January 12, 2019

Drones: A Transformative Military Technology?

By Leon Donadoni

Assessing the Effectiveness of UAVs in the Information Revolution in Military Affairs


In the last decade and a half, the rise to prominence of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also commonly known as ‘drones’, has ignited considerable interest in academic and policy circles alike. The vertical and horizontal proliferation of UAVs, spreading from the United States (U.S.) to now more than a dozen countries, has significantly polarised in two opposing camps the debate regarding the role of drones in the so-called revolution in military affairs (RMA). The first account understands UAVs as one of the most transformative technological developments in recent military history (Boyle, 2015, p. 78). The second narrative conversely views drones as a non-transformative technology, replicating capabilities that many modern militaries already possess (Moyar, 2014, pp. 11-13). The purpose of this paper is thus to investigate the effectiveness of UAVs in light of the broader discourse surrounding the RMA.

In the first section, the paper will delineate the key constituting elements of the information revolution in military affairs (IRMA) and present a hypothesis regarding the relationship between IRMA exploitation and UAV effectiveness. This will serve to construct a coherent analytical framework for our investigation. Following this, the paper will explore the advantages and limitations of drone deployment, along with the current trends in UAV proliferation. Lastly, the paper will delve in a comparative analysis of UAV effectiveness in IRMA-exploiting and non-IRMA-exploiting countries. The paper concludes that while the emergence of UAVs constitutes a landmark event in contemporary military history, drones represent a transformative technology only when integrated within a military framework that already fully exploits the information revolution in military affairs.

A Paradigm Shift in Military Affairs? Constituting Elements of the RMA 

The common ground for the RMA was first conceptualised in the early 1980s by Soviet Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, who famously wrote about a ‘military-technical revolution’ that would dramatically improve the lethality and capabilities of conventional weapons (Cohen, 1996, p. 49). Since then, the ideas surrounding this apparent paradigm shift have been exported to the U.S., transformed into a military doctrine by General Andrew W. Marshall and eventually first impressively applied in 1991 during the Gulf War. Following this, the rapid successes of the NATO bombing campaign in Bosnia and Serbia, the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq all served to strengthen the idea that an RMA was underway in Western thinking about the nature and conduct of warfare (Boot, 2006, pp. 7-8).

The term RMA refers to ‘a major change in the nature of warfare brought about by the innovative application of new technologies which, combined with dramatic changes in military doctrine and operational and organisational concepts, fundamentally alters the character and conduct of military operations’ (Maloney & Robertson, 1999, p. 445). Key components behind the RMA doctrine include but are not limited to: joint service commands and data fusion; the elimination of the ‘fog of war’; agile, lower-cost weapons platforms deploying ‘zero-CEP’ precision munitions; fast, deadly, smaller-unit force structures; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ITR); computers, control, communications and intelligence processing (C4I); stealth technologies and space weapons and missile defence. The combined application of this plethora of composing elements forms what is known as the ‘system of systems’: a comprehensive hierarchy of all-knowing technological structures that act as a ‘force multiplier’ for conventional troops. Proponents of this multi-dimensional approach argue that it fundamentally alters the ‘nature of war’ by reducing – if not wholly neutralising – the risks of ambiguity, chance and uncertainty (Murray, 1997, p. 76).

Nevertheless, the conflicts in Lebanon, Gaza, Mali, Libya, Ukraine and against the Islamic State have proven to be difficult tests for the RMA concept, which in turn has led to the term gradually disappearing from both academic and policy circles (Collins & Futter, 2015, p. 1). While there is little doubt that the introduction of new technologies has transformed western military doctrine, commentators such as Colin Gray have observed that the nature of war – if not its character – remains fundamentally unchanged (King, 2014, p. 398). Moreover, due to political, budgetary, cultural and operational reasons, the impact of the RMA has exerted pressure on different actors in different ways. Consequently, the implications and legacy of the RMA are now contested and indistinct, with the term having become a nebulous unifying concept to indicate any relationship between technological advancement and military strategy.

It therefore seems evident that in order to successfully assess if the emergence of UAVs constitutes an RMA, we must first frame the scope of our investigation into a narrower analytical framework. Accordingly, rather than evaluating the reality of the RMA, or its impact on the nature of war, the remainder of this paper will evaluate the effectiveness of drones in contemporary military strategy in the context of the latest trend in the revolution in military affairs: the IRMA. Unlike the broader discourse surrounding RMA, the IRMA is thought to be constituted by five clearly distinguishable elements: sensors, command and control, precision strikes, situational awareness and predictive decision-making (Cassingham, 2016, p. 12). Due to its recognisable composition, the IRMA exists conceptually regardless of whether a particular military force has fully exploited it. While there is very little research on the relationship between IRMA exploitation and drone effectiveness, this paper hypothesises that UAVs require extensive IRMA development in order to be regarded as a transformative technology. This does not necessarily mean that low-exploiting IRMA forces can not deploy drones, but simply that UAVs become a cardinal component of the RMA only when integrated within a highly advanced, information-focused, net-centric military system.

Are Drones a Transformative Technology? The Advantages and Limitations of UAVs

It is conventional wisdom that we now stand at the dawning of UAV proliferation. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. has increased its drone strikes from 50 in the 2001-2008 period to 450 from 2009-2014, with more than 10,000 flight hours in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan alone (Carvin, 2012). During the Obama administration, UAVs have become the cornerstone of the U.S. counter-terrorism strategy, with former Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta referring to drones as ‘the only game in town’ in terms of stopping al-Qaida (Shactman, 2009). Although the United States remains the leading actor in drone acquisition and deployment, several countries including Iraq, Israel, Nigeria, Pakistan and the United Kingdom have used them, and a dozen more now possess armed drones (Horowitz, Kreps & Fuhrmann, 2016, p. 7). With drone proliferation becoming an evident trend, two dichotomous narratives have emerged based on diverging assumptions about the inherent nature of the technology. The following section aims to explore the political, operational and diplomatic advantages and limitations of UAV employment.

The Advantages of UAVs: Low Risks and High Rewards

The first narrative regarding UAVs depicts drones as a unique transformative technology that ‘revolutionizes how nations and nonstate actors threaten the use of violence’ (Zegart, 2015). The strongest point in support of this account is that drones lower the costs of military operations while making it physically easier to lethally target long-distance enemies without risking the life of the user. Accordingly, drones are revolutionary from a public opinion perspective, as they lower the barriers for military deployment and public scrutiny. This makes the use of military force less problematic, especially in democracies, as drones create a sense of distance that leads to war being witnessed as a ‘spectator sport’. Since legislators receive little credit for foreign policy intervention that goes well and get full blame for those that end badly, a ‘bloodless, painless, and odourless’ intervention becomes imperative for lawmakers (Schultz, 2003). It should therefore come to no surprise that the level of support in the U.S. for UAVs from 2011 to 2014 was around 65 per cent (Kreps, 2014, p. 107). Second, drones give rise to both operational and tactical advantages due to their ability to sustain persistent flights over potential targets (Horowitz, Kreps & Fuhrmann, 2016, p. 21). Compared to the F-16 fighter jet or A-10 ground attack aircraft, drones such as the Predator or Reaper can remain fully loaded in the air for more than fourteen hours. The greater endurance of UAVs ensures an increased situational awareness, especially with regards to identifying and engaging targets and diverting missiles in accordance with changes on the ground. Consequently, drones tend to be also more precise compared to their less responsive counterparts, also due to the smaller blast zone produced by their grenade-like warheads. Moreover, drones do not only offer strike capabilities but also enable actors to acquire real-time information through low-risk surveillance flights. Unlike signals, measures and signatures and human intelligence, obtaining static imagery intelligence does not require extensive training and has the added value of being easily interpretable. A third advantage of UAVs is that drones, when violating a local state’s sovereignty, do so to a lesser extent compared to their manned counterparts, thus reducing the risk of diplomatic fallout. Since pilots are located thousands of kilometres away from a drone’s target, local governments tend to be more lenient in allowing strikes on their ground. A clear example is Pakistan, which has tacitly consented to more than 350 American strikes since 2004 – resulting in a 75% elimination of core al-Qaeda members – despite the numerous public protests about drones operating in Pakistani skies. Critics of drones thus often fail to consider that the alternatives for achieving such objectives are far riskier due to the lawlessness of most terrorist-related operational theatres.

The Limitations of UAVs: Just Another Platform

The counter-narrative to the above account portrays drones as being ‘just another platform’ that militaries may employ in order to achieve their strategic objectives (Plaw, Fricker & Colon, 2015, p. 203). Consequently, policy, rather than technology, dictates effectiveness. In the words of General Thomas Lawson: ‘If a kinetic round is propelled toward a confirmed enemy for strategic purposes by a rifle, by an artillery piece, by an aircraft manned, or an aircraft unmanned, any of those that end up with a desired effect is a supportable point of view’ (Zenko & Kreps, 2014, p. 8). Accordingly, drones are simply a delivery system that can be easily substituted by a soldier or a manned aircraft and as a result, do not represent a revolutionary military technology (Horowitz, Kreps & Fuhrmann, 2016, p. 15). Moreover, the various ‘hidden’ operational limitations of UAVs do not make them a ‘silver bullet’. First, the cruise speed of a Reaper tends to be six times lower than that of an F-16, consequently having a higher probability of being shot down by primary anti-air defence system. This risk is only augmented by the fact that UAVs fly low and lack air-to-air capabilities. It should then come to little surprise that drones are not the weapons of choice in the Syrian Civil War, with the rudimentary anti-air defence system of the Syrian Armed Forces having shot down multiple U.S. and Turkish UAVs. Second, drones are exposed to greater vulnerability compared to their alternatives also because their effectiveness depends on the data link that connects them to pilots, which can easily jam, get spooned or hacked (Horowitz, Kreps & Fuhrmann, 2016, p. 17). Third, current-generation UAVs are not the unique technology we are brought to believe since they replicate many pre-existing features of helicopters, ballistic missiles and manned aircraft. Fourth, drones require just as much extensive training as other military technologies, if not more, with UAV pilots leaving service at three times the rate of those operating manned aircraft supposedly due to the higher levels of mental attrition (Horowitz, Kreps & Fuhrmann, 2016, p. 19). Fifth, drones tend to be able to fire only small blast zone missiles, making them inadequate when targeting larger objectives such as oil fields or military bases. Moreover, by lowering the threshold for deployment, UAVs increase both the likelihood of airspace transgression and the willingness of their enemies to shoot them down. This, combined with the fact that drone campaign objectives can quickly transform from an attempt to deal a pivotal blow to remote-control repression, establishes the perfect breeding ground for the emergence of diplomatic crises (Cronin, 2013, p. 47).

Evaluating the Drone Debate: IRMA Exploitation and UAV Effectiveness

What emerges from the above debate is that UAVs are neither a game changer in every dimension of international security, nor a redundant military technology that brings significant opportunity costs to their deployers (Horowitz, Kreps & Fuhrmann, 2016, p. 37). It is the opinion of this paper that the discrepancy between these two camps is most probably a consequence of the context in which different drones operate. Consequently, to better understand why drone effectiveness varies beyond the tactical level of warfare, it is imperative to integrate the debate within the narrower theoretical framework previously introduced. The following section will explore the relationship between UAV effectiveness and IRMA exploitation by assessing if drones equally represent a transformative technology when employed by an IRMA-exploiting country (U.S.) and a non-IRMA-exploiting region (Southeast Asia). In order to eliminate contextual and operational discrepancies, the paper shall investigate the impact of the five categories of IRMA (sensors, command and control, precision strikes, situational awareness and predictive decision-making) in the context of maritime UAV employment.

Maritime UAV Employment and Full IRMA-Exploitation by the United States

The U.S. is involved in maritime disputes all around the world and has often recurred to the use of UAVs to safeguard its strategic interests overseas. Moreover, it is common opinion that the U.S. fully exploits the IRMA through its net-centric approach to data collection in support of maritime missions. Therefore, the U.S. represents a perfect case study to assess the positive correlation between IRMA exploitation and UAV effectiveness. There are numerous reasons for this correlation. First, greater sensor capability enables faster and improved analysis of drone-collected data. The extensive range of U.S. satellite, air, ground, surface, subsurface and cyber sensors cue unmanned assets to investigate potential threats (Richelson, 2016, pp. 108-114). Second, IRMA exploitation improves command and control during UAV missions by introducing civilian oversight, thus facilitating the sharing of IT infrastructure. Third, greater access to information guarantees greater precision strike capability, consequently enabling drones to shorten the kill chain and strike ad hoc targets without prior planning (Cassingham, 2016, p. 39). Fourth, the IRMA allows all-source intelligence fusion in joint operational centres such as the White House Situation Room, meaning that information collected by drones has a greater chance of empowering decision-makers by reaching all actors in the chain of command, from the single unit to the President. Lastly, all the above enable commanders to deliberate with confidence that the outcome will reflect their intentions (Cassingham, 2016, p. 40). The interplay between these mechanisms results in a greater capability to tactically shift military assets, present evidence of international law violations and exert maritime domain awareness (Cassingham, 2016, p. 41). As a result, the effectiveness of U.S. maritime UAV deployment is directly related to the IRMA’s all-encompassing information architecture.

Maritime UAV Employment and Non-IRMA-Exploitation by Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia (SA), with its recent growth in the adoption of unmanned technology, relative lack of C4I infrastructure and South China Sea maritime security challenges, is an ideal region to analyse in the context of our investigation (Cassingham, 2016, p. 28). Countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines have all recently acquired UAV capabilities with the hope of achieving asymmetric advantages over their adversaries. Nevertheless, none of these countries is on the verge of upending the regional status quo (Cassingham, 2016, p. 1). Unlike the U.S., these countries have not demonstrated any significant efforts in terms of IRMA-exploitation. Failure to do so has resulted in decreased UAV effectiveness for multiple reasons. First, the sensor capabilities of SA countries are limited both structurally and technologically and are mostly dependent on extensive U.S. support. For example, the U.S. Navy annually provides to the Philippines and Vietnam aerostat surveillance balloons, long-range radar detection capabilities and funds for ISR aircraft. Until SA countries do not develop an independent sensor capability, time-critical UAV data cannot be received, processed or disseminated with speed necessary to make timely military decisions (Cassingham, 2016, p. 12). Second, due to the expensive price tag of the IRMA, command and control infrastructure in SA remains highly centralised. This has the undesired effect of reducing command capabilities over joint forces, thus diminishing the effectiveness of UAV deployment in the maritime domain. Third, although precision strikes are commercially acquirable, no SA country has an armed drone capability due to ageing tactical platforms. Fourth, situational awareness remains very poor in SA due to the absence of a common operational picture. Yet again, the only efforts in terms of developing greater interoperability, integrated data correlation and data fusion from multiple sources are provided externally by the U.S. and Australia (Cassingham, 2016, p. 81). Fifth, all the above lead to reduced accuracy in terms of predictive decision-making. As a result, most countries in SA, despite having acquired UAVs, have been unable to use drones at their full potential due to a general incapability or unwillingness to exploit the IMRA.

Final Remarks

The conclusion reached by this paper is primarily threefold. First, it appears evident that the notion of an RMA is currently undefined, being composed of overarching narratives, subplots, counter-stories and normative judgements that emerge from disparate discursive ontologies. The complexity of the ‘systems of systems’ highlights how UAVs, being a single component of the RMA’s multi-layered and indefinite operational doctrine, cannot per se represent a technological revolution in military affairs. On the other hand, the IRMA enables us to narrow down the discussion to a more distinguishable analytical framework with clear characterising elements.

Second, by exploring the advantages and limitations of UAVs we understand that both narratives have valid points and that it would be irresponsible scholarship to embrace or neglect exclusively one side of the drone debate. This enables us to comprehend that the two conflicting accounts emerge from different contextual understandings of drone acquisition and deployment, consequently establishing the theoretical ground to assess the effectiveness of drones in the context of the IRMA.

This brings us to our final point. The comparative analysis between the U.S. and Southeast Asia clearly highlights how UAVs serve as an effective component only when integrated within an overarching C4ISR infrastructure (Cassingham, 2016, p. 26). As a result, the emergence of drones is likely to be a transformative military technology exclusively in countries that already fully exploit the IRMA. Until then, drone acquisition by non-IRMA-exploiting actors will have the equivalent outcome of purchasing surface-to-air missiles without a radar system: the missiles may fire, but the chances of them being effective are minimal (Cassingham, 2016, p. 1). In sum, the effectiveness of drones is not predetermined at acquisition, and if a country truly wants to bring a revolution in military affairs in the information age, it must look at the support system, rather than the drone itself.


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