Drones: disembodied aerial warfare and the unarticulated threat



    1. Professor of International Politics and Head of the Department of Political Science and International Studies (POLSIS) at the University of Birmingham.
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    • I am grateful to Stefan Wolff, Nicholas J. Wheeler and Richard Lock-Pullan and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on this article and to Lindsey Murch for invaluable research assistance. Dunn, Wolff and Wheeler are also grateful to the Economic and Social Research Council for their support for this research on drone warfare.


The Obama administration's controversial use of drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen has made the subject a hot topic of political and academic discourse. While most of this debate has focused so far on the legal, ethical and prudential use of large armed aerial vehicles, this article seeks to address the potential wider impact of this new technological innovation. The article argues that drones constitute a new and disruptive technology not just in the way that they have been used to enable a new form of counterterrorism. Instead, it argues that drones pose a new form of terrorist threat against the West which is at present under-analysed, unarticulated and underestimated. Part of the reason for this underestimation is the failure to appreciate the scale and scope of drone use for commercial purposes which is about to unfold. Technological innovation now means that drones will be capable of many jobs currently performed by small planes and helicopters, but more cheaply and easily—in addition to many other new applications. The proliferation of this cheap and easily available technology will make its application for terrorist use easy to achieve and difficult to counter. The ability of drones to penetrate traditional defences and established conceptions of what constitutes a plausible threat is a challenge which so far has gone unheeded. This article seeks to challenge that complacency.