether the (potential) development, proliferation
and use of such systems should be regulated.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
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  • Article
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