The skies of Syria, Yemen, and Libya swarm with armed and dangerous unmanned aerial vehicles. And the technology is spreading farther and farther afield. Three decades ago, drones were available to only the most technologically developed state military organizations. Today they’re everywhere, being used by weaker states and small military forces, as well as many non-state actors, including Islamic State and al-Qaeda. “We’re seeing a cycle of technological innovation regarding the use of drones and associated systems, and that cycle of techno-tactical adaptation and counter-adaptation will only hasten going forward,” says Raphael Marcus, a research fellow in the department of war studies at King’s College London.
The diffusion of such technology is leveling the playing field, says Marcus, author of Israel’s Long War With Hezbollah: Military Innovation and Adaptation Under Fire. He says that because armies no longer have the monopoly on the use of drones, surveillance technology, precision capabilities, and long-range missiles, other actors in the region are able to impose their will on the international stage. “The parameters have changed,” he says. That’s already leading to greater instability. For example, Hezbollah’s thwarted drone strike in August and increasingly sophisticated and more frequent drone attacks by Hamas raise the risk of another war with Israel; meanwhile, Yemen’s Houthi rebels made an impact on the global price of oil with a strike on Saudi Arabia, using 25 drones and missiles.
The Institute for Strategic Research in Paris has already recommended that NATO and European militaries ready themselves for drone threats in future conflicts. The institute also urged countries to cooperate on a joint research and development strategy to defend against the threat in a report issued in September.
Does that mean that future wars will be automated? “Drones will definitely be taking more important roles in the next few years, but they aren’t about to replace soldiers,” says Ben Nassi, a researcher at Ben-Gurion University in Israel. For that to happen, he says, drones will need longer battery life and the development of a centralized computer command-and-control server that will allow a single person to control a swarm of drones, similar to how individual players manage their militaries in a computer game.