Panel: Drone warfare is increasingly sophisticated, deadly

Policymakers, legislators and military strategists must prepare for the consequences of other countries and actors such as the Islamic State using unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, in the Ukraine-Russia conflict and others, according to panelists in a Cornell discussion March 14.

“We’re here to make sense of this evolving technology,” said panel moderator Sarah Kreps, the John L. Wetherill Professor of Government in the College of Arts and Sciences and a member of the faculty in the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy.

While the U.S. has used drones for the targeted killing of terrorists, their use by other entities around the world is on the rise.

“Drones can aid, they can watch, and they can kill,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Paul Lushenko, a General Andrew Jackson Goodpaster Scholar at Cornell and a doctoral student in the field of international relations.

Former CIA Director John Brennan said drones were used during his time in office to target terrorist targets where the challenge was preventing the deaths of civilians living or working along terrorists. “If you’re going against conventional military, you’re hitting anyone from the opposing side, so they have wide applications in conventional conflicts as we’re seeing right now in Ukraine,” Brennan said.

Brennan said the military use of drones spares the lives of pilots and makes them especially valuable for smaller militaries. But Lushenko said there is increasing evidence that military drone operators are susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Warfare is intensely human, a battle of wills,” Lushenko said. “Drone operators feel that more intimately because they are staring at their targets for so long.”

Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace, said an emerging discussion in the field is over escalation risk. If an unmanned drone is shot down, there is less likely to be political pressure to escalate a conflict, Mir said. But the improvements in technology could change that equation.

The panelists also pointed out that the low cost of drones makes them attractive to so-called “non-state” actors who can cause mayhem with minimal personal risk. Lushenko said drones aren’t just a platform for weaponry that enters a target zone, fires, and then returns to the operator. They can also be rigged to explode on contact, a sort of flying car bomb.

“This brings a new dimension to lethal strikes,” he said.

The character of war is shifting in other ways. Using widely seen video of the Russian convoy in Ukraine as an example, Kreps pointed out the abundance of what is called open-source intelligence – easily accessed social media, satellite imagery and drone video and photography.

“The challenge is not the dearth of information, the challenge is the overwhelming volume of information,” Brennan said. There is a tremendous need, he said, for analysts able to sort through that abundance, separate information from misinformation, and develop an accurate picture of reality.

This virtual discussion hosted by eCornell was a collaboration between the Cornell Brooks School, Cornell Tech Policy Lab, the Cornell Institute of Politics and Global Affairs, and the Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies.

Jim Hanchett is assistant dean for communications in the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy.

Read the story in the Cornell Chronicle.

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