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Not so remote drone warfare

In war as in love, to end it, you

have to see each other up close

Napoléon Bonaparte (Gourgaud 1823, p. 115).

Abstract

Drone warfare is the most emblematic manifestation of so-called remote warfare. And yet, how ‘remote’ is it really? Based on extensive interaction with French drone crews, and interviews conducted in 2020, this article shows how drone warfare is not so new, not so distant, not so different, not so indifferent, and not so riskless. In other words, how distancing is a constant in the history of warfare; how the cliché of the drone pilot killing people between the groceries and the family dinner is a partial reflect of reality; how the videogame-like immersive environment of drone pilots is not that different from the one of modern inhabited aircrafts; how drones contradict the widespread assumption that propensity to killing is proportionate to physical distance from target; and finally how drone warfare is not that riskless, at least compared to its most likely alternatives. Therefore, drone warfare is not that remote.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    In this article, I will use inhabited/uninhabited rather than the usual manned/unmanned terminology for the reasons highlighted above.

  2. 2.

    Pierre Terrail, seigneur de Bayard (1475–1524).

  3. 3.

    My translation. Unless otherwise indicated translations are mine.

  4. 4.

    Quoted by Chamayou (2015, p. 91).

  5. 5.

    Often confused with the Minenwerfer-Gerät (M-Gerät), popularly known as ‘Big Bertha,’ a siege howitzer that had a much smaller range (9.3 km).

  6. 6.

    Master sergeant X, image operator at the 33d Fighter Wing of reconnaissance, surveillance and attack, interviewed by the author in Cognac, on July 7, 2020.

  7. 7.

    Lt. Col. X, head of the 33d Fighter Wing of reconnaissance, surveillance and attack, interviewed by the author in Cognac, on July 7, 2020.

  8. 8.

    https://dronewars.net/who-has-armed-drones/.

  9. 9.

    ‘French Air Force tests Harfang UAV’s reachback capabilities,’ airforce-technology.com, June 30, 2014.

  10. 10.

    Cpt. X, remote pilot, 33d Fighter Wing of reconnaissance, surveillance and attack, interviewed by the author in Cognac, on July 7, 2020.

  11. 11.

    Au contact was the name given to the reorganization of the French Army in 2015 and is still used as a general conceptual framework for the Army.

  12. 12.

    Cpt. X, remote pilot, 33d Fighter Wing of reconnaissance, surveillance and attack, interviewed by the author in Cognac, on July 7, 2020.

  13. 13.

    Lt. Col. X, head of the 33d Fighter Wing of reconnaissance, surveillance and attack, interviewed by the author in Cognac, on July 7, 2020.

  14. 14.

    Chief warrant officer X, sensor operator, 33d Fighter Wing of reconnaissance, surveillance and attack, interviewed by the author in Cognac, on July 7, 2020.

  15. 15.

    Lt. Col. X, head of the 33d Fighter Wing of reconnaissance, surveillance and attack, interviewed by the author in Cognac, on July 7, 2020.

  16. 16.

    Ibid.

  17. 17.

    Lt. Col. X, head of the 33d Fighter Wing of reconnaissance, surveillance and attack, interviewed by the author in Cognac, on July 7, 2020.

  18. 18.

    ‘SPD unter’ strengen Bedingungen ‘für Einsatz bewaffneter Drohnen,’ tagesspiegel.de, June 28, 2020.

  19. 19.

    ‘No armed drones for the German army—for now,’ dw.com, December 14, 2020.

  20. 20.

    Beyond-visual-range missiles are capable of engaging targets at ranges of 37 km or beyond.

  21. 21.

    Rarely, aircrafts use their cannon, when they have no other option, for example when the enemy is too close to friendly troops to which the aircraft provides support, and for that reason cannot use a bomb which would harm them both. That happened a couple of times in Syria/Iraq and the Sahel: Rafale fighters used their Nexter 30 canon at a range of 800–1,500 m. That of course increases considerably the risk for the pilot, to be hit by an anti-aircraft weapon.

  22. 22.

    Cpt X, 33d Fighter Wing of reconnaissance, surveillance and attack, interviewed by the author in Cognac, on July 7, 2020.

  23. 23.

    Chief warrant officer X, sensor operator, 33d Fighter Wing of reconnaissance, surveillance and attack, interviewed by the author in Cognac, on July 7, 2020.

  24. 24.

    Master sergeant X, image operator at the 33d Fighter Wing of reconnaissance, surveillance and attack, interviewed by the author in Cognac, on July 7, 2020.

  25. 25.

    UN Doc. A/HRC/14/24/Add.6 (May 28, 2010), para. 84.

  26. 26.

    Lt. Col. X, head of the 33d Fighter Wing of reconnaissance, surveillance and attack, interviewed by the author in Cognac, on July 7, 2020.

  27. 27.

    Ibid.

  28. 28.

    Ibid.

  29. 29.

    Lt. Col. X, head of the 33d Fighter Wing of reconnaissance, surveillance and attack, interviewed by the author in Cognac, on July 7, 2020.

  30. 30.

    Ibid.

  31. 31.

    General David Deptula at CNN’s Amanpour, aired November 24, 2009.

  32. 32.

    US Department of Defense, Casualty Status, as of June 21, 2021 (https://www.defense.gov/casualty.pdf).

  33. 33.

    Elise Vincent, “Risques et périls de la fin de ‘Barkhane’ au Sahel,” Le Monde, June 11, 2021 (https://www.lemonde.fr/international/article/2021/06/11/risques-et-perils-de-la-fin-de-barkhane_6083674_3210.html).

  34. 34.

    See bellingcat.com.

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Jeangène Vilmer, JB. Not so remote drone warfare. Int Polit (2021). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41311-021-00338-9

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Keywords

  • Drones
  • Remote warfare
  • Distance
  • Risk
  • Killing
  • France