The third drone age

Branka Marijan Emerging Technologies, Featured

By Branka Marijan

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 41 Issue 4 Winter 2020

Any lingering doubts about the centrality of drones in modern warfare vanished as the world watched Azerbaijani military drones inflict serious damage on the Armenian military in the recent conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. Now some European and American defence analysts are asking if the rising use of drones is rendering some military equipment, such as tanks, obsolete.

As drones become more ubiquitous in and out of conflict zones, serious concerns about their use are being amplified in international multilateral forums. This past August, Agnes Callamard, former United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, noted in her report to the UN Human Rights Council that the world has entered the “second drone age.” Callamard joined other experts and civil society organizations in calling for stricter national and international regulation of the use and export of drones, even as they continue to evolve.

Cheaper, faster, more available

According to Callamard, the second drone age is characterized by a worrying proliferation and use, by both state and non-state actors, of more advanced drones. Accord to her report, “drones are becoming stealthier, speedier, smaller, more lethal and more easily operable by teams located thousands of kilometres away, and are therefore becoming better able to carry out targeted killings both near and far.”

Will regulations keep pace or will the world soon be at the mercy of flying un-crewed weapons systems over which humans exert little control?.

These increasingly sophisticated systems, particularly the ones used for surveillance, are also becoming more affordable. And some can be easily obtained. Many state and non-state actors are adapting commercially sold drones that do not have to go through the onerous military exports process. For years, drug cartels and terrorist organizations such as Islamic State have been using off-the-shelf drones for surveillance and as weapons.
The technology is developing so rapidly that it could be said that the world is moving closer to a third drone age. In this next stage, drones have significant autonomy. Will regulations keep pace or will the world soon be at the mercy of flying un-crewed weapons systems over which humans exert little control?

Suicide drones

Undergoing enhancements while also becoming more readily available are loitering munitions, also known as kamikaze or suicide drones. They differ from armed drones, which carry munitions that they then release over targets. According to Drone Wars UK, loitering munitions “have the warhead integrated within the system and are therefore destroyed when used.”

Loitering munitions are being acquired by a number of states; some states are even developing their own domestic capacity. For example, Turkish company Defense Technologies and Trade Inc. (STM) is set to deliver 500 kamikaze Kargu drones to the Turkish military. According to freelance journalist Paul Iddon, writing for Forbes.com, STM’s CEO has claimed that the Kargu drones have onboard facial recognition technologies that could, presumably, be used to target individuals.

There is also evidence that non-state armed groups are gaining access to these weapons. The Houthis in Yemen have reportedly used loitering munitions to target the Saudi Patriot air defence missile systems. Such incidents show how non-state armed groups can use new technologies to challenge better equipped state militaries.

Killer swarms

A drone swarm—“multiple unmanned systems capable of coordinating their actions to accomplish shared objectives”—can overwhelm a target, clearing the way for conventional military platforms, such as crewed fighter jets. Because the drones in a swarm can “autonomously [alter] their behavior based on communication with each other,” they can function without a vulnerable electronic connection with a human operator at home base. Jamming of communication between different members of the swarm is still possible, however, and is thus a vulnerability that militaries must consider.

Drone swarms are still in the testing phase. In early October, Italian arms manufacturer Leonardo, in partnership with the British Royal Air Force, successfully demonstrated a swarm, illustrating its autonomous capabilities.

We don’t know how close this system and others are to deployment. But it seems likely that, as less expensive alternatives to fighter jets and other crewed platforms, drones, swarming technologies, and other “smart munitions” will remain the subjects of ongoing research and development.

These advancements raise new concerns. They erase—or at least blur—an accepted distinction between autonomous weapons with little human control and semi-autonomous drones that leave key decisions about selecting and engaging targets to humans.

Current regulations ineffective

Speaking to the Human Rights Council this past July, Callamard declared, “There are no robust standards governing drones’ development, proliferation, export, or capability for use of force. No transparency. No effective oversight. No accountability.” Never very successful, existing piecemeal regulatory approaches no longer meet the needs of a world in which there is widespread use of a variety of drones by a growing number of militaries.

There is also evidence that non-state armed groups are gaining access to these weapons. The Houthis in Yemen have reportedly used loitering munitions to target the Saudi Patriot air defence missile systems. Such incidents show how non-state armed groups can use new technologies to challenge better equipped state militaries.

For example, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), formed in 1987 and now with 35 member states, specifically restricts the export of large armed drones. Even so, the United States, a member state, recently reinterpreted the voluntary requirements and allowed American companies to begin exporting larger drones such as the Reaper and Global Hawk.

Additionally, MTCR restrictions do not cover member state Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 drone, which has been used by countries such as Azerbaijan. And non-member China has not been deterred from exporting armed drones to a number of countries, even though China has agreed to abide by MTCR guidelines.

Drones that fall into the commercial category are even less restricted. Ultimately, MTCR regulations cannot be enforced.

Challenges for the new age

UN discussions on autonomous weapons, which began in 2014, have generally not focused on drones—or any particular weapon system. The understanding has been that autonomous weapons could take a number of forms and so the focus should not be on any single weapon type, but rather on a key concern: the removal of human control. The relevance of this concern becomes ever clearer as drones do more without human control—and in greater numbers.

Clearly, there is an urgent need to regulate drone use and the exporting of drones, including commercial components and the technologies needed to run the systems. As the MTCR illustrates, current regulations don’t work, aren’t comprehensive, and lack enforcement mechanisms. They don’t cover all relevant technologies and they don’t include all users.

The challenges of the second drone age have not been addressed. Now the third drone age is raising even greater legal, ethical, and humanitarian concerns. The new era is still some time in the future and the opportunity exists to regulate proactively. But this window will not remain open for long.

Spread the Word