The Advent of the ‘Armed Drones’

Imperatives for the NATO Alliance

By Dr.

By Dr.

 Mark R.


, US

Senior Transatlantic Fellow, German Marshall Fund of the United States

 November 2013


As NATO looks beyond its current deployment to Afghanistan and prepares for the 2014 Summit, it would do well to begin both informal and formal discussions over what role armed drones may play in Alliance operations. With drone warfare playing an increasingly important part of modern warfare, their use begs the question: to what extent, with what protocols, and with what sort of transparency will we use these weapons?

The ‘drone’ is rapidly on the path to becoming ubiquitous in modern warfare, just as manned aircraft did during the first half of the twentieth century. The use of these remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) for both surveillance and attack has provided a challenging set of issues for military strategists, as well as civilian security and defence planners. In particular, the employment of the armed drone, like other revolutionary weapons – crossbows, machine guns, submarines, and nuclear weapons – has led to fierce doctrinal, ethical, and legal debates surrounding their use.

NATO’s Current Position

As an organisation, NATO has avoided diving into these deliberations, instead preferring to allow discussions to take place at a national level. While this is certainly understandable, it does not mean that the Alliance can reasonably expect to avoid the matter beyond the immediate future. With worldwide spending on drones likely to double over the next ten years, the political and operational challenges may only get more complex. Indeed, if formal and focused discussions to address the issues surrounding armed drones does not take place soon, then it is likely that NATO will have to address these issues in the midst of contingency operations – which could lead to expedient solutions at the expense of strategic solutions for the longer term.

Even if the Alliance does not seek a NATO-flagged ‘armed drone’ capability, it will need to engage in the debate and consider the appropriate role of such weapons in armed conflict and other contingencies, and, consequently, how drones can or cannot be integrated into Alliance operations. It will not be suffifficient to say that national assets will be used within national channels to support operations. Debates in the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom suggest that there are significant differences of opinion on the acquisition and use of armed drones that could lead, directly or indirectly, to barriers to overall NATO planning and operations. Ironically, one might think that a long-standing European aversion to casualties might drive governments to procure more of these weapons in the hopes of putting fewer military personnel in harm’s way. This has not necessarily been the case, though, as was seen recently when German Minister of Defence Thomas de Maizière argued that armed drones were necessary to provide force protection to deployed German forces – but failed to convince critics in the German Bundestag and the public.

What is more concerning are comments from some European civilians who have argued that drones are ‘unfair’ because they put ‘our soldiers’ in relative safety but the enemy is at risk – misplaced modern chivalry could represent an insurmountable gap between public perception and military requirements. Similarly, the Alliance will have to discuss the international legal ramifications of the use of armed drones – no matter how sensitive the issue – in order to identify irreconcilable differences and hopefully areas where there can be greater consensus.

Advantages vs. Disadvantages

Clearly, armed drones offer a unique military capability insofar as they significantly reduce the risk to military personnel, can provide a way to hit targets inaccessible by conventional aircraft and, for the most part, cost less than manned aircraft. Likewise, technological advances will continue to increase the loiter time on these platforms, which can shorten the ‘sensor-to-shooter’ timeline. Coupled with advances in stealth technology, the day is soon approaching when the ‘armed drone’ may indeed be a revolutionary platform – allowing for unprecedented survivability and striking capacity all in one package.

There is in some quarters an almost religious reverence for the drone and its capabilities, much in the same way that air power enthusiasts embraced the airplane, especially strategic bombers. Indeed, the promise of the bomber – according to futurists such as H.G. Wells and Jan S. Bloch, as well as the airpower theorists such as Douhet, Mitchell, and Trenchard, included the ability to strike targets with virtual impunity. These thinkers contended that air power could bypass the chaos of the battlefield, and potentially win wars without a commitment of ground forces. In the most basic terms, attacks on vital industrial or population centres could bring states to their knees in a short period of time. Even with the experience of military action over the past hundred years, an experience that demonstrated that airpower alone cannot win wars, there are some who remain convinced that airpower alone can win wars, especially given today’s drone technology.

Critics believe there is a danger that any inherent advantages in using armed drones may hide the true costs of using force and provide a ‘feel good panacea’ that makes drones seem like a cure-all. This can lead to the use of drones as a substitute for a comprehensive strategy. After all, drones don’t do governance and drones don’t enhance the rule-of-law. Some even argue that the decreased risk to pilots in drone operations may make wars more likely and that because weapons reduce the risk to flight crews, who operate the platforms from afar, states may be encouraged to use military force where previously they were unwilling to assume the risk. Unfortunately, not only are there potential problems with how these weapons are used, but drones have an image problem in any situation that may be difficult to overcome.

What is clear is that drone attacks are increasingly unpopular around the world and have shaped opinions about U.S. foreign policy. But this does not mean that every use of armed drones needs be contentious. In fact, their use in Afghanistan, Libya, or planning for their use in future contingencies should be, or could be largely uncontroversial. The problem is that the use of drones is largely coloured by the United States reliance on these weapons, particularly when employed outside of internationally recognised zones of armed conflict such as in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. In short, many believe the use of drones to be synonymous with covert action. Most critiques do not distinguish between military operations such as those conducted by the Alliance and less transparent national operations. Fortunately, the Obama Administration is already beginning to address this challenge in the United States through a deliberate shift of control of many missions from back to the Department of Defense from the intelligence community.

NATO’s Next Steps

While NATO does not, as an Alliance, have to determine whether Ministries of Defence or intelligence services lead drone operations, it will have to consider what manner of operations will require the Alliance to use surveillance and weaponised drones. The use of drones to support ground troops, or in limited air-to-ground strikes – such as in an Afghanistan or Libya – may be least controversial, as the operations are most similar to the close air support currently provided by manned aircraft. From an ethical, legal, and strategic standpoint, however, the use of armed drones for counter-terrorism operations without having boots on the ground will prove much more contentious. These kinds of missions will not have the sort of international sanction needed by the North Atlantic Council (Kosovo of course being an exception) and of course the Alliance is not positioned to conduct covert operations. It is not realistic to suppose that NATO can do everything its member nations require to preserve their security. As such, perhaps counter-terrorism, especially with regards to independent armed drone operations, will best remain outside NATO’s purview.

NATO should also consider more formal structures and guidelines with regards to addressing the issue of civilian casualties in operations involving the use of armed drones. NATO has of course already dealt with this tragic issue in military operations but, as noted before, there are additional difficulties when operations or civilian casualty incidents involve the use of drones. While drones are arguably some of the most precise weapons used in conflict, it is getting harder to distinguish between civilians and combatants on the battlefield. Further, insurgents deliberately blur these increasingly imprecise lines. Thus, any real or perceived decrease in the ability of the military to assess ‘ground truth’ suggests less granularity in the accuracy of targeting information. While from a technical standpoint, drone operations could provide even better situational awareness at times; but, the reality is that drones are often used in distant or remote locations where objective post-strike assessment is difficult. Today, there is little agreement between the U.S. government, think-tanks, and NGOs over the civilian casualty rate and this has exacerbated public, especially European, discontent with some aspects of ‘armed drone’ use. There are steps, however, that NATO can, and in fact should take to help alleviate this problem for its own future operations.

First, NATO must make a public commitment to transparency and civilian safety in their drone policy. Indeed, if there is a single lesson for NATO to identify from the initial experiences of the U.S. and the use of drones – it is that transparency works. Transparency has helped NATO to gain credibility and outflank Taliban propaganda in Afghanistan. There is no reason that this should not be the case for potential drone operations in the same way it has worked for other military operations. Indeed, from an objective standpoint NATO has done admirably over the last several years to reduce civilian casualties in Afghanistan and by many accounts did extraordinarily well in Libya. Unfortunately the transparency seen on this issue in Afghanistan was not replicated in Libya, and thus, will set the precedent for future operations. Transparency on the impacts of kinetic operations should be viewed as an absolute imperative for success at both the operational and strategic level. After all – the failure to convince the host nation, NATO, and international audiences that reducing civilian casualties is a priority, can lead to a lack of sustained political support and thus potential mission failure. To this end, NATO should consider not only the establishment of a permanent unit at Headquarters to address the political and strategic aspects of civilian casualty mitigation, as well as permanent structures within Allied Command Operations and deployed headquarters.

Next, NATO’s challenges will not just be in terms of the offensive use of armed drones. As the number of nations acquiring armed drones increases, so will the likelihood that NATO will have to plan to face these weapons on the battlefield. While anti-drone technologies need not be any more sophisticated than current anti-air systems, there is little doubt that potential NATO adversaries are seeking ways to leverage the technological characteristics of the platforms to avoid or potentially ‘swamp’ a defensive network with swarms of small armed drones. Indeed, if one is to look back at the Second World War to identify ‘lessons’ on the use of airpower, the seminal event was not the air war over Germany or Japan, but likely the Battle of Britain, which demonstrated that a networked defensive system of radars, anti-aircraft artillery, and fighter aircraft could provide a significant obstacle to an offensive strategic bombing campaign. Likewise, the introduction of backpack-portable drones and the proliferation of lightweight small diameter bombs creates a lethal combination that is technologically and financially available to scores of nations. While the current strategic environment for NATO nations does not justify the need for massive expenditures on defense- in-depth against potential airpower threats, the Alliance may wish to reconsider the development of a next-generation of deployable short-range air defence systems designed to address small, stealthy drones armed with stand-off weapons.

Finally, the rapid evolution of drone technology will create new challenges for the Alliance even as the initial questions remain unsolved. While we are not yet at the point where autonomous aircraft fly missions without human beings in the loop, the technology for partially or fully automated defensive and offensive systems does exist, as seen in the Israeli Iron Dome anti-missile system and other similar programs. It would not take too much of a leap to use similar technology, or more advanced artificial intelligence systems, to allow an armed drone or a swarm of these airframes to operate without human intervention during part or all of its mission. While automating the terminal phase of an operation might not be much different from how a Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) or a cruise missile works, allowing such a system to loiter and select its own targets might pose more complex ethical and legal challenges. Who would be responsible if a drone selected the wrong target? Similarly, where should nations, as a matter of law or policy, require human beings to remain in the loop? It will not be good enough to simply eschew the problem and “ban the killer robots” but nor is it appropriate to either employ these weapons without limitations, nor to wait until the problem presents itself to discuss the issue.


While developing Alliance consensus can be a painstaking and lengthy process, one of the strengths of the NATO Alliance is indeed the shared sense of values amongst its members. The need to maintain an effective capability and to operate according to the laws of war – and within the confines of international practice and custom – is an imperative the Alliance cannot easily discard. There must also be recognition that the way we wage war is ever-changing. Indeed, as drone technology progresses at a rapid pace, there will be some degree of discomfort over where, how, and under what authorities nations take military action. In the end, however, these debates will maintain the political strength of the Alliance and ensure its relevancy well into the 21st Century.

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 Mark R.
Senior Transatlantic Fellow, German Marshall Fund of the United States

Dr. Mark R. Jacobson is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the former Deputy NATO Senior Civilian Representative in Afghanistan. He has served in a number of positions at the Department of Defense and was a professional staff member at the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services. A Senior Adviser for the Truman National Security Project. He holds a Ph.D. in Military History from The Ohio State University and has served for almost 20 years as a military reservist.

Information provided is current as of November 2013

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