Editor’s note: Welcome to another installment of our weekly War Books series! The premise is simple and straightforward. We invite a participant to recommend five books and tell us what sets each one apart. War Books is a resource for MWI readers who want to learn more about important subjects related to modern war and are looking for books to add to their reading lists.
This week’s installment comes from Zachary Kallenborn. An adjunct fellow (nonresident) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Strategic Technologies Program and policy fellow at the Schar School of Policy and Government, we gave him the following prompt: What books would you recommend for readers who want to better understand unmanned vehicles and their effect on the changing character of war?
Drones: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Sarah Kreps
Dr. Kreps provides a fantastic introduction and overview of drone warfare. The book covers critical issues, from debates on counterterrorism use of drones to drone proliferation, drone surveillance, and the growing presence of drones in the land and maritime domains. Each chapter of the book is divided into specific questions, like “What is a Drone?” and “What is the State of Proliferation in Terms of Unmanned Ground Technologies?” I found the structure occasionally distracting for a longer study, because each subsection reads like a discrete thought unconnected from the larger piece. However, the approach also makes the work very skimmable, because readers can quickly find the parts they are most interested in—and Kreps provides a lot to be interested in.
Readers who prefer a more traditional narrative might consult Michael J. Boyle’s The Drone Age: How Drone Technology Will Change War and Peace, which also provides a solid overview of drone warfare–related issues.
De Gruyter Handbook of Drone Warfare, edited by James Patton Rogers
Drone warfare is such a broad and complex topic that even dedicated experts can only scratch the surface. That is where Dr. Patton Rogers’s handbook, scheduled for publication in 2024, shines. It offers a who’s who of thoughtful folks covering everything from Paul Lushenko’s “Drone Warfare and Public Opinion” to Samuel Bendett’s “Russian Military Drones: Established and Emerging Technologies in Ukraine.” The book also covers topics like “Drones and International Law,” “Drones and Gender,” and “The European Drone Debate.” (Full disclosure: I bribed a De Gruyter security guard to slip my chapter on drone swarms into the book.) The De Gruyter handbook is a good reference to have on the shelf when you want to dive deep into a particular drone issue. Especially the chapter on drone swarms, which I hear is quite good . . . .
On Killing Remotely: The Psychology of Remote Warfare, by Wayne Phelps
When Lieutenant Colonel Phelps speaks of the psychology of remote warfare, he speaks from a position of authority. He used to command an MQ-9 Reaper squadron and surveyed “254 U.S. and foreign service members associated with the employment of RPAs [remotely piloted aircraft], 245 of whom had killed with or through an RPA.” Academics debate whether drone warfare is akin to a video game, because drone pilots are confined to remote locations, removed from the physical realities and effects of strikes. Presumably, this leads to a greater willingness to use violence, encouraging more escalation and more violence. But as Phelps shows, this is hardly the truth. As one US Air Force MQ-9 sensor operator wrote: “Video games don’t show a wife and kids’ anguish after you ‘shwack’ their dad and watch them pick up his body parts. The immediate aftermath is the worst.” If you want to know the psychological truth of drone warfare, read Phelps. Then read the RAND report that shows that he has a point.
Power to the People: How Open Technological Innovation is Arming Tomorrow’s Terrorists, by Audrey Kurth Cronin
Dr. Cronin examines how new technologies, including but not limited to drones, enable terrorists to plan for, carry out, and benefit from attacks. Researchers often focus on technology in isolation, but Cronin’s book is fantastic because she examines drones as one important aspect of broader technological trends. The future of national security is likely to be defined by how technological trends converge and diverge. Terrorists, adversary militaries, and other actors will examine drones as one of many tools to achieve their strategic objectives. Although Cronin’s arguments focus on how the democratization of technology and warfare supports terrorists, her points have obvious larger geopolitical and strategic value. If a terrorist can 3D print a killer drone that can change world politics, why can’t a small, regionally powerful state?
The world of drone warcraft is just beginning. Although I recommend Wired for War, Dr. Singer’s Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next War and Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution, two novels he wrote with August Cole, also provide imaginative, thoughtful, and highly influential visions of future drone warfare. Plus, Singer dives deep into the people, personalities, and pop culture driving the robotic revolution, which makes for an engaging read. Singer’s strengths come from his and Cole’s ability to fuse solid defense research and analysis with engaging storytelling. No soldier has fought a future war, but Singer and Cole provide a concrete vision of what it might look like.
Like Dr. Cronin, Dr. Watling does a great job of conceptualizing drone warfare as one of many important trends in ground warfare. Drones operate alongside manned aircraft, tanks, missiles, and infantry to enable larger maneuver, fires, assault, and support systems. Drones depend on communications, battle management systems, sustainment, and more to be useful. All those systems have their own dependencies and vulnerabilities, from electronic warfare to cyberattack. Watling’s writing is dense with more military jargon and technical detail compared to the other books mentioned. The book will be an occasional slog for lay readers, but the detail helps show Watling is a genuine expert in his subject matter. His ideas deserve trust from military and national security folks working to define the future of combat.
Folks interested in the future of drone warfare should also consult Paul Scharre’s Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War and David Hambling’s Swarm Troopers: How Small Drones will Conquer the World. The two books isolate and provide useful analysis on important, related trends around where drone warfare is headed: What happens when drones operate on their own (autonomy), or in collaboration with other drones (drone swarms)?
Zachary Kallenborn is an adjunct fellow (nonresident) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a policy fellow at the Schar School of Policy and Government, a research affiliate with the Unconventional Weapons and Technology Division of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, a fellow at the National Institute for Deterrence Studies, an officially proclaimed US Army “Mad Scientist,” and national security consultant. His research on autonomous weapons, drone swarms, weapons of mass destruction, and apocalyptic terrorism has been published in a wide range of peer-reviewed, wonky, and popular outlets, including the Brookings Institution, Foreign Policy, Slate, War on the Rocks, the Nonproliferation Review, and Parameters. Journalists have written about and shared that research in the New York Times, NPR, the Associated Press, the New Scientist, The Economist, and Newsweek, among dozens of others.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Perriquito