Drones in the sky

Book review: ‘The Drone Age: How Drone Technology Will Change War and Peace’

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The rapid development of drone technology over the years has resulted in a debate as to whether it does more harm than good, raising concerns as to how its use could shape our future. Could personal or political motives be the root of the problem?

It’s hard not to see drone technology wherever we go. The last decade has seen the tech’s rapid pace in innovation leading to dozen of new commercial and scientific applications: from Amazon drone deliveries to filming spectacular scenery from up above. Although it is prominent in our everyday lives in such applications, less is understood on how the unmanned technology plays a key part in warfare and how it can very well change the patterns of war and peace in our time and in the future. This notion sets a series of questions: Will drones create more stability in war-torn regions or will it provoke more conflict? Will drones gradually replace humans on the battlefield or will it empower soldiers to act more precisely in crises? And how will drones change the concept of surveillance around the world?   

Indeed, in ‘The Drone Age: How Drone Technology Will Change War and Peace’ (Oxford University Press, £22.99, ISBN 9780190635862), Michael J Boyle explores six ways in which drones affect decision-making and risk calculations of its users both on and off the battlefield. It also seeks to show that the introduction of drones has changed how we understand the strategic choices that we face in war and peace, and the consequences these decisions may have in the future.

Boyle begins with the early history of the technology, which he declares is not a linear nor clear one. “It is a story of mistakes, false starts, disasters, and failed prototypes,” he writes. Here, he also delves into how its history wouldn’t have been a story to be told, nor would be an integral application in our society today if it weren’t for the financial backing of the military at the time it emerged. “Drone technology was incubated over decades by the military-industrial establishment,” he adds, “and was used for secret military operations for years before appearing in the public domain and broadened their capabilities.”

He then traces the emergence of the practice of targeted killing from its origin to its embrace by the US after the September 11 attacks in 2001. He also explores how the US adopted drones alongside the practices of targeted killing to control risks as it fought a new war against militant Islamist organisation al-Qaeda later that year. Boyle stresses this conflict caused the US to gradually drift into other conflict zones and fighting new enemies. This is because while the US used drones to mitigate the physical risk of its pilots, it created new risks for the population who lived under the drones’ watch. “Drone technology also subtly changed how the US wages its wars, making it more willing to countenance killing people off traditional battlefields whilst undermining the standards of accountability and transparency that it has traditionally employed,” he writes. 

As well as looking into drone strikes, which are predominantly being carried out in the Middle East by all sides, the book also argues that drones accelerate the trend toward information-rich warfare. Boyle explores the mindset of the Pentagon in the US who believe it is essential that the collection and delivery of information to troops on the ground is carried out to control the battlespace, ensuring that its operations are precise and effective. This is where drones are often used for reconnaissance and surveillance. But Boyle stresses that there may be dangers to being over-reliant on images and data from drones. “Militaries may underestimate the risks that they face on the battlefield due to overconfidence based on superior information coming from drone imagery,” he argues.

The most striking argument raised in the book comes when Boyle delves further into the use of drones for imagery and surveillance, claiming that the technology has caused some nations to strive for a bigger goal – being all-knowing and all-seeing. “The ability of the US to see everything with drones has produced a cultural change within the military, prioritising the acquisition of information as an essential goal in and of itself,” he writes. This raises questions about whether drones alter strategic choice through the recalculation of risk and goal displacement, whereby Boyle says the argument doesn’t imply that drones are necessarily good or bad, but rather that drones, like all technology, are subject to human misuse. And this is where the problem could potentially lie...

Indeed, further into the book, Boyle shows that access to drone technology also allows non-state actors such as rebel and terrorist groups to “level the playing field with powerful governments”. Traditionally, conflicts between governments and their non-state challengers often lead to the former being better equipped with resources to defeat the latter. But the low marginal cost of drones can allow such groups to catch military groups and civilians alike off-guard, whether that be through surveillance or maybe perhaps planting an improvised explosive device (IED) onto one and flying it through a crowded city. This highlights how impending consequences are subject to the actions and motives of a certain group or individual. 

The book doesn’t only explore the uses of drones in warfare, but also among society. It illustrates how the technology will transform the dynamics of protest and surveillance in democratic and non-democratic states. Indeed, Boyle says that drones have empowered groups such as civil liberties and activists to identify and publicise human rights abuses and to press democratic governments for action on the issues presented to them – issues which rightly should be acknowledged and dealt with accordingly. Boyle stresses, however, that surveillance drones, in particular, may allow authoritarian governments to monitor protesters and punish them for opposing the government. He also argues that drones may also provide a tool for governments to engage in further surveillance and repression of their secessionist regions. 

Finally, Boyle describes how drones could amplify the competition for power and influence between states in conflict zones, testing the nerves and strategic commitments of their rivals, perhaps with intentions of provoking them, and producing new risks of deterrence breakdown and crisis escalation. “This is because risk calculations with drones have changed,” he says. “What was once too dangerous to do with manned aircraft is now possible with a drone.”

Overall, Boyle gives us an insightful history lesson into the origins of drones and provides thought-provoking accounts where drone technology has altered the strategic choices of its users through changes in risk calculations and goal displacement. It could be argued that perhaps the political or personal agendas of certain politicians or individuals, alongside the rapid growth and increasing access to the technology, has influenced the strategies of certain nations already entangled in conflict. Indeed, the use of drones, whether that be in warfare or society, could potentially cast a hazy cloud over people’s motives and their decisions – and such decisions could result in very dangerous consequences.

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