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CWA # 544, 7 September 2021

NIAS Fortnightly on Science, Technology & International Relations
Drones: The Evolution, Types, Hypes and Controversies

  STIR Team

7 September 2021, Vol. 1, No. 8

Cover Story
By Jeshil Samuel

On 27 August, the US used a drone strike to kill two high profile Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) operatives as retaliation against the suicide bombing in the Hamid Karzai International Airport that killed 169 Afghans and 13 American soldiers. The drone strike was precise and was reported to have no known civilian casualties. Many scholars have agreed that the US ending their combat mission in Afghanistan would put Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) at the forefront of future US operations in the region. 

On 25 August, drone delivery company Wing (part of the Alphabet Group) announced that it was on the verge of successfully completing 100,000 customer deliveries in the Australian suburbs. The company has achieved this milestone within a span of two years and has proved that the commercial applications for drones can be easily integrated even in highly populated suburbs. Though landing spaces are an issue, the company has plans to expand its operations in highly populated metropolitan cities across Europe and Asia.

The History behind Drones

According to a publication by the University of Ohio, “unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, are aircraft that can be controlled remotely by a pilot, or by pre-programmed plans or automation systems that enable them to fly autonomously”. Though the hype for drone technology has been around since the late 1950s, the technology itself was founded earlier in 1917 during World War 1. The British and the Americans were the first to test small radio-controlled aircrafts. However, neither of the two countries used the aircrafts during the war. It was during the interwar period that more research and development went into unmanned aircrafts. During World War II, the US launched Operation Anvil which allowed the Navy to remotely control B-24 bombers filled with explosives. However, it is widely believed that in 1935, when the British produced the DH.82B Queen Bee (a radio-controlled aircraft used for training), was when the term “drone” started being used.

Moving to 1955, the Vietnam War was one of the first large-scale combat missions that extensively used drones for surveillance and as decoys. It was during this time that drones gained the capability to fire missiles at fixed targets and carry objects. After the Vietnam War, other countries began noticing the importance of drones and started investing heavily in drone manufacturing and development. Between the 1960s and the early 2000s, drones started becoming better by carrying heavier payloads at higher altitudes and even using solar panels to reduce fuel consumption. 

After the 9/11 attacks, the US got into extensive combat missions in Afghanistan and Iraq and it was during this period that the US changed the perception of drones changed completely. The implementation of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in UAVs allowed them to fly extensively without any human control, and the addition of laser-guided missile systems allowed for a more precise payload delivery. Coveting the power and stealthiness of drones, many countries from the Middle East, East Asia, and Eastern Europe began importing drones for exorbitant prices and the global drone industry began expanding extensively. In 2018, the global drone market was worth nearly 20 billion USD and it is estimated that the industry would reach 42.8 billion USD by 2025.

(Ohio University, 7 Pros and Cons of Drones and Unmanned Ariel Vehicles, 11 May 2021,

Types and Functions

The rapid pace of technological advancements has created different categories of drones with their own set of functions and specialities. At present, drones can be divided into 14 different categories based on their build and functionality, and 5 different categories based on their weight. Let’s take a brief look at the main categories and the purposes they serve. (Please find table in the PDF)

Why do states want drones?

First, casualty aversion. One of the primary reasons why drones have been sought after since World War 1 is to reduce casualties in war. Countries today follow a similar principle that allows them to take any and all measures to minimize the death toll on their side. According to Frank Sauer and Niklas Schörnig, “Drones are uniquely attractive to democracies because they allow elected officials to wage wars without the potential adverse consequences that would come from losing soldiers in battle”. Countries in hostile environments with relatively smaller armies (such as Israel) tend to rely heavily on drones for the same reason. And according to Michael C. Horowitz, “the ability of drones to loiter for long periods of time over a target means that the attacker can gain better intelligence on the target and the surrounding area, and strike with better accuracy. This reduces the risk of civilian casualties”.

Second, to reduce military spending. Though drones can be some of the most expensive military weapons or tools to acquire or build, they do not command the same budgets as a ground invasion or attack. An analysisconducted in 2019 by Daniel Burg and Paul Scharre found that the American Navy could potentially save 131.5 billion USD in the future by heavily relying on unmanned FNAs (Future Naval Aircrafts). The competition within the drone industry has even allowed manufacturers such as Kratos, to produce relatively cheaper target drones that offer the same functionality as the expensive ones. According to Keith Mahler, “drones also can collect information for analysis in real-time, reducing the need for manual data capture and reporting”. Finally, the reusability and longevity of drones are some of the most important factors that allow governments to reduce military spending. 

Third, power and prestige. According to Emily Goldman and Leslie Eliason, “for neorealists, states are like firms, emulate successful innovations of others out of fear of the disadvantages that arise from being less competitively organized and equipped”. This perfectly sums up why countries are always in a hurry to procure the latest drones available in the market. If a country does not plan on procuring new drones, then it is perceived that they are inherently weaker compared to the ones who have them. Another binding factor that pushes governments to procure drones is status and prestige. As Niklas Schornig rightly points out, “here, the question becomes not one of strategic advantage but of the symbolic nature of specific weapon systems”. Drones procured from countries like the US, Turkey and Israel are considered to be prestigious possessions by developing countries, and this mentality indirectly pushes other developing countries in the region to procure them as well.

Fourth, counterterrorism and counterinsurgency. From Somalia to Pakistan, the US popularised the use of drones to fight terrorism through their War on Terror campaign. This trend quickly spread as drones prevented ground troops from becoming victims to ambushes, mines, and suicide bombings orchestrated by militant groups. The ability to collect data and inflict damage simultaneously provides drones with time windows that simply cannot be found during physical counterterrorism missions. Another key factor that makes drones excellent in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations is the psychological impact they have on militants. Based on data from US drone strikes in Pakistan between 2007 and 2011, researchers Johnston and Sarbahi were able to conclude that, “the usage of drones reduced the risk of subsequent terrorist attacks, as well as the targeting of tribal elders by militant groups”. Professor Shah states that “there is also evidence that drone strikes do not broadly cause blowback by generating more militant group recruitment”. Therefore, we can safely assume that once militants are aware that drones are present in their region, the fear of being targeted stunts the growth of their operations.

Fifth, unconfined intelligence gathering. Earlier this year, US-based aeronautics firm, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems announced that the new Avenger drones would have advanced sensor pods that would not only allow the drones to hide from radar but also from infrared sensors. With new innovations constantly making drones stealthier, it makes them very difficult to detect and destroy. This ability to remain stealthy coupled with their range have made drones one of the go-to forms of cross-border intelligence gathering for state actors. Countries do not have to worry about being caught spying on another country anymore, and since the data sent from the drone is heavily encrypted, countries don’t have to worry about their drones getting hacked either. Even international organizations such as the United Nations that have long opposed intrusive intelligence gathering, have been pushed to use UAVs extensively during their peacekeeping missions in notoriously unstable regions (such as Mali).

(James Igoe Walsh & Marcus Schulzke, Drones and Support for the Use of Force, 2018, JSTOR; Michael C. Horowitz, Do Emerging Military Technologies Matter for International Politics, May 2020, ResearchGate; Keith Mahler, Agencies Could Stretch Budgets by Embracing Drones, 24 May 2019,; Emily O. Goldman & Leslie C. Eliason, The Diffusion of Military Technology and Ideas, 2003, Google Books; Niklas Schornig, Liberal Preferences as an Explanation for Technology Choices, The Case of Military Robots as a Solution to the West’s Casualty Aversion, July 2014, ResearchGate)

Why are drones controversial?

First, a lack of clarity under International Humanitarian Law (IHL). IHL plays a crucial role in maintaining human rights during armed conflicts throughout the world. However, the international community is yet to ratify any treaty or agreement that would give international judicial bodies such as the International Court of Justice the power to punish state actors who misuse UAVs during combat. As of now, drones are not considered as weapons under the IHL but merely as platforms that house weapons. According to Stefan Oeter, “the drone as a military object is clearly a legitimate military target, but only the guided munitions which are carried and directed to their targets by the drones are the object of regulation of the norms of IHL concerning means and methods of warfare”. With the increasing use of kamikaze drones by state and armed non-state actors, the definition of UAVs being a weapons platform becomes unclear since kamikaze drones are armed drones that self-destruct on impact. Moreover, the principles of distinction (states should engage with only military targets), proportionality (collateral damage must be assessed and minimal) and the prohibition of indiscriminate attacks that are enforced by the IHL are frequently broken by drone strikes conducted by countries such as the US, Israel and Turkey.

Second, the question of collateral damage. Both people and property are considered collateral damage if they are harmed unintentionally during conflict. Under international law, states are allowed to conduct targeted strikes only after a proper assessment of the collateral involved is carried out. After the assessment, states are required to take the course of action that demands comparatively minimal collateral damage. However, the question of how much damage is considered to be minimal is still a huge debate. When states use drone strikes to eliminate potential threats, the question of collateral damage becomes secondary to national security. The recent US drone strike in Kabul that killed ten members of a family in order to stop a suspected ISIS-K suicide bomber is a good example of this as the US later admitted that it was a defensive strike carried out to prevent an imminent threat to the Hamid Karzai International Airport. Despite the advancements in predictive analytics and machine learning, drones still cause collateral damages that go unaddressed. 

Third, the lack of accountability and transparency. According to Emily Crawford, “the remote nature of drone attacks can (and has been) directly connected to indiscriminate attacks against both military and civilian targets”. Governments do not specify the reason as to why a certain individual or group is being monitored or targeted, they only inform the public after a drone strike has been executed successfully. This lack of transparency combined with the machine learning algorithms in Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) could potentially lead to a particular group of people being targeted based on past experience. With drones gradually becoming fully autonomous, the need for human intervention becomes lesser, and this poses serious questions of accountability.  

Fourth, issues of privacy. In a time where privacy has become a basic necessity, governments around the world have created strict rules and regulations governing the usage of commercial drones. However, governments have not created equally stringent laws that restrict military or law enforcement drones from spying on their own citizens. Gregory McNeal states that, “privacy advocates contend that with drones, the government will be able to engage in widespread pervasive surveillance because drones are cheaper to operate than their manned counterparts. Another factor that raises serious concerns is the ability of drones to remain stealthy. One would never know if they are being spied upon or not, and even worse, they would not be able to do much even if they knew. With advanced reconnaissance drones being able to intercept and reroute cell phone signals mid-air, the possibilities of drones invading an individual’s privacy are increasing day-by-day.     

Fifth, the psychological impacts. Research conducted by the Global Law Clinic and International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic on the adverse effects of US drone attacks in Pakistan summarised: “Their (drones) presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities”. The fear of becoming victim to a drone attack not only pushes civilians in conflict-ridden regions to face traumatic experiences, but also creates a feeling of hatred towards the attackers. This feeling of hatred is counterproductive if the attacker’s intent is to liberalise or rescue the civilians from a tyrannous regime.

Ironically, even counter-drone technology that is supposed to give civilians peace of mind ends up disrupting their normal lives significantly. According to a report by the Open Briefing group, “kinetic weapons (missiles, rockets or bullets) can be very effective, but present considerable risks of collateral damage if used in urban civilian areas” since the falling debris from the kinetic measures poses serious public safety concerns. 

(Patrick B. Johnston & Anoop K. Sarbahi, The Impact of US Drone Strikes on Terrorism in Pakistan, June 2016, Oxford Academic; Aqil Shah, Do U.S. Drone Strikes Cause Blowback? Evidence from Pakistan and Beyond, 1 May 2018, MIT Press Direct; Stefan Oeter, Armed Drones: Legal Issues from an International Law Perspective, 2014, Ethics and Armed Forces; Emily Crawford, The Principle of Distinction and Remote Warfare, May 2016, Sydney Law School; Gregory McNeal, Drones and aerial surveillance: Considerations for legislatures, November 2014, Brookings; IHRCRC & GLC, Living under Drones, September 2012,; Emily Crawford, The Principle of Distinction and Remote Warfare, May 2016, Sydney Law School; Gregory McNeal, Drones and aerial surveillance: Considerations for legislatures, November 2014, Brookings; IHRCRC & GLC, Living under Drones, September 2012,

The Future of Drones

Drones are here to stay and as their numbers grow exponentially, so do the environmental concerns they cause to birds and the security risks they create for states. But despite the negative impacts, the public support for public safety monitoring and scientific research uses of drones are high. 

Commercially, drones could soon be seen in a wide variety of applications such as disease control, industrial inspections, personal transportation, space exploration and home security. Another pertinent application for drones could be wildlife conservation since they can track down or monitor poaching activities far better than the fixed cameras in wildlife reserves. Drones however, would see the most use in the retail delivery market. Companies like Amazon have been using drones for contactless deliveries even before the pandemic hit, and the pandemic has only pushed numerous other businesses to integrate drone delivery systems. Intergovernmental organizations such as UNICEF have also started experimenting with drones in vaccine delivery/transport, for improved connectivity in hard-to-reach communities, aerial imaging for better preparedness, and response to emergencies in developing countries. 

Governments, on the other hand, would certainly be investing more in anti-drone technology in the future due to the increasing threats posed by drones. Countries such as the US and Israel have already invested in developing and using high-energy lasers to shoot down drones. Governments would also concentrate on the research and development of unmanned aircrafts assisting manned aircrafts. The Hindustan Aeronautics Limited’s CAT (Combined Air Training) project is a good example of this, as the project would allow manned aircrafts to deploy and control UAVs during cross-border missions. On the constructive side of things, the integration of drone delivery systems with existing healthcare systems would also revolutionize public healthcare, especially in developing countries.

The increasing usage of drones by armed non-state actors is a question that needs to be focused on. The Middle East in particular has seen a massive surge in terror attacks carried out through drones in the last five years, and this is expected to increase in the foreseeable future. Militant groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and Houthis procure armed drones from state actors like Iran, and this relationship between states and their proxies would lead to an increase in drone attacks in the future if not addressed immediately. International law has to evolve with the changing times and hold state actors responsible for their usage of UAVs and UASs. Until then, drones would be the most desired yet despised piece of technology for state and non-state actors alike. 

( Open Briefing, The Hostile use of Drones by Non-State Actors against British targets, January 2016, Remote Control Project)

In Brief

By Akriti Sharma and Lokendra Sharma

Hurricane Ida: Effective technology ensured better forecast and preparedness
On 29 July, hurricane Ida, a category 4 storm made landfall near Port Fourchon in Louisiana with maximum sustained winds of 150 mph and a minimum central pressure of 930 mb. It again made a second landfall as a category 4 storm in the southwest of Galliano with maximum sustained winds of 145 mph and a minimum central pressure of 935 mb. Due to rapid intensification, Ida turned from a weak storm to severe Category 4 storm. The criterion for classification of a storm in the rapid intensification category is when the speed of its sustained winds increases 
by at least  35 mph within 24 hours. Ida intensified 85-150 mph in merely 24 hours. 

The scientists had predicted the severity of the hurricane beforehand. The ocean temperatures are monitored daily through satellites especially during the summer months. They used EXpendable BathyThermographs (XBTs); an instrument used to measure temperature profile of the upper regions of the ocean. It descends about 400-1500 metres down the upper surface of the ocean and sends back the data regarding the temperature and the salinity of the ocean. A swirling pool of water often referees to as eddy was warm up to 480 feet below the surface. The excessive heat of the eddy fueled the severity of the hurricane. XBTs were first deployed in the North Atlantic Ocean in the 1960s. They are the most cost-efficient technology to record the temperature gradient of the ocean. However, a major impediment to predict the rapid intensification is the inability of science to predict how deep the layer of the hot water is. XBTs can only predict the surface temperature of the ocean. 

Additionally, the US Geological Survey (USGS) scientists used the storm-tide sensors to predict the depth and duration of the storm. The scientists deployed 23 sensors on the coasts of Louisiana and Mississippi. The sensors facilitate collection of data that helps forecast the storm surge. It helps in better preparedness from the storms. The sensors can guide the evacuation plans and ensure public safety. After the landfall of Ida as Category 4 storm and heavy flooding, the USGS crews collected the sensors to improve coastal change forecast and develop storm surge models. The use of technology in forecasting and preparedness of the hurricanes is huge. In 2015, hurricane Katrina took about 1800 lives on the Gulf of Mexico, however, after sixteen years, Ida has been managed relatively efficiently. 

(Nick Shay,Hurricane Ida turned into a monster thanks to a giant warm patch in the Gulf of Mexico – here’s what happenedThe Conversation, 1 September2021)(Robin Lloyd, How Hurricane Ida Got So Big So Fast - Scientific AmericanScientific American, 31 August 2021)(USGS, USGS Deploying Storm-tide Sensors in Louisiana, Mississippi in Advance of Hurricane Ida, 27 August 2021)

A new variant of SARS-CoV-2 rekindles fears

On 30 August, the WHO classified ‘Mu’ (B.1.621) as a Variant of Interest (VOI). First found in Colombia in January 2021, Mu has since spread across the United States; close to 39 countries have reported it. With this classification, Mu joins Eta, Iota , Kappa and Lambda as VOI. 

SARS-CoV-2, like other viruses, undergoes mutation with time. While some mutations may produce variants with less virulence and/or less transmissibility, it may also lead to vice versa. As these variants have a major epidemiological impact and can also affect the effectiveness of vaccination, they are continuously tracked by global and national public health bodies through genome sequencing (which is being done at an unprecedented level). While variants which have a potential to cause harm are classified as VOI, more serious ones like the Delta (B.1.617.2) are classified as Variants of Concern (VOC). Other VOCs classified by the WHO are Alpha, Beta and Gamma. 

On 31 August, the WHO’s weekly epidemiological update on COVID-19 noted that the “Mu variant has a constellation of mutations that indicate potential properties of immune escape.” However, it added that this “needs to be confirmed by further studies.” Similarly, more evidence would be needed to determine the variant’s virulence and transmissibility. It is currently more prevalent in South America (Colombia and Ecuador) and nothing definitive is known about its virulence and transmissibility. It has nevertheless rekindled fears about a devastating new wave similar to one triggered by the Delta variant this year, which was particularly pronounced in India during April-June 2021. That the variant has been lurking around since January 2021 while Delta became the dominant variant is a comforting thing. However, this may change and the variant would have to be watched closely. As this is not the last variant, and other variants may emerge in future, it is all the more imperative to ramp up the pace of vaccination with a special emphasis on equity and last mile delivery. 

(Weekly epidemiological update on COVID-19 - 31 August 2021WHO, Edition 55, 31 August 2021; Tracking SARS-CoV-2 variantsWHO; Paul Griffin, Everything you need to know about the Mu COVID-19 variantWorld Economic Forum, 3 September 2021)

(Please click the PDF to read more)


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