Its going to change the fundamental equation of war. First you had human beings without machines. Then you had human beings with machine. And finally you have machines without humans[1].

Robots and drones are still considered to be futuristic armament as it is depicted in mainstream media but they’re part of real warfare. This article is an attempt to define what is a military robot or drone and to answer some of the common questions about it.

First, a drone is an unmanned vehicle, even though we mostly talk about aerial drones, UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) or UCAV (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle). I will focus on aerial drones since they’re the most discussed type of unmanned vehicle used in theatres of war[2] and newly included in its armed version in French army’s arsenal[3]. Military drones are nothing new and are almost as old as aviation itself. For example, during the second Indochina war or Vietnam war, the U.S. military used reconnaissance or anti-submarine drones[4]. There are various types of drones, from unmanned ground vehicles to unmanned underwater vehicles or unmanned surface vehicles. An aerial drone can be defined as “a remotely controlled or autonomous aircraft with no pilot on board. Also called unmanned aircraft system[5]. The word unmanned does not mean no crew is involved in its use. Drones are a system including: the remote-controlled vehicle, the payload (sensors of missiles), the ground or on-board station where the crew operates and the data link between the base and the vehicle. Drones are often qualified as a coward weapon, but reality seems to be more complex. They’re currently being used by a growing number of states or non-state actors since it’s a cost-effective and affordable weapon.

Second, a robot is a “1. A mechanical device that sometimes resembles a human and is capable of performing a variety of often complex human tasks on command or by being programmed in advance. 2. A machine or device that operates automatically or by remote control.[6]. We have this idea of a pre-programmed device that is not necessarily always controlled by a human being. This concept can make us ask ourselves what the use of automated objects in warfare could be and how it could meet international humanitarian law (IHL) standards. We should not overestimate the current evolution of technology and war is not led yet by “killer robots”. Even if lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS) exist, the decision to kill an enemy is currently always taken with a “human in the loop”. The main issue with lethal autonomous weapons is to know whether or not artificial intelligence (A.I.) can decide who lives and who dies. Different countries are developing lethal autonomous weapons (Russia, China, U.K., U.S.A.), offensive systems as well as defensive systems. This use of such weapons does not go without question son an ethical side and about the respect of IHL. LAWS are not the only military application of AI in warfare but the moral questions about “killer robots” dominate the debate in civil society[7].

Technology has always been a critical part of the war and of military supremacy, in the continuous quest for security[8] for which major powers tried to impose the pax democratica. War evolves and we went from interstate conflicts opposing military forces to hybrid warfare in which technology is a key element. Conventional war is also opposed to irregular warfare, but war is a multidimensional dynamic phenomenon that can hardly be measured[9]. Since the end of the Cold War era, we observed more denationalized wars, involving states and non-state actors, terrorist groups or private military companies. Moreover, non-international and low-intensity armed conflicts tend to multiply, involving subversive parties fighting within the territories of failed or complaisant states. The asymmetry between belligerents increases while the distinction between combatant and civilian is blurred[10].

Some observers think we might be on the verge of a revolution in warfare that will have consequences on international relations and security[11]. Warfare is a subject to change because of technology, which seems to create a balance in power and is, concurrently, the result of the change in the nature of war. While there is an increasing intolerance of the public for human losses among its nationals and because war is analysed via the accomplished mission/number of soldiers killed in action ratio, technology is expected to make war more tolerable. Technology is a simultaneously military and political weapon but is it neutral or does it shape international relations, as nuclear power does (for how long?). The most recent developments with autonomous weapons and AI may change the stakes and require more regulation. Technology spreads quickly, allowing developing states or private groups to benefit of the newest weapons whereas developing its technology is critical for a state’s strategic and military independence.

I will then focus on how the materialization of remote warfare led to extensive use of unmanned technology such as UCAVs. The increasing number of armed conflicts is also an argument in favour of developing new weapons equipped with always more intelligent and advanced captors or effectors towards a more cost-effective way of fighting and with less human needs. The two phenomena seem to feed each other in a global arms race. With the boundary between combatant and civilian blurring, the boundary between war and peace is vanishing[12]. In a war where death becomes almost inevitable for the targeted enemies, they will naturally evolve and adapt to the new threats, creating new forms of conflicts.

The use of military armed drones: France and Europe

The drone is now commonplace in warfare and armed UCAVs are currently used by approximatively sixteen states[13], even if they don’t always admit using it. Israel and the United States have been forerunners in the development and the use of drones, and by establishing strong practices that shaped how we see the “global war on terrorism”. Between 2001 and 2015, more than 500 targeted killings had been carried out with drones in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan[14]. Anyway, UCAVs are mostly used for ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) missions, complementary with ground surveillance, planes, satellites[15]. However, it shows that “the true extent of drone operations remains unknowable by the general public[16].

Drones feed the fantasy of being dehumanized or dehumanizing weapons but they’re mostly dependent on humans, hence the more accurate term of “remotely piloted aircraft[17]. Unmanned doesn’t mean the absence of a crew, there’s a link with the command chain on the ground. A targeting cycle need a prior permissive air space, and drones are often used in support of aviation. Next-generation drones will be able to fly in contested airspace, France, China, the U.S. and the U.K. are developing this technology to be ready for 2020. One other specificity of drones is that they spare sovereignty of the crossed states and are a discrete weapon, although vulnerable[18].

After being adopted and theorized by Israel and the United States, the use of UCAVs spread in other countries. Some European countries develop their own projects on advanced drones, in order to be less dependent on foreign technology. However, foreign technology such as U.S. drones is still popular among European countries because “they are readily available, proven, and interoperable platforms, but also to the European countries experience from Afghanistan where they learned how to operate them[19]. For example, in December 2019, the French Minister of armed forces Florence Parly announced the acquisition and the deployment of six General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper armed with GBU-12 Paveway missiles. France should have twelve armed MQ-9 in 2025 and twenty-four in 2030[20]. Only two days after, the French MoD announced the first successful strike with its MQ-9 Reaper as part of operation Barkhane, against armed terrorist groups in Burkina Faso[21]. France decided to arm its drone long after the other major powers and could gain strategic benefits without falling in the same pitfalls as the U.S. did. Florence Parly also stated that: “[it] does not change anything to the rules of engagement, to the respect of the law of armed conflicts”. France will limit drone strikes to personality strikes against high-value targets when “immediate and demonstrable threat to national security, only when the state the target is in does not have the will or the capacity to eliminate the threat[22]. Another difference with USAF drones is that French drone pilots operate in situ from Niamey (Niger) rather than from home.

There are also broader reasons why France decided to arm its drones that could apply to other European countries[23]. Florence Parly reminded that having armed UCAV is a “key capability of tomorrows fighting, as was at their time armoured vehicles or aircrafts[24]. The first reason is an economic advantage, by combining the sensor and the effector functions in one equipment to preserved French aviation already heavily involved. The second reason is to improve performance because armed UCAVs can cover the entire kill chain (find, fix, track, target, engage, assess)[25] or ISR missions and the French army has to cover a territory as large as Europe in the Sahel. Third, there is the humanitarian argument, saying that not arming its drones would be riskier and that drones allow to help and protect soldiers. With drones, armed forces have a quicker response to imminent threats and more endurance, with fewer risks of collateral damages. In Afghanistan, allies quickly realized that armed drones are a “force multiplier and force protector[26].

Besides, European countries have different reasons to develop their drone capacities, whether it is an economic, strategic or sovereignty matter. The European MALE (Medium Altitude Long Endurance) drone is currently developed together with Airbus, Dassault Aviation and Leonardo. Unfortunately for Europe, this project is far from being able to counterbalance the power of the U.S. drone market. The European MALE drone is supposedly much more expensive than those from General Atomics’ and with less experience[27]. Another example is the FCAS (Future Air Combat System), jointly developed by France and the U.K. which is the next generation of manned fighter aircraft and its complementary unmanned systems like the nEUROn demonstrator[28]. Yet, on a strategic level and with the BREXIT approaching, Europe and especially France and Germany will have to play without the British[29]. The United Kingdom never believed in an autonomous European defence able to respond to global crisis in accordance with Winston Churchill who said: “If Britain must choose between Europe and the open sea, she must always choose the open sea[30].

The rise of autonomous weapons?

The automation of weapons is happening and according to Martin Van Creveld[31], we would be in the “fourth-generation war[32]. Unmanned vehicles and artificial intelligence (AI) can be combined to form new weapons. For some military experts and the public in general, LAWS or killer robots are the most feared application in AI in military technology[33]. The difference between a regular UCAV and an autonomous one would be that for the latter, “the software running the drone will decide who lives and who dies[34]. A fully autonomous weapon has not yet reached the battlefield, but the technology is developing fast and this is a major issue for the UN or NGOs. Although not fully autonomous, some weapons are able to fulfil their mission without being guided all the way through.

Autonomous weapons can be classified depending on their level of autonomy or in other words, depending on the place of the human in the loop[35].

We would first have semi-autonomous weapons (human-in-the-loop) with human intervention to open fire for an offensive or defensive use. Second, supervised autonomous weapons (human-on-the- loop) that can select and process the target by itself under human supervision, and are able to use defensive lethal force or aimed at materials, not directly to human beings. Third, autonomous weapons (human-out-of-the-loop) able to select and process targets without human supervision with which only a non-lethal use of force aimed at materials is acceptable. These categories are artificial, and a weapon could be at any level between these three or could be multimodal. The third category (autonomous weapon without human supervision) raises questions about the potential use of lethal force by these weapons.

Two countries have an official doctrine about lethal autonomous weapons, the U.S. and the U.K., and they don’t wish to see this kind of weapon on the battlefield and they are in favour of human control. Since 2018, the EU allows companies to apply for European funding to develop autonomous weapons. The EU member States, or at least some of them, want to build a European strategic autonomy while increasing competitiveness of its defence industry, going together with being in the vanguard with new technologies and AI-enabled weapons.

On one hand, autonomous weapons could present benefits with for example lesser staff costs for a military operation, they could allow a quicker time in decision making and to be less dependent on live communications. Combatant’s security could be increased, and supporters of autonomous weapons argue that IHL would be better respected. On the other hand, the definitions of LAWS are ambiguous and there a lack clear regulation. One of the main issues with getting a clearer definition is that weapons can fall into different levels of autonomy or can be hybrid systems.

The debate led by the NGOs and the UN about LAWS is about morality in a deontologist approach where these weapons would be inherently immoral and inhuman, referring to the Martens clause[36]. These weapons are presumed to be dehumanized, which raises the question of the compatibility with international humanitarian principles. It will depend on the ability of weapon engineers to program IHL into algorithms in order to respect the principles of humanity, distinction, proportionality, and military necessity[37]. However, the respect of IHL needs a form of deliberative reasoning and humans are still superior to machines. Therefore, complete autonomy is not desirable[38]. A middle-ground solution between the ban and the use of autonomous weapons would be to allow them in limited and predictable situations where risks of collateral damages are low.

Power rebalancing through technology

Some talk about “new wars” where the difference between combatants and civilians is blurred, moving away from the classic battlefield, and where drones and robots are weapons of choice. We observe a commoditization of warfare while non-state actors and small/medium states benefit from globalization in terms of technology, information, communication and economy, to counter the occidental hegemony[39]. For example, Turkey is now developing its drone program with the Bayraktar to be less dependent on American or Israeli material. Even terrorist groups like ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) develop weaponized drones, sometimes combined with elementary AI technology.

After 9/11, unmanned capacities became critical in the global fight against terrorism, but this strategy was designed to take place in a permissive environment[40]. In modern conflicts, state actors are most likely to have advanced capabilities but there is an increasing number of non-state actors having access to the same technologies. Military attacks are also most likely to be conducted from afar, in asymmetric or irregular conflicts. The environment where the combats take place are more and more contested and require a comprehensive adaptation of means, on a strategic and tactic level. It will demand to optimize AI and anti-AI or drone technologies and to improve C4 (“Command, Control, Communications and Computers[41]).

States’ militaries ask themselves how robots, meaning AI-enabled weapons, will change warfare and what kind of war will be waged in the next decades. The terms of irregular wars, asymmetric conflict, non-state actors or proxies are becoming commonplace when we talk about the evolution of warfare. Yet, irregular and asymmetric conflicts are nothing new and less powerful actors always tried to avoid uncertain and costly open conflicts. A.I. could make a difference because, besides the lethal use of drones or robots, the key element in modern warfare is the control of information. The speed of communications could be decisive in keeping the advantage and to use adequate means on the battlefield.

Some detractors argue that AI won’t be a revolution in warfare, according to the fact that: “humans, and not hardware, have historically proven decisive[42]. Irregular wars are also about understanding the context, actors and social environment. AI could allow us to better analyse context by improving the ISR dimension of warfare, allowing faster analysis and response. A.I. will probably increase efficiency in data collection and in its processing, but it’s currently difficult to measure how human analysts will still be needed to make decisions. Progress made thanks to A.I. in warfare is still slight but it has to be seen as a long-term integration to become a real game-changer. Anyway, there a clear trend towards more independent weapons platforms, and future wars that will involve “many different types of machines that will be able to move around battlefields and attack without human control[43]. Using more advanced technology will create new flaws and vulnerability, in a world where wars can be fought in cyberspace or in a “sensor-rich physical domains”, A.I. systems will be targeted by sabotage, deception. It will be more difficult to operate in the shadows. Even the most advanced technology is very likely to be detected by states or private groups. Progress has to be made in A.I. enabled weapons as well as in counter-A.I. technology[44].

The point is not to decide in favour of whether it is a revolution of warfare or just evolution, but to analyse the transformation and the spreading of advanced technology. Major actors like China or Russia now seize the stakes and they launched a new arms race with technology. While the U.S. is busy in Middle East, China and Russia are developing A2/AD (Anti Access/Aerial Denial) capabilities, aiming at surpassing them in every domain. China also works to become the world leader in A.I. and advanced technologies, taking advantage of Chinese military-civilian fusion. The U.S. may have fallen a little bit behind, pouring money into newer versions of old military platforms while praying “for technological miracles to come[45]. A 2017 RAND report analysed that: “U.S. forces could, under plausible assumptions, lose the next war they are called upon to fight[46]. More than a revolution in technology, a revolution in thinking is expected.

We also observe increasing importance of connectivity between systems and it’s not only about the force of a weapon. The communication is key since autonomous systems will make sense of the information they collect and communicate, without relying on a command hub. Military networks should be resilient and reconfigurable according to context. The paradigm “command and control” seems to be reversed, going from a large crew to operate a drone to an operator being able to control a swarm of autonomous systems. New levels of quantity and quantity of military systems will have significant effects. Intelligence systems will radically reduce the time between the identification of a target and the potential attack. The future army may use large swarms of “intelligent machine that distribute sensing, movement, shooting and communications”[47]. The multiplication of networks will multiply the number of targets, making it more difficult for the enemy to cause serious damages while multiplying the threat against it. Unmanned and autonomous weapon systems are easy to replace and are expendables. The information would benefit from better analysis and human operators could focus more on political or moral questions.

In terms of conflicts, we are witnessing an erosion of sovereignty, while armed interventions can take place abroad, sometimes without the consent of concerned states. Since the end of the cold war, interventionist states increasingly justify themselves by self-defence (even in a preventive way), or humanitarian reasons[48]. The relationship to time is also evolving into a society of permanent war[49].

The greater distance between combatants and the battlefield goes with the decreasing of the frontier between war and peace. A state does not declare war anymore, states of violence are less defined[50]. Conflicts are also less of interstate nature and there are more conflicts linked to the deconstruction of a state due to internal, economic, social factors[51]. Violence is becoming more privatised, but can we talk about “new wars” since irregular and asymmetric wars have always existed? The very term of “war” is challenged, we often hear about conflicts or violence. Their grounds may be different, more global, permanent, and non-state related. With the advent of drones and autonomous weapons, we are witnessing a global and remote manhunt[52] closer to law enforcement, which is permanent while war is a temporal event. We must remind that technology, either robots or drones, are just links in the chain of war, they’re part of a wider system from the policymakers to the boots on the ground. We will certainly soon assist in a period of technologic transition where the U.S. could encounter more political blockages than Russia or China, that don’t deal the same way with ethics. The assumption that “the purpose of preparing for war will remain to never have to fight one” stays true.


Source: Drone Wars UK, [].

Last update : June 2019.

Nicolas Richard
Master 2 Droit public parcours Carrières internationales – Université Clermont Auvergne


Footnotes :

[1] John PIKE, quoted in: Gregory M. LAMB, “Battle bot: the future of war?”, The Christian Science Monitor, online, Jan. 27, 2005, [].

[2] Carl von CLAUSEWITZ, Michael HOWARD, Peter PARET (Editor and translator), 1989 (1832), On War, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[3] Florent GUIGNARD, RFI, “Drones français armés au Sahel: « une mission principale, celle du renseignement, mais avec des possibilités de tirs »”, online, December 20, 2019. [].

[4] Air & Space, “D.A.S.H. goes to war”, online, Sept. 23, 2019, [].

[5] The American Heritage dictionary of the English language, online, consulted Dec. 23 2019.

[6] Idem.

[7] See for example the campaign to stop killer robots, [].

[8] Julian FERNANDEZ, Relations Internationales, Dalloz, Précis, 2nd edition, Paris, 2018, p. 546, § 572.

[9] Idem.

[10] Bertrand BADIE, Dominique VIDAL (dir.), Nouvelles guerres. Comprendre les conflits du XXIe siècle, La Découverte, Poche / Essais, 2016, p. 18.

[11] Marcus SCHULZKE, The morality of drone warfare and the politics of regulation, Palgrave Macmillian, New Security Challenges, 2017, p. 2.

[12] Océane ZUBELDIA, review of : Antoine BOUSQUET, The eye of war: military perception from the telescope to the drone, online, consulted : oct. 30, 2019, Les lectures d’AEGES, [].

[13] See appendix.

[14] Marcus SCHULZKE, The morality of drone warfare and the politics of regulation, Palgrave Macmillian, New Security Challenges, 2017, p. 2.

[15] Christophe FONTAINE, “La persistance de la surveillance et le temps réel, nouveaux principes d’une sobriété guerrière ? L’emploi des drones dans la stratégie aérienne” in Stratégique, 2013/3 n° 104, pp. 57 – 67.

[16] Marcus SCHULZKE, The morality of drone warfare and the politics of regulation, Palgrave Macmillian, New Security Challenges, 2017, p. 2.

[17] Jean-Baptiste JEANGENE VILMER, Christophe FONTAINE, “Drones armés, drones de combat et robots tueurs”, The Conversation, online, Apr. 29, 2016, [].

[18] Jean-Baptiste JEANGENE VILMER, “Introduction : robotisation et transformations de la guerre”, Politique étrangère, vol. automne, no. 3, 2013, p. 86.

[19] Dominika KURNETOVA, Military drones in Europe. The European Defense Market and the Spread of Military UAV Technology, Center for War Studies, University of Southern Danemark, Spring/Summer 2019, p. 10, [].

[20] Le Monde, “La France déploie des drones armés au Sahel”, online, December 19, 2019, [].

[21] Laurent LAGNEAU, “Barkhane : première frappe d’un drone Reaper français lors d’une operation anti-jihadiste”, online, December 23, 2019, [].

[22] Jean-Baptiste JEANGENE VILMER, “The French turn to armed drones”, War on the Rocks, online, Sept. 22, 2017, [].

[23] Jean-Baptiste JEANGENE VILMER, “The French turn to armed drones”, War on the Rocks, online, Sept. 22, 2017.

[24] Florence PARLY, Closing statement – Université d’été de la Défense 2017, September 5, 2017.

[25] Jean-Baptiste JEANGENE VILMER, “The French turn to armed drones”, War on the Rocks, online, Sept. 22, 2017.

[26] The University of Birmingham, The security impact of drones: challenges and opportunities for the UK, Birmingham Policy Commission, The Report, Oct. 2014, p. 30.

[27] Vincent LAMIGEON, “L’Eurodrone, le futur drone de surveillance européen, se rapproche du crash”, Challenges, online, December 12, 2019, [].

[28] Jean-Baptiste JEANGENE VILMER, “The French turn to armed drones”, War on the Rocks, online, Sept. 22, 2017.

[29] Frédéric MAURO, “Défense européenne: le Brexit nous oblige à faire le deuil de l’Angleterre”, L’Opinion, online, December 19, 2019, [].

[30] Quoted in: Erica MORET, “Europe or the open sea? Brexit and European security”, European Council on Foreign Relations, online, Apr. 21, 2016, [].

[31] Martin VAN CREVELD, born 5 March 1946, is an Israeli military historian and theorist.

[32] Martin VAN CREVELD, The transformation of war, Free Press, 1991.

[33] Jacob WARE, “Terrorist groups, artificial intelligence, and killer drones”, War on the rocks, online, Sept. 24, 2019, [].

[34] Idem.

[35] Jean-Baptiste JEANGENE VILMER, “Terminator ethics : faut-il interdire les « robots tueurs » ?”, IFRI, Politique étrangère, vol. hiver, no. 4, 2014, p. 154.

[36] Rob SPARROW, “Ethics as a source of law: The Martens clause and autonomous weapons”, Nov. 14, 2017, [].

[37] See ICRC fundamental principles of IHL, [].

[38] Jean-Baptiste JEANGENE VILMER, “Terminator ethics : faut-il interdire les « robots tueurs » ?”, IFRI, Politique étrangère, vol. hiver, no. 4, 2014, p. 161.

[39] Julian FERNANDEZ, Relations Internationales, Dalloz, Précis, 2nd edition, Paris, 2018, p. 546, § 566.

[40] Joint Air Power Competence Centre, “Remotely piloted aircraft systems in contested environments”, online, consulted Oct. 31, 2019, [].

[41] Idem.

[42] Daniel EGEL, Eric ROBINSON, Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Charles T. CLEVELAND, Christopher (CJ) OATES, “AI and irregular warfare: an evolution, not a revolution”, War on the rocks, online, Oct. 31, 2019, [].

[43] Marcus SCHULZKE, The morality of drone warfare and the politics of regulation, Palgrave Macmillian, New Security Challenges, 2017, p. 152.

[44] Daniel EGEL, Eric ROBINSON, Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Charles T. CLEVELAND, Christopher (CJ) OATES, “AI and irregular warfare: an evolution, not a revolution”, War on the rocks, online, Oct. 31, 2019.

[45] Christian BROSE, « The new revolution in military affairs: war’s sci-fi future », Foreign Affairs, online, May/June 2019, [].

[46] David OCHMANEK, « Restoring the Power Projection Capabilities of the U.S. Armed Forces », Testimony presented before the Committee on Armed Services, Feb. 16, 2017, [].

[47] Christian BROSE, « The new revolution in military affairs: war’s sci-fi future », Foreign Affairs, online, May/June 2019.

[48] Jean-Baptiste JEANGENE VILMER, “Introduction : robotisation et transformations de la guerre”, Politique étrangère, vol. automne, no. 3, 2013, p. 86.

[49] Drone Wars, “The danger of drones”, online, consulted Jan. 4, 2020, [].

[50] Jean-Baptiste JEANGENE VILMER, “Introduction : robotisation et transformations de la guerre”, Politique étrangère, vol. automne, no. 3, 2013, p. 87.

[51] D.VIDAL, « Aux quatre coins du monde. Panorama des conflits contemporains », Nouvelles guerre. Comprendre les conflits du XXIe siècle, B. BADIE, D. VIDAL (dir.), La Découverte, Poche / Essais, 2016, p. 29.

[52] L. GAYER, “Ni guerre ni paix: guerres sans fin(s) ou désordres ordonnés ?”, Nouvelles guerre. Comprendre les conflits du XXIe siècle, B. BADIE, D. VIDAL (dir.), La Découverte, Poche / Essais, 2016, p. 69.