What's happening at the
Monday 21 Aug 2017 | 03:45 | SYDNEY
Monday 21 Aug 2017 | 03:45 | SYDNEY

The future of drone warfare

5 Nov 2015 16:15

The US State Department has approved a sale of armed drones to Italy, the first such transaction to be allowed under a new policy. Previously only the UK was allowed to share this technology.

US service personnel train in loading munitions on an MQ-9

Drones are becoming big business and this sale seems to signal the start of an export strategy for unmanned aerial systems (UAS). In February the State Department noted: 

'As the nascent commercial UAS market emerges, the United States has a responsibility to ensure that sales, transfers, and subsequent use of all US origin UAS are responsible and consistent with US national security and foreign policy interests, including economic security.

The estimated contribution of the proposed sale to economic security is $126 million. This amount may pale in comparison to the long term security costs of international proliferation.


11 Nov 2015 11:50

OK, so that headline is a mildly offensive way to enter the discussion started so respectfully by Jennifer Hunt and James Brown on The Interpreter. I'm sure they both love that puppy, even if they have their doubts about drones. But now that I have your attention, let me try to make a few serious points, including one about puppies.

I'll start not with drones but with 'lethally autonomous robots'. Combat drones such as those the US is using so frequently in its war on terror have a human decision-maker 'in the loop', someone (or frequently more than one person) who makes the final decision to fire on a target. Killer robots would do away with such human intervention, and the video James Brown recommends by sci-fi novelist Daniel Suarez paints a dark picture of where this technology leads, not only for warfare but for democracy.


17 Nov 2015 12:15

There is no doubt that remote weapons pose significant challenges in the evolving character of warfare.

Like other disruptive technologies emerging in the civilian realm, remote weapons such as Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs) have had considerable impact in the ways that advanced militaries are not only fighting wars, but also in how they understand themselves.

However, as the initial ethical concerns about remote weapons become less challenging, two key aspects of remote weapons point to the future concerns of their roll out and use.

In regard to existing ethical concerns, the main discussions of remote weapons centred on three main sets of worry: first, that the distance between pilot and target made remote weapons specially morally problematic; second, that their use, specifically by the US military, was secretive and thus of concern; and last, that they were somehow dishonourable.

The first sort of argument, that the distance between pilot and target is so great as to make them uniquely problematic, is initially tempting.


18 Nov 2015 12:45

The recent series of posts on armed drones from James Brown, Sam Roggeveen and Jennifer Hunt each make a compelling case for the need to consider the ethics of these weapons. These authors are right, but what they may not be aware of is that such consideration is underway,  at least in the Australian Army.

On 21-22 June 2016 the Army's Strategic Plans Branch will co-host with UNSW-Canberra a major conference on military ethics. The ethics of armed drones will be on the program. This conference is open to the public and its proceedings will be published, as Army encourages an open discussion of the ethics of contemporary war.

Moreover, through its Research Scheme the Australian Army has already commissioned papers on the ethics of other emerging technologies such as soldier enhancement, and intends to commission additional studies.


26 Nov 2015 14:04

Is the drone pilot a warrior? It's a crucial question surrounding the place of the drone pilot within the military ethos – and one Adam Henschke points to in a recent entry in this series of posts of the future of drones on The Interpreter.

It's a good and important question, not only for the reasons Henschke identifies. Whether or not drones are seen as cowardly and therefore offend or embolden the enemy, the lack of clarity regarding the position of the drone pilot is concerning. 

Shannon E French argues being identified as a warrior situates a person within the 'warrior ethos' – including an informal code of conduct. 'The warrior code', as French calls it, is an honour system that regulates behaviour based on an agreed-upon sense of 'what it means to be a warrior'.