By Stephen Talik
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), better known as drones, are everywhere. You might see them flying above your house in the hands of a photographer or being used to deliver your Amazon order. While they have civilian uses, drones are also being used as weapons, one that is exploding in usage and popularity as a cheap, accessible, risk free way to attack a target. The rapid proliferation of drones has seen them emerge on modern battlefields, be used as a weapon of terror, and their illegal uses explode. This has sparked concerns over their usage in the present as well as in the near future.
While the use of UAVs by various governments and their militaries is hardly new, the scale and use cases for them have greatly changed over the last decade. Historically, this technology has been used for reconnaissance, intelligence gathering, and targeted attacks. For example, in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the United States drastically increased its use of drones as a way to inspect and traverse dangerous foreign territory safely, while also using them to carry out drone strikes. Just over two decades later, UAVs are now used on the front lines of warfare and having an outsized impact on the path of conflicts, with over 30,000 military drones already in action.
In 2020, Azerbaijan and Armenia fought a war over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, a fight that Azerbaijan dominated from start to finish in their crushing of the Armenian armed forces. The two militaries were roughly similar in size and military equipment, but the biggest difference between them was the much bigger and more modern Azerbaijani complement of drones. Some of them were domestically produced, but most were purchased from other countries, such as Turkey and Israel. UAVs were game changing and provided significant advantages, enabling Azeri forces to find, track, and kill targets with precise strikes far beyond the front lines. It also allowed Azerbaijan to wreak havoc on Armenian supply lines and reinforcements removed from the front. All told, the Azeri drones devastated the Armenian military, destroying 144 tanks, 35 infantry-fighting vehicles, 19 armored personnel carriers, and 310 trucks. By comparison, Azerbaijan only lost 39 military vehicles.
Meanwhile, Ukraine has been using a variety of UAVs to great effect against the Russian invaders since the start of the war roughly a year ago. Leveraging obsolete aircraft as a foundation, Ukraine modified several reconnaissance planes into armed unmanned drones, allowing them to attack air bases deep within Russia. Much like Azerbaijan, the Ukrainian military also fields a small fleet of Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones, which help combat Russian ground forces effectively. Bayraktar drones are slow and low flying, loitering above the battlefield and can be armed with laser guided bombs and missiles that can be adjusted in mid air, allowing them to be moved and targeted in real time, and transported in the back of a pickup truck.
Risk of Drones Being Used as a Weapon of Mass Destruction
While drones may serve an important purpose as a powerful conventional weapon in a war, experts and human rights advocates raise concerns about the prospect of drones being used as a Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD), both as a direct weapon and as a means of delivery for nuclear, chemical, or biological payloads. Drones can operate in tandem in what’s known as a ‘drone swarm’. Because the inherent nature of a drone swarm means it can be infinitely scaled up or down, it does not meet one static definition and can surpass any arbitrary casualty requirement in place to designate a WMD. Rapid increases in modern technology also mean that the number of drones that can be slaved to a swarm at one time is increasing exponentially. In 2016, Intel could fly 100 drones that operated as one unit simultaneously. Two years later, they increased the size of the swarm to 2,018 drones, a staggering rate of expansion. That was five years ago; and already, the record swarm size has increased by over a thousand drones back in 2021.
Basic drones have the capability to carry jury-rigged weapons and explosive devices, even on small, cheap drones purchased off Amazon or from Best Buy, never mind military grade versions featuring cutting edge technology and equipment. While the thought of a conventionally armed drone swarm is scary, it pales in comparison to the worries of them being equipped with nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. This concern has been growing over the last few years with the spread of drones on battlefields and in skies around the world. Drones are likely to help expand the proliferation of biological and chemical weapons, providing a tempting new means of transport and delivery. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists agrees, worrying not just for the impact of weapons wielded by drones but also the damage to the norms around WMDs that would occur. There are also concerns about the possibility of a drone swarm being partially armed with conventional weapons as well as a type of WMD, weakening the norms already in place regarding the use of WMDs.
Assassination Attempts and Terrorist Attacks
Drones have also been used as a tool in several assassination attempts, including against heads of state. Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi's home was targeted by drones carrying explosives in 2021, which, while unsuccessful in the attempt to kill him, injured six of his bodyguards. In 2018, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was allegedly attacked by a pair of drones laden with explosive payloads, as well, although controversy and questions still surround this event. Drug cartels in Mexico, Central America, and South America have also embraced the deadly potential of the drone, both for the psychological terror such attacks can induce and the practical aspects of the drone as a cheap, effective weapon able to bypass many conventional security measures. In Ecuador, three drones were flown over a prison and bombed a wing containing members of an enemy gang, while in Mexico, drug cartels used them to drop explosives on police in the western Mexican state of Michoacan. There have also been several terrorist attacks that relied on drones. In 1994, the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo in Japan attempted to use a remote controlled helicopter to launch a sarin gas attack, but after they crashed the helicopter, they instead resorted to the infamous sarin subway attack. In 2014, ISIS began using armed drones in fights in Iraq and Syria, while Al Qaeda had a drone attack plot foiled by law enforcement in Pakistan. In 2018, Russian military bases in Syria were barraged by a swarm of homemade, exploding drones that were made out of plywood, a small engine, and tiny rockets.
Drones are useful as a weapon now more than ever, and the use of such UAVs is only going to increase in the years to come. In the last decade, there has been a sharp increase in the use of drones by civilians to fertilize fields, take photographs, deliver shopping purchases, and more. While there are undoubtedly plenty of mundane uses, we must account for the simultaneous increase in the use of armed UAVs. There are countermeasures that can be taken, such as short range air defense systems or signal jammers, but these have so far proven to be largely ineffectual at limiting the illegal uses of drones. Unfortunately, it appears that the cheap, easily accessible weaponization of drones ensures their role in modern warfare and geopolitics will extend well beyond the battlefield.