The proliferating use of armed drones is but part of a wider and dangerous shift in the nature of 21st-century warfare.
The extension of armed drones as a weapon of war is reflected in the way that the United States is deploying them to attack targets in countries such as Pakistan and Yemen. In addition, numerous countries are devoting more resources to researching their potential and practising their use, with Israel in the forefront and Britain also active. But in parallel with these efforts there is a growing risk of proliferation and "asymmetrical" operations, whereby powerful states could become the target rather than the perpetrator of drone attacks (see "Suicide-bombs without the suicides: why drones are so cool", 13 September 2012). Israel has in recent years been overflown by Iranian-made but Hizbollah-assembled drones, and is thus in the frontline of such "blowback".
Most of these flights have involved only "reconnaissance" drones, but some could be adapted to carry munitions. An early warning arrived in November 2004 when a small drone crossed the border from Lebanon and briefly overflew Israeli territory before crashing into the sea. Hizbollah tried again five months later and succeeded with a drone that evaded Israeli air-defences in a thirty-kilometre flight before returning safely to its launch-point (see "Hizbollah's warning flight", 5 May 2005). There have been further incursions since then, the latest being the audacious effort on 6 October 2012.
This time, a far longer-range drone was launched from southern Lebanon, which flew west out over the Mediterranean and then south off the coast of Israel. After 180 kilometres it made landfall, continued south-east over Gaza and on towards Beersheba in the Negev desert; its reported direction was towards Israel's nuclear-weapons plant at Dimona. Israeli aircraft shot it down when it was less than 30 kms from Dimona. It had flown well over 200 kms.
The Israeli Defence Forces claim that the drone had been observed throughout its flight and that the IDF had chosen to destroy it over sparsely populated territory. This is dubious. The drone could well have been armed and, at any time on its coastal flight, diverted into Haifa, Tel Aviv, or Ashkelon, any of the many towns on the Israeli coast, or struck a settlement in the western Negev. In any event, the operation shows that Iranian capability has become more sophisticated, and gave Iranian officials a chance to scorn Israel's defence shield (see "Iran mocks Israel air defences after drone flight", AFP, 14 October 2012).
Israel's blowback experience here focuses more attention on the issue of armed-drone warfare, which has already attracted detailed attention in several contexts (see Sudarsan Raghavan, "In Yemen, U.S. airstrikes breed anger, and sympathy for al-Qaeda", Washington Post, 30 May 2012). It is a topic that several columns in this series have analysed (see, for example, "Drone warfare: cost and challenge" [23 June 2011], and "The drone-war blowback" [29 September 2011]). But it is important to note that drones are but a part of a wider transformation in the nature of war.
"War lite" to "war heavy" - and back
Donald Rumsfeld, appointed defence secretary in George W Bush's incoming administration in January 2001, arrived in the Pentagon with a strong belief in "war lite". The United States would tame the jungle of the post-cold-war world not with thousands of "boots on the ground" in the world's trouble-spots but with the selective use of airpower, special forces and expeditionary units (see "America and the world's jungle", 27 May 2010).
The response to the shock of 9/11, when an intense military campaign in Afghanistan ejected the Taliban from Kabul in October-November 2001, seemed to indicate that this approach would work. The invasion and bombardment that crushed the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq in March-April 2003 was taken as further confirmation of the rightness of the strategy.
At that point, Rumsfeld and his associates were on a roll. Two rogue regimes had been despatched in short order and most of the troops could (it was calculated) be withdrawn rapidly from Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving just enough behind to ensure security. In the face of these successes, even the Iranians would now behave.
It all went very wrong, as "war lite" soon morphed into "war heavy" with hundreds of thousands of US troops deployed in both countries, of whom over 6,000 were killed and at least 30,000 seriously wounded (many of them maimed for life). The civilian losses were twenty or more times higher, with in addition almost 8 eight million people displaced or made refugees. The financial cost for Washington amounted to trillions of dollars.
American troops have now left Iraq and most will withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. United States military policy has become much more cautious about large-scale overseas deployments, as witnessed in Barack Obama's stance over the conflicts in Libya and Syria. In its place, though, has come a posture that ever more resembles Rumsfeld's original "war lite" of the early 2000s - and crucially, it goes much further than armed drones to encompass other forms of "remote control".
The wider picture
The drones are certainly very significant but there are other elements.
There is now a much greater focus on the use of special-operations forces (SOF). The United States is leading the way to establish a global network of SOFs, along with Nato and other allies (see David Isenberg, "The Globalisation of U.S. Special Operations Forces", TerraViva/IPS, 24 May 2012.)
Nato will be at the core, with US special-force trainers working with the SOFs of member-states at a Nato SOF headquarters near Mons in Belgium. (see Nigel Chamberlain, "Network of Special Forces worldwide", NATO Watch, 18 June 2012). SOF operations are frequently conducted with a minimum of publicity and their presence in a country may be denied. The mask does sometimes slip, as when three US personnel were killed in a car-crash in Mali in April 2012 - after US military personnel were supposed to have left the country (see Craig Whitlock, "Mysterious fatal crash offers rare look at U.S. commando presence in Mali", Washington Post, 9 July 2012).
There is far more reliance on private military companies often employing SOF personnel who have been lured from their military careers. Such companies can provide a useful distance from official operations, with governments being able to hide behind plausible deniability when things go wrong.
There are indications that rendition continues. In the United States at least there is also pressure for "enhanced interrogation", otherwise known as torture. In the early stages of the current election campaign, Mitt Romney said: "We'll use enhanced interrogation techniques that go beyond those that are in the military handbook right now" (see Charlie Savage, "Election to Decide Future Interrogation Methods in Terrorism Cases", New York Times, 27 September 2012).
To get instant response there are now programmes underway to develop "prompt global strike" using long-range ballistic missiles armed with conventional warheads (see Caitlin Harrington et al., "Silver bullets: US seeks conventional weapons with a global reach", Jane's International Defence Review, September 2010). These could hit targets many thousands of kilometres away in less then thirty minutes.
Armed drones, special-operations forces, privatised military companies, rendition, enhanced interrogation, prompt global strike - all are examples of the changing face of war. The attention surrounding armed drones may aid analysis of this change (see David Axe, "America's secret drone war in Africa", Wired, 14 August 2012); but a fuller picture requires the drones issue to be linked to these other developments.
The conduct of war is moving steadily out of daylight and into the shadows. There is every chance that this trend will be accompanied by a decrease in accountability and much greater scope for controversial actions. For that reason alone, there should be far more attention on this dangerous shift towards "remote control".