The Legitimacy of Drone Warfare

By U.S. Army Lt. Col. Paul Lushenko and Shyam Raman

Routledge, 2024

Drone swarms are about to change the balance of military power.” “Ukraine launches far-ranging drone attacks on the final day of Russia’s presidential vote.” “U.S. drone strike in Baghdad kills high-ranking militia leader linked to attacks on American troops.” “Three U.S. troops killed and dozens injured in drone attack in Jordan.”

Each day these days brings news of drone warfare by state and non-state combatants in various operational theaters.

Yet prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Hamas’ invasion of Israel, and the Houthi’s maritime terrorism, most news of drone warfare consisted of asymmetric drone strikes by the United States targeting individual combatants in the global war on terrorism.

For example, just over four years ago the United States killed Qasem Soleimani by Hellfire missiles fired from an MQ-9 Reaper. The Reaper is a remotely-piloted drone that can carry a payload as well as be used solely for reconnaissance and related non-kinetic purposes. Soleimani had been commander of the Quds Force, the part of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard with responsibility for international operations that resulted in attributable deaths of American service members. Soleimani also was aligned with Hezbollah, an international terrorist organization based in Lebanon.

Similarly, nearly two years ago the United States killed Ayman al-Zawahari also with Hellfire missiles fired from a Reaper into the house where Zawahari then was living in Kabul, Afghanistan. Zawahari had been a deputy to Osama bin Laden, helped plan the 9/11 attacks, and assumed leadership of al-Qaida after bin Laden was killed in May 2011. Zawahari had been on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist List for years.

In both instances, the strikes were widely reported yet, once known, not necessarily widely supported.

In the short period of time between the Zawahari drone strike and today, drone warfare has, well, exploded. What used to be an emerging and limited method of delivering kinetic effects is rapidly becoming established and ubiquitous across conflict zones.

With many advances in technology, deployment and use sometimes can outpace broader societal deliberation and considered judgment about whether and how to deploy and use.

When it comes to technological advances in projecting military force, at least in the United States with its tradition of civilian authority for and control over the military, accounting for public support is critical to determining kinetic options. Political will as measured by public support for or opposition to action can create and limit those options. Plus, insofar as the United States continues to embrace its indispensable role shaping a rules-based global order (as it should), global governance of drone warfare is likely to be heavily influenced by U.S. and western allied public opinion.

That’s why a new book by U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Paul Lushenko and economics professor Shyam Raman is so invaluable.

In The Legitimacy of Drone Warfare: Evaluating Public Perceptions, Lushenko and Raman break new ground in analyzing public attitudes about drone warfare, providing unique insights that should guide practitioners, policy-makers, researchers, and civil society in this most modern way of war.

Lushenko is an Assistant Professor and Director of Special Operations at the U.S. Army War College. Raman is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Williams College. They met at Cornell, where Lushenko earned a PhD, and their book is an outgrowth of that meeting.

Together, they bring to bear empirical methods to understand public attitudes about drone warfare in the United States, France, and comparatively more broadly.

How, for example, do Americans view drone strikes that cross territorial boundaries and deliver force inside another nation’s borders? Does multilateral support for such strikes matter or are there other factors that are more likely to determine domestic perceptions of legitimacy? What are differences in public perceptions among allied nations for conditions precedent to legitimate drone strikes? How might answers to these and other questions inform military decision-makers when developing concepts of operations, or civilian authorities when deciding whether to authorize such operations, or international governing bodies when called upon to develop standards in line with law of war principles?

It’s one thing to launch a Hellfire missile from a remotely-piloted drone at a Most Wanted terrorist combatant. It’s another to launch drone swarms, as Elliott Ackerman and retired Admiral James Stavridis envision, to achieve security objectives. Perceptions of legitimacy of the former will directly inform perceived legitimacy of the latter.

With warfare on the verge of a technological leap that will result in ever more uncrewed, semi-autonomous, and even fully autonomous weapons-capable drones in arsenals of ever more state and non-state combatants, understanding Lushenko’s and Raman’s legitimacy findings and how to apply them will become equally ever more important.

Christopher Hunter is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Tampa and a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Global and National Security Institute at the University of South Florida. He served in the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI.

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