Drone warfare, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (“drones” in public parlance) in military operations, goes back centuries, with heated discussions regarding the correct start date and relevant technological breakthroughs. Modern drones developed around the year 2000; in 2001 the notorious US Predator was fitted with missiles and used for a targeted killing for the first time in 2002, thereby starting what most consider “drone warfare.” By the first few years of the 21st century, unbeknown to the general public, dozens of militaries around the world already used drones for surveillance and reconnaissance. The public and academic debate, however, gained momentum only near the end of the first decade of the 21st century, when it became known that the United States used armed drones for targeted killings at large scales—and outside official warzones. Brookings Institution scholar Peter W. Singer was highly influential in shaping the debate through the publication of his book Wired for War (see Singer 2009, cited under Textbooks and General Overviews). Since then, the body of literature on drone warfare in the social sciences has grown exponentially. When more became known about the US drone operations, drones quickly began to capture the public’s and policymakers’ imagination. Articles about “robot wars” or “terminator wars” abounded. At the same time, anti-drone groups formed that protested the US use of drones for targeted killings. Because of the way the debate on drones began, the focus of the literature has for years been firmly placed on issues surrounding the use of armed drones by the US armed forces and intelligence forces, neglecting other actors and uses, such as the use of surveillance drones in military operations by actors other than the United States. As a growing number of states (and, increasingly, nonstate actors) use drones, attention is slowly moving to other types or drone use and other actors. Because the topic, and hence the literature on it, is comparatively new, there are not yet properly defined schools of thought with specific authors firmly associated with them. Accordingly, this article is structured not by schools of thought but by themes, to reflect the ongoing discussions and to give the reader a good idea of the debates and controversies. After an introduction to textbooks and primers that allow students to familiarize themselves with the subject, this article engages with works that discuss the object of the drone and the concepts associated with it, providing a list of works that trace the historical development and use of drones or use historical research to draw parallels to early-21st-century drone use. This section, Drone History and Historical Research, engages with the legal and ethical/philosophical literature. Given the strong US focus of the drone debate, US Politics provides an introduction to the literature that discusses US-centric questions in particular, while International Politics engages with the literature on international questions; namely, drone proliferation, geopolitical implications of drones, and nonstate drone use. Last, this article gives insights into the Critical Literature.
Textbooks and General Overviews
Although there was some interest earlier, the debate on drone warfare in the social sciences gained momentum mainly with the publication of Singer 2009. In a book aimed at a broad public, Peter Singer introduced the topic and influenced the direction that the debate would take for years to come; namely, by portraying drone warfare as revolutionary. Because easily accessible, comprehensive, academic works on drone warfare were scarce in the early 2010s, activist works such as Benjamin 2013, which provides insights into the debate while portraying drone warfare negatively, were highly influential in shaping the debate. Since then, a wide range of academic, unbiased works have been published that allow the reader to get a good general overview of the issues surrounding drone warfare, such as Kreps 2016 and Plaw, et al. 2015. The journalistic account in Woods 2015 is a treasure trove of well-researched material, specifically on the US and UK use of armed drones in Afghanistan and outside official warzones such as in Pakistan. Chris Woods initiated one of the best databases on US drone strikes and casualty numbers, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s Drone War program. Rogers and Hill 2014 is recommended for those interested in the impact of drone warfare on global security and international law, while Kaag and Kreps 2014 makes a compelling case about the danger of armed drone use undermining democratic accountability. Bergen and Rothenberg 2014 is a prime example of an accessible edited volume covering the crucial issues, and it includes fascinating insights be drone operators.
Benjamin, Medea. Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control. Updated ed. London and New York: Verso, 2013.
A highly influential, early anti-drone view and a good introduction to the topic. It should be counterbalanced with more academic and analytically rigorous accounts.
Bergen, Peter L., and Daniel Rothenberg, eds. Drone Wars: How Advances in Military Technology Are Transforming Conflict, Law, and Policy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
A well-researched, edited volume with twenty-two essays. Well suited for teaching. Interesting disagreement between the authors on questions such as whether drones are revolutionary, whether US strikes are legal, and about the future of drone operations.
Kaag, John, and Sarah Kreps. Drone Warfare. War and Conflict in the Modern World. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2014.
A compact primer that discusses most issues regarding US drone warfare. The deliberations about the impact of armed drone use on democratic accountability and the distinction between war and peace are particularly interesting.
Kreps, Sarah E. Drones: What Everyone Needs to Know. What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.
A comprehensive synthesis of the current situation and state of knowledge on drones (air, land, sea) in the military and civilian realm. A good first point of reference for those unfamiliar with the technology and its uses. A good teaching manual.
Plaw, Avery, Matthew S. Fricker, and Carlos R. Colon. The Drone Debate: A Primer on the U.S. Use of Unmanned Aircraft outside Conventional Battlefields. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.
An introduction to the current state of the discussion surrounding the US armed drone campaigns; particularly suited for teaching because it provides readers with a broad understanding of the US debate. The authors work at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where Colon and Fricker have cofounded the Center for the Study of Targeted Killing.
Rogers, Ann, and John Hill. Unmanned: Drone Warfare and Global Security. Toronto: Pluto, 2014.
A well-informed work in which the authors explore the implications of drone warfare for international law and global peace, investigating the consequences not just for the military but also for society and its understanding of war and peace.
Singer, Peter W. Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century. New York: Penguin, 2009.
A crucial work. Singer, and this book in particular, can be credited with causing the hype around drone and robotic warfare and the narrative about an unmanned revolution. Not an academic work, but a popular science book lined with science fiction references.
Woods, Chris. Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Few people know as much about drone warfare as Woods, initiator of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s drone research program, and few books are as informative. He traces the development of the US targeted killings program, putting a well-deserved emphasis on the Afghan theater.
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