Image courtesy of Flikr user U.S. Army. Image courtesy of Flikr user U.S. Army.

Summer Essay Campaign #4: “The Unmanned Wars to Come”

To Answer Question #2: “How do unmanned systems impact modern battlefields?”

By Captain Adam Link, USMC

Unmanned systems, particularly aircraft and smaller ground vehicles, have been in use throughout both Iraq and Afghanistan. Their utility in achieving specific tasks is not in question. However, the full impact of unmanned systems on the modern battlefield has yet to be felt, and the ethical challenges these set before the commander must be addressed in order to fully appreciate their use. Presently, unmanned systems are being used for targeted strikes against enemy combatants, reconnaissance, and assisting explosive ordnance disposal units. This is a narrow range of tasks to which unmanned systems have been employed for use on the battlefield. Even in this small range unmanned systems have had a significant impact on the abilities of commanders to execute their assigned missions. Further, this is an ethically positive step in that unmanned systems have removed from danger a human (pilot in most cases) and are able to accomplish the same task in the same manner or more efficiently[i].

This, perhaps, is where the greatest impact on the modern battlefield will be seen: the automation, or removal from positions of danger, of human personnel in assigned combat roles. Accomplishing the mission without having to put a human in lethal danger appears to be an ethical positive for commanders in the conduct of war. It removes the danger associated with a given operation and places the full burden of risk on the enemy, save the danger of losing the unmanned asset. However, ethically the question is still very much complicated.[ii]

To this point however, unmanned systems have mainly had their impact when conducting reconnaissance and strike missions in place of piloted aircraft. The long loiter time of most unmanned systems due to the airframe’s capabilities and the lack of pilot fatigue, allow for more extensive and continuous reconnaissance operations for the commander. Further, the small scale of some unmanned aerial systems[iii] has brought the ability to conduct aerial reconnaissance of an area down to the tactical (squad leader) level. In effect, it allows the commander or leader at every level the potential ability to conduct a leader’s recon of a given objective area without the need to place a human in danger through doing so. Therefore unit leaders have increased flexibility in how they conduct operations, and potentially have access to more information with which to make the most informed decision possible. If we consider that our object in battle is to kill the enemy and impose our will on the battlefield then additional information provided at little risk to human personnel is a good thing. Further, our ability to kill the enemy utilizing these unmanned systems in the conduct of just war[iv] would again be a positive for the commander, or maybe not?[v]

The impact of these systems will not be limited to aerial vehicles or use by land forces, but will be felt across the spectrum of conflict. For instance, at sea unmanned vehicles are already under development in order to provide persistent surveillance, reconnaissance, and potential lethal capability. This will likely influence the conduct and maintenance of sea power by all seafaring nations, and particularly the U.S. Navy. The ability to continuously monitor the world’s sea lines of communication, and the ability to project lethal force without the need for a warship’s direct presence can greatly influence the ability of the United States to ensure regional stability in areas where the presence of a warship would be exceptionally dangerous. This technology is also a cheaper solution than building a warship in order to patrol the open waters of the world’s oceans. There is no need for manpower with an unmanned system, except to monitor, guide, and make potentially lethal decisions from afar.

The implications for U.S. forces are significant, but for our potential enemies they are just as impactful. The relative low cost of these unmanned systems, and their hobbyist nature, lends itself to cheap development on the part of any motivated individual. Going forward this presents a significant challenge that must be addressed by U. S. forces in order to continue to be successful on the battlefield. How will commanders respond when an enemy force uses unmanned assets to conduct their own reconnaissance and potential strikes on U.S. or allied targets? What if unmanned vehicles are used to deliver specific lethal payloads as a more accurate form of ‘suicide’ attack? Further, what are the strategic implications for the United States in a world where any motivated group can produce a vehicle capable of disrupting or monitoring U.S. operations?

These questions, and more, must be considered as we move forward with the development of more advanced unmanned systems. Whether lethal or not, these systems present significant opportunities and challenges to U.S. forces, and will likely help redefine our ability to maintain our national security interests at home and abroad. If the U. S.’ role is to ensure a state of relative global peace then we are sure to be significantly challenged by a growing presence of unmanned systems produced by states and motivated groups alike. 

In summation, unmanned systems have only begun to impact the modern battlefield, and their future raises more potential questions than answers for U.S. forces. Finding inventive uses for these new platforms (and responses!) will enable U.S. forces to continue to operate effectively as our modern battlefield continues to evolve.

[i] Strawser, Bradley J., “Moral Predators: The Duty to Employ Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” Journal of Military Ethics 9 (2010): 342-368.

[ii] See Riza-Killing Without Heart, Singer-Wired For War, Strawser et al for a broader discussion of unmanned systems and their potential impacts.

[iii] See for an overview of the RQ-11 Raven:

[iv] See Walzer – Just and Unjust Wars for an introduction into just war theory and the ethical dilemmas of warfare.

[v] For more ethical challenges see Galliott, Jai C, “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and the Asymmetry Objection: A Response to Strawser,” Journal of Military Ethics 11 (2012): 58-66, and also Killmister, Suzy “Remote Weaponry: The Ethical Implications,” Journal of Applied Philosophy 25 (2008): 121-133.