The spread of low-intensity conflicts on the international scene after the end of the Cold War, the progressive overlap between the internal and international dimension, the emergence of a new conception of security, the growing importance of AI technologies are just some of the factors that are transforming the way to understand a war conflict. Moreover, the use of new means and military tactics tends to provide a representation of war itself less and less as a political and social phenomenon and increasingly as an impersonal event. The phenomenon that most strongly represents this concept is definitely the use of drones. Thanks to unprecedented capabilities in terms of autonomy, range and persistence, drones are now able to perform on the battlefield better than the military personnel. Or, at least, that is the general perception.
Remote piloted aircraft, APR (or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, UAV), commonly known as drones, are vehicles without a human pilot and controlled remotely and automatically. Depending on the field of application, drones are aerial, terrestrial or maritime robots that can be equipped with different systems and equipment. The control exercised by a human pilot can be in the loop (real-time command), on the loop (semi- automatic control, but subjected to one real-time supervision) and out the loop (automated command without the intervention of a human operator). Furthermore, drones can be classified according to a series of other parameters: dimensions, operational quota, autonomy and range of action of the mission.
The use of drones is implemented mainly in areas where direct military presence is particularly difficult and risky. The majority of them are used for intelligence or surveillance matters, while the purpose of attacking is strictly connected to the preliminary identification of the target to hit, the analysation of all the information and data available, useful not only for its identification, but also to the evaluation of the effects that this intervention can have in the surrounding areas and on the civilians living there. New technologies, for instance, allow the detection of the signal of mobile phones, whose numbers are combined with the person who uses it. Consequently, this makes it possible to determine the geographical location with an extreme precision, as well as the movements, the contacts and much more.
However, the acquired data does not always give absolute certainty about the target and the environment. Just think, for instance, in these asymmetrical wars how trivial might be the simple absence of uniforms that would distinguish military personnel from civilians. In regard to drones, the difference with a traditional reconnaissance plane of fighter-bomber is precisely the absence on the vehicle crew on the field. The ongoing debate over the military use of drones and on collateral damages finds its reasons in numerous failures and incidents involving drones.
But if drones are changing the rules of the game on the battlefield, their use is also making war zones less and less cleared. The ability to overcome barriers by flying over them, put into great risk a great number of political figures in the past few years. This detail makes the latter vulnerable.
Here we have a look to the top five incidents involving military use drones in chronological order:
1. 2002, Iraq–US
The first ever dogfight involving a UAV occurred when an Iraqi MiG-25 and a U.S. RQ-1 Predator fired missiles at each other. The MiG’s missile destroyed the US Predator.
2. 2014, Drone “attack” on German Chancellor Angela Merkel
During a Christian Democratic Party campaign in September 2014, a Parrot AR drone crashed in front of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The drone was piloted by a German Pirate Party member as a government surveillance protest. No one was harmed, but the situation raised concerns over similar experiences with weaponized drones.
3. 2014, Serbia – Albania football match incident
The national soccer teams of Serbia and Albania faced off in a tense European qualifying match in Belgrade. The geopolitical enmities between the two countries already meant that there were no travelling Albanian fans in the stadium. But that did not prevent things, as they say across the pond, from kicking-off. Almost halfway through the match, a drone, apparently flown by an Albanian supporter, entered the stadium slinging beneath it a flag of greater Albania.
4. 2015, Drone crashes near the White House
On Monday, January 26, 2015, a drone crashed on the White House lawn. The White House does have its own specific flight restrictions, but the drone wasn’t easy to detect. Immediately after the incident, the White House went into lockdown. The US attorney decided not to charge the drone operator, Shawn Usman, after determining the drone was not under his control at the time of the crash.
5. 2019, Strait of Hormuz incident
A US warship shot down an Iranian drone in the Strait of Hormuz after it reportedly came within 1,000 yards (914 meters) of the vessel, US President Donald Trump stated.
Written by Agnese Gambuzzi, European Defence Researcher at Finabel – European Army Interoperability Centre.