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The Use Of Military Drones: The Impact On Land Forces And Legal Implications

11 January 2021

Military drones have come to revolutionise warfare. They are roving on land, streaking through the skies, and diving under the seas. Since their creation, more than fifty years ago, drones have constantly evolved to the present, becoming one of the main artificial intelligence (AI) weapons, integrated into military forces throughout the world.

Whilst drones exist in all domains; aerial drones (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles – UAVs) are clearly the media superstars. However, a whole ecosystem of ground-based drones or Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGVs) is evolving at an equally fervid pace. This study will focus on UGVs (within the concept of “drone” hereafter), their implementation in land forces in tandem with UAVs and will discuss the legal issues they present within the European Union (EU) legal framework.

The origins of the UGV date back to the Second World War with the development of “teletanks” such as the Russian TT-26 and the German Goliath. Both could be driven towards targets and remotely detonated. If we include UAVs, we can see that remote control technology has developed at an accelerated pace. These systems have become indispensable tools for modern armies.  

One issue facing the users of drone technology is cost; as their complexity grows, so does the cost of acquisitions. This is represented in the projected growth of value in the drone market. Recent studies (June 2020) show that the global UGVs market size is projected to reach over USD 7 billion by the end of 2026, and the UAV market will increase to USD 56.18 Billion by 2027.

UAVs/UGVs are currently deployed mainly for intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance (ISR) missions. Systems such as the “Ironclad (UGV)” or the “Black Hornet” (UAV), are notable examples of this use. However, some are used for combat missions such as the “MQ-9 Reaper/Predator B” (UAV) used mainly by the United States of America (USA) and Israel.

Collaboration between these systems in Land Forces is growing closer as UAVs and UGVs are armed progressively. While UAVs assist ground forces by attacking high-value, fixed targets. UGVs can transport explosives and supplies such as heavy weapons or additional ammunition for ground troops, and by providing real-time video surveillance capabilities. This increases the combat power of ground troops by reducing their physical load. Currently, UGVs are not as well-known as their UAV cousins, but they are acquiring more importance as time passes, and their equipment improves. As stated by Major David Moreau of the US Marine Corps, “armed UGVs will one day fight alongside war-fighters during combat operations”.

Legal issues concerning the use of armed drones

The development of UAVs and UGVs into lethal weapons may result in a proclivity for war and the proliferation of lethal unmanned technology. However, the problem here is what happens when lethal unmanned systems kill the wrong people. Who should be held responsible for possible violations of the law?

Many questions on legal issues arise from a lack of solid national and international legislation. Due to the short length of this study, we will list some of the most common issues under the questionability of armed drones.

  1. The rules of military drones.  The use of any weapon system, including armed drones-in conflict- is subject to international humanitarian law (IHL). Yet, no treaties or other legal instruments of IHL covers the concept of armed drones.
  2. The use of armed drones for military targeting and killing, resulting in civilian deaths because of drones strikes. An example of this includes US drone attacks in Afghanistan (2019), where a US drone strike killed 30 civilians. Is such an attack lawful? Further details would need to be considered before condemning the attack, for example, whether these persons were party to hostilities.
  3. Lack of transparency in armed drone policies (for both UAVs and UGVs). States that use armed autonomous or remoted weapons often try to avoid publicly disclosing the details of targeted killings, hiding basic information on who is being targeted and why.
  4. Armed drones as weapons. Neither UAVs nor UGVs are unlawful weapons or ordnance in the technical sense. This complicates the development of solid legislation to comprehensively regulate their use.

For these reasons and considering that we are adherents to EU legislation, the EU should undertake efforts to include similar principles in their national legislation to ensure a transparent global export control regime for drones in the field of technology. Specific efforts should focus on China, Russia, and USA, as these are the leaders in UAV and UGV technology. As Bruno Martins -researcher at PRIO- states: “[a] clear EU position on armed drones, adopted in the form of a Council decision, would have the potential to influence international practices and to contribute to limiting armed drone proliferation”.

Written by Candela FERNÁNDEZ GIL-DELGADO, Legal Researcher at Finabel – European Army Interoperability Centre


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