Lethal Drones

by Micah Zenko 

In December 1903, the Wright brothers were the first to achieve power-driven, heavier-than-air flight. Within 14 months, they attempted to sell versions of their aircraft to the British and American militaries. Indeed, even these nascent airplanes provided tremendous theoretical and tactical advantages for any military, especially for hand-delivering communications from headquarters to the battlefield, transporting troops, conducting surveillance of terrain and troop movements, and, eventually, dropping bombs. On Nov. 1, 1911, while flying over Libya, an Italian pilot and lieutenant named Giulio Gavotti pulled the security pins off four five-pound Cipelli grenades with his teeth, and tossed the grenades out the window at enemy encampments. Most of them fell harmlessly into the open desert, but others hit non-combatants. And with that crude attack, airpower was born.

Soon after airplanes were used to facilitate the killing of human beings, militaries undertook efforts to protect pilots in the cockpit by removing them altogether. In 1918, the Kettering Aerial Torpedo – nicknamed the “Bug” – became the first unmanned aerial system to be successfully developed and tested. The Kettering was made of wood and canvas, radio-controlled, and weighed 530 lbs. when fully loaded with explosives. However, the Kettering was never successfully deployed in a combat setting, nor were comparable American efforts. Other than the United States, and perhaps Israel, there were few known instances of states using unmanned aircraft to drop weapons in the 20th century.


How Drones are Different

Today, the uses and misuses of armed drones are well-publicized, and new revelations and insights are reported weekly. Although some civilian and military officials contend that armed drones are no different than other weapons platforms, drones have three unique advantages over manned aircraft, cruise missile strikes, and special operations raids in identifying and destroying targets.

First, unlike manned aircraft or raids, drones can fly directly over hostile territory without placing pilots or ground troops at risk of injury, capture, or death. 

Second, drones allow for sustained persistence over potential targets. For example, the U.S. arsenal of armed drones – primarily the Predator and Reaper – can remain aloft, fully loaded with munitions, for more than 14 hours, compared to four hours or less for F-16 fighter jets and A-10 ground-attack aircraft.

Third, drones provide a near-instantaneous responsiveness that dramatically shrinks what U.S. military targeting experts call the “find-fix-finish” loop. A drone-fired missile travels faster than the speed of sound, striking a target within seconds – often before it is heard by people on the ground. Contrast this with the August 1998 cruise-missile salvo that targeted Osama bin Laden, an operation that required predicting where he would be in four to six hours to analyze the intelligence, obtain presidential authorization, program the missiles, and fly them to the target. Intercontinental ballistic missiles loaded with conventional munitions can reach distant targets much faster than cruise missiles, but they carry the dire risk of misattribution as a nuclear first-strike. Drone-fired missiles can also be – and have been – diverted at the last moment if non-combatants enter the likely blast radius.

At the same time, however, drones suffer two significant limitations. First, the precision and discrimination of drones are only as good as the supporting intelligence, which is derived from multiple sources. In states that lack a vast network of enabling intelligence, there will be significantly less situational awareness and precise targeting information for drones.

Second, U.S. armed drones benefit from host-state support, which the United States secures with payments in foreign aid and security assistance. Without such tacit or explicit support, drone strikes would be much less effective. For example, the CIA and U.S. military co-operate with their Pakistani counterparts to collect intelligence to identify and track suspected militants. The Pakistani army clears the airspace for U.S. drones, and when they inadvertently crash, Pakistani troops have repeatedly fought against the Taliban to recover the wreckage. Similarly, in Yemen, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has praised U.S. drones: “Every operation, before taking place, they take permission from the president.” As a result, the United States has taken advantage of permissive environments, unthreatened by antiaircraft guns or surface-to-air missiles, where non-battlefield targeted killings have occurred. However, according to former Air Force lieutenant-general David Deptula, armed drones that are deployed against a capable air-defence system would be vulnerable to attack: “Some of the [drones] that we have today, you put in a high-threat environment, and they’ll start falling from the sky like rain.”

The combination of negligible risks to pilots or ground troops, persistence and responsiveness, and tacit host-nation support has made drones the preeminent tool for U.S. lethal operations against suspected terrorists and militants. In short, drones are not just another weapons platform. They provide the United States with a distinct capability that significantly reduces many of the inherent political, diplomatic, and military risks of targeted killings. As a result, American policymakers are now much more likely to use lethal force against a range of perceived threats than in the past. Since 9/11, more than 95 per cent of more than 400 non-battlefield targeted killings have been conducted by drones (the remaining five per cent were Joint Special Operations Command raids, AC-130 gunships, and offshore sea- or air-launched cruise missiles). While George W. Bush authorized more non-battlefield targeted killing strikes than any of his predecessors (50), Barack Obama has exponentially increased that number since entering office (350).


Trends in Proliferation

The inherent advantages of drones in conducting lethal operations, and the intensity with which they have been used under the Obama administration, have made them an attractive tool for many other states. It is important to note that there is little credible, publicly available information about how interested states have progressed in developing armed drones. Much of what is known is limited to displays at air shows and the defence-trade press, and it is almost certain that some state advancements toward weaponized drones are intentionally hidden – this certainly is true for the United States. Moreover, there is no international association for drone manufacturers and operators (like those that exist for civilian nuclear facilities or commercial space launches) that provides reliable information on drones, or serves as a forum to exchange best practices. Finally, given the sunk costs that they have incurred to develop or purchase manned aircraft that can drop bombs, many states have little incentive to undertake the significant investment required for armed drones, especially as defence spending is flat or falling globally.

What is well documented is the vast global expansion in unarmed drones for government or civilian intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the number of states that have acquired a complete drone system has grown from 41 in 2005 to 76 in 2012. Over the same period, the number of total drone programs within those states increased from 195 to 900. Over the next decade, there is a projected $80 billion in global spending for drones, one of the few potential growth industries for the aerospace and defence sectors. The U.S. military will remain the unrivalled leader in drones, as it is projected to account for 62 per cent of all drone research and development and 55 per cent of all procurement over this time period.

However, there is little public evidence that states have bought or sold weapons-capable drones, primarily because the United States and Israel control the vast majority of the market. Together, Northrop Grumman (39.5 per cent) and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (24.9 per cent) dominate worldwide drone manufacturing, as no other company has more than three per cent of market share. The United States has prohibited selling armed drones to states like Pakistan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that have requested the technology, although it has made exceptions for the U.K., and possibly Italy. After the United States, Israel has the most developed and varied drone capabilities: According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Israel was responsible for 41 per cent of drones exported between 2001 and 2011. Israel reportedly sold the Harop, a short-range attack drone, to France, Germany, Turkey, and India. A March 2011 analysis by the marketing research firm Lucintel projected that a “fully developed [armed drone] product will take another decade.”

At the same time, some states have reportedly successfully developed or obtained armed drones. China claims to have at least 25 prototypes of drones in development, including armed variants potentially for export. According to a July Pentagon report, “Data on the actual extent of [drone] production is nearly non-existent, and there is little available information on China’s overall procurement objectives.” Iran also touts its program, but most of its drones are extremely crude and lack hard points, which are mounting brackets for aerial munitions, or the electrical engineering required for fire control. Other advanced industrial states, like Russia, for example, have not yet developed armed drones, although the Russian Ministry of Defence signed contracts with domestic aerospace firms to build a prototype by 2014, with the goal of the drones entering service by 2020.


Changes to the International System?

For the foreseeable future, the U.S.’s use of armed drones and their eventual emergence in other countries will not significantly alter the international system. In large part, this is because no other countries have the system-wide infrastructure put in place by the United States to conduct transnational drone strikes, or what are known as remote-split operations. This architecture includes: overt host-nation permission to base drones and associated launch and recovery personnel abroad, overflight rights through transit countries, nearby search-and-rescue forces to recover downed drones, satellites or assured access to commercial satellite bandwidth to transmit command-and-control data, and the human intelligence assets on the ground to help identify targets. Furthermore, many of the principles – such as deterrence, alliances, and norms of non-interference – that currently limit attacks by one state against another will endure even as armed drones proliferate.

The more likely impact of armed drones will be in how they are used domestically, or regionally. In the near future, states will employ drones with short ranges and limited firepower that lack the precision of U.S. laser-guided munitions. Since such drones will have to be controlled via (non-satellite) line-of-sight communications, the most likely targets will be neighbouring states or domestic threats. Think about cross-border adversaries that currently face attacks, or the threat of attacks, by manned aircraft or artillery, such as Israel into Lebanon, Egypt, or Syria; Russia into Georgia or Azerbaijan; Ethiopia, Kenya, or the European Union into Somalia; Rwanda into the Democratic Republic of the Congo; South Sudan into Sudan, and vice versa; Turkey into Iraq; and Saudi Arabia into Yemen. Similarly, consider all of the states that use military force against domestic insurgencies, terrorists, or criminal groups. Based on the U.S. precedent where drones have lowered the threshold for dropping bombs, states will resort to force more easily and more often.

Based on the advances in drone technology by researchers, hobbyists, and activists, non-state actors will assuredly develop armed drones, although these will also have limited impact on the international system – at least in the short term. Among the few non state actors that have used drones and have a history of politically motivated violence, the leader is Hezbollah. It has flown the Iranian-supplied Ababil that reportedly boasts an 88-lb. explosive triggered by crashing the drone into a target. However, given that Hezbollah already maintains an arsenal of more than 60,000 rockets and missiles, drones would provide little additional attack capability.

Other non-state actors could carry out similar terrorist attacks with explosives-laden drones, but that would inflict little damage. For example, U.S. citizen Rezwan Ferdaus plotted to attack the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol with three remotely piloted aircraft ranging from 60 to 80 inches in length, and with a wingspan between 44 and 63 inches. Each of the drones would have been laden with five pounds of homemade explosives and directed to their targets via Global Positioning System (GPS) co-ordinates. However, such drones would have caused insignificant damage to either building. Given their size, weight, and power limitations, primitive drones like those Ferdaus sought could become prevalent in terrorist attacks, but containing amounts of explosives similar to that of a suicide attack, and much less than that of a typical car bomb. However, given that drones will become cheaper, smaller, faster, stealthier, and more lethal, non-state actors will eventually leverage their own drones for their own missions.



Wherever drones have been deployed, decision-makers have found other uses for them beyond their original purpose. Following the delayed response of firing cruise missiles in a failed attempt to kill Osama bin Laden in 1998, the United States developed an armed variant of the Predator drone by February 2001. This weapon – rushed specifically to kill bin Laden – would be used outside of battlefield settings over the next dozen years to kill around 3,000 suspected militants, terrorists, and non-combatants. One Marine official in the special-operations community revealed that the U.S. military developed the tactic of using a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone to blast reinforced doors before ground troops storm the building. Since military force is a fungible tool to achieve a range of policy goals, the policies, justifications, and precedents of armed drones that the United States sets may be followed by others in unanticipated and unpredictable ways.

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