AADRONES_01, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, at the Global Security (GLOBSEC) 2020 Bratislava Forum | Photo Credit: North Atlantic Treaty Organisation

Combat Drones: Navigating the Grey Area

In today’s conflicts, the use of combat drones has become ubiquitous across most military forces. While they offer advantages in terms of efficiency and reduced military risk, these drones still lack international regulation — raising concerns about their potential abuse and threat to civilian lives. How can we promote greater transparency and accountability for the use of combat drones? Can we meet the challenges posed by this evolving technology?

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“Conflicts are increasingly defined by bytes and big data as much as by bullets and battleships.”

The statement made by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, is cognisant of the effects of modern technology on international security.

His speech at the Global Security (GLOBSEC) 2020 Bratislava Forum, outlined how ‘NATO 2030’ is an attempt to improve the alliance militarily and politically, embracing a more global perspective on the issues it faces. It aims to adapt the organisation for the challenges of the 21st century: changing security environments, new technologies, and the need for greater cooperation among NATO members to continuously have a “technological edge in a competitive world”. The initiative also includes specialised goals such as increasing NATO’s cyber defence capabilities.

In particular, the ubiquity of combat drones has drastically changed how warfare is carried out today. Its low costs, relatively small size, portability and perceived reduced risk of harm to operators as well as political risks associated with decisions to use force, have gathered the interest of nations of all military capacities. The use of artificial intelligence (AI) in drones has also enabled its use for precision air-strikes and has given it the ability to make decisions without human input. Solar-powered drones are also able to expand their range and penetrate deep into enemy territory. As a result, countries around the world are on the cusp of a major technological revolution, fighting and winning wars one could never have previously conceived.

However, these enhanced super-soldiers have opened up a Pandora’s box: technically, ethically and politically. 

In a 2015 study on Armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, the UN Disarmament and International Security (DISEC) committee explores the various characteristics of combat drones and addressed the need for countries to be more accountable for their usage of combat drones. It highlights how the minimised personal risk of military engagements may contribute to the erosion in international norms, particularly when used for drone strikes across international borders. The capability of AI to select and engage targets without a human operator also has significant ethical implications, especially if it is susceptible to technical issues that may interfere with their control systems, such as hacking, spoofing, or technical flaws.

Beyond this, these drones also pose far deeper political concerns when they are used by countries as a tool for building political, diplomatic and economic relations between countries and for strengthening economic relationships between trading partners.

So, how can the international community address such limitations? Is there a way to mitigate such risks while also reaping the benefits of technological advancements and its contributions to increased international security? 

To answer these questions, we would need to take a closer look at the various challenges combat drones pose to their users today. 

Technical and Ethical Challenges 

Limitations of Artificial Intelligence (AI)

Combat drones have greatly expanded their operational capabilities, from simple reconnaissance to controversial killings. AI is increasingly being used in drones for object identification, decision-making and navigation. It also enables the use of multiple drones simultaneously, coordinating its actions towards a common goal. Giving these AI-combat drones autonomous killing capabilities has caused significant ethical repercussions, given that there is no human judgement entailed prior to their firing upon its targets. The term “killer robot” has become a frightening reality now.

AI systems are constantly being developed to be able to perform tasks that would otherwise require human input. In addition, militaries often push for increased autonomy to reduce operational and maintenance costs, as pointed out in Kuo and Warford’s 2013 The Ethical Performance on Drones

It is therefore inevitable that combat drones with AI technology will have an increasing stake in the future of warfare.

AAdDRONES_02, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-9 Reaper by the United States, capable of autonomous flight operations  | Photo Credit: Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt

The American MQ-9 Reaper, a hunter-killer and surveillance drone that was deployed by US forces under ‘Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan’ and ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’, has a longer range and can carry more and heavier ammunition (such as Hellfire missiles), compared to its predecessor, the MQ-1 Predator. 

However, such AI-powered drones still have their limitations, such as the lack of situational awareness and limited ability to handle complex and dynamic situations. This makes it hard to navigate the rapidly changing environments of a warzone. AI also generally lacks the ability to interpret human intent by understanding behaviour, making it difficult to distinguish between enemy combatants and civilians. This may lead to the loss of innocent civilian lives.

Thus raises the question of ethics during war. As much as robots rely on advanced sensors and data processing to determine its actions, they still lack the ability to evaluate situations as well as humans do as it is very difficult to model and program facets of human behaviour and intelligence, such as perception, reasoning, decision-making and learning, into drones.

AAdDRONES_03, Supporters of Defense of Pakistan Council (DPC), a coalition of religious and political parties, protest against the US drone strikes in the Pakistani tribal region, in Peshawar on Nov 10, 2013  | Photo Credit: A. Majeed/AFP/Getty Images

Based on a 2018 report published by Amnesty International on Deadly Assistance: The Role of European States in US Drone Strikes, the U.S. has carried out 45 reported drone strikes in North Waziristan, in northwestern Pakistan, between January 2012 and August 2013.

One such strike led to the death of a 68-year-old grandmother, Mamana Bibi, while she was working her family’s fields in the region’s Ghundi Kala village, in October 2012. The drone itself was a MQ-9 Reaper carrying two Hellfire missiles, and the incident was horrifyingly witnessed by her grandchildren. Until today, there has been no acknowledgement nor action by the United States government to bring those responsible to justice, which Amnesty International says is tantamount to war crimes.

‘Kamikaze drones’ — or ‘suicide’ drones — are another terrifying reality that poses an ethical question. They are a type of airborne weapon system carrying munition, waiting for a period of time in the air and only attacking when enemy assets are identified. They are small, cheaper than reusable drones, portable and can be easily launched, but their main advantages are that they are often difficult to detect and can be fired from far distances due to their lightweight size. Both Russia and Ukraine have reportedly used Iranian-made Shaheed-136 and US-made Switchblade kamikaze drones respectively, in the Russia-Ukraine war. These drones, once airborne, pose a serious threat to civilians when misused, especially with no existing international standards regarding its use.

If war and military enhancements are to be inevitable, how does one utilise the next generation of combat drones ethically and responsibly?

As AI in combat drones is only a newly tested technology, it should work hand-in-hand with their human counterparts, where it is able to provide its human operators with sufficient data to be able to make an ethical judgement call on its subsequent action. In addition, this also gives one a sense of responsibility when engaging in airstrikes, further reducing ill-informed killings of innocent civilians.

Drones’ autonomous capabilities may also be improved to reduce the danger posed to civilians, through professional wargames. According to Ilachinski’s 2017 study AI, Robots and Swarms, such simulations may create meaningful conceptual frameworks for such development and create a Concept of Operations (CONOPS) that can be modified to match the new era of contemporary warfare. These combat simulations may also provide data for AI systems in a variety of difficult situations, reducing uncertainty in autonomous operations.

Prone to Cyber Attacks

As AI-combat drones become more intelligent and interconnected with other devices, they are increasingly exposed to vulnerabilities by cyber attackers. 

In the past, American drones have been hacked by Iraqi insurgents using readily-available and affordable software on the internet. The insurgents intercepted real-time video feeds that the drone was transmitting to its controllers, which showed them possible targets identified by the Americans. Furthermore, this was made aware to the Americans only after hours of videotaped recordings were recovered.

Although there is not much news regarding hacked military drones due to national security concerns and the protection of sensitive information to maintain operational security, the vulnerabilities presented by AI-drones show that such events are possible; softwares are prone to getting compromised however intelligent they may be. 

Militaries should thus be encouraged to work alongside academic and commercial research communities  to address the operational needs of combat drones. A standard of measure for the effectiveness and performance of the drones may also be implemented across all operational requirements. In short, a wide pool of technically knowledgeable individuals can help to reduce -– but never completely eradicate — the vulnerabilities of these quickly evolving technologies.

Political Challenges

International Legal Issues and Transparency

One of the main concerns among the international community is the legality of drone strikes conducted by a nation in another country that it is not officially at war with.

Under international law of the UN Charter, the use of force is only permissible in instances of self-defence or with the authorisation of the UN. The legality of drone strikes has thus become a contentious issue, as the countries conducting the strikes argue that they are acting in self-defence or to target non-state actors, whereas the recipient countries argue that their sovereignty is in violation. 

Leaked pentagon documents reveal that 90% of the people killed by US drones during a five-month period in the 2013 Operation Haymaker in northeast Afghanistan were unintended targets, according to the 2018 Amnesty International report. Additionally, between 2004 and 2020, US drone operations claimed the lives of 1,551 civilians from Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Pakistan. According to the findings, the United States had unlawfully killed civilians in Pakistan using drones, which may have constituted war crimes or extrajudicial executions.

The use of drones therefore raises legal questions about states’ responsibilities to investigate and prosecute war crimes and other violations of international humanitarian law. Drone operations are often kept secret, making it difficult to hold those responsible accountable. In situations where the military coalition is conducting drone airstrikes in another country, ensuring responsibility and accountability is only further hindered. 

On the other hand, in order to disrupt terrorist organisations, the United States conducts drone strikes in places including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and potentially other countries. Insurgents and armed groups use the civilian population to conceal their identities by staying in populous regions, making it difficult to tell legitimate militants from civilians and subsequently putting them at risk of being killed during drone attacks. The United States’ actions are made even more counterproductive, as the harm that befalls civilians may be exploited by their military opponents to propagate the idea that government authorities are incapable of ensuring their protection. 

Other countries have also engaged in drone usage which has led to international grievances. In July 2018, Pakistan expressed its concerns regarding India’s acquisition of armed drones by the US, suggesting that the “use of armed drones can lower the threshold for conflict, since it can encourage military misadventures…”. In February 2018, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Apache helicopters shot down an Iranian-made RQ-170 armed drone near the northern Israeli town of Beit She’an. Retaliatory airstrikes began immediately afterwards against Iranian assets by Israel, significantly raising the tensions between the countries. Just recently in January 2023, both North and South Korea flew drones into each other’s airspace, violating the armistice that governs their shared borders.

Hence, while the deployment of drones have had seemingly minimal consequences in certain cases, they may also strain relationships between nations, leading to impediments to global cooperation and diplomacy, or even physical retaliation and escalation of violence.

Ease of Drone Proliferation

“In this day and age, the biggest change in our lives is driven by technology — and who drives the changes? The ones who create technology,” said Selcuk Bayraktar, the designer of Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2, one of the world’s major drone exports and enabling the nation’s rise as a drone superpower.

The lack of regulation surrounding the development, usage and proliferation of drones has raised international concerns about the potential for an arms race.

Major drone-exporting countries have been able to reap economic and strategic benefits, including large revenues and strengthening diplomatic ties with their trade partners. However, they have also been able to  exert influence over other nations, and gain recognition and access to international platforms.

AADRONES_04, Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 Drone | Photo Credit: Baykar Technology

Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 has allowed the nation just that, giving it the international spotlight for producing reliable and efficient combat drones. Unlike the combat drones from the U.S. or Israel, Turkey’s drone provides an affordable alternative especially for countries with limited military budgets. It has given middle-sized powers such as Ukraine in the Russia-Ukraine war and Azerbaijan in the second Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the ability to emulate aerial prowess. This tried and tested drone technology to improve military capabilities will likely be replicated by other countries with limited defence budgets.

However, due to its low cost, the drones may also be easily acquired by a wide range of actors — including non-state actors — making them a large potential threat to national security.

Countries have become increasingly aware of these threats of armed drones to international peace and security. Efforts have been made by some to promote the application of existing measures to address the transfer and ownership of drones between countries and organisations, such as the United Nations Conventional Arms Register and the Wassenaar Arrangement — whereby member states regulate the selling and exports of arms goods and technologies to promote greater international transparency and responsibility. 

However, concerns related to the use of armed drones have largely gone unaddressed at the international level.

It is clear that these challenges to global security and international relations may only be resolved through greater international regulation. As militaries harness new technology for their continued pursuits, the use of armed drones will no doubt extend into the future. The military advantages of drones are met with these plethora of technical, ethical and political challenges that must be addressed to ensure that they are being used in a legal and responsible manner, through increased transparency and regulation. We must ensure that although technology is there to assist us — we cannot misuse it against ourselves.

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Atsil Asyraf
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