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December 7, 2022

Drones and the war of the future

This month marks 10 years since the start of the war in Iraq and the international media is awash with analyses on its impact on the international system of states. Whether we are talking about the decline of America and its impact on systemic uncertainty and the probability of another hegemonic war or about the start of the “Arab Spring” phenomenon or about the creation of the new Sunni axis opposed to the Shiite, Iranian-led axis in the Mideast, the war in Iraq is ubiquitous as a reference point. The great financial hemorrhages that this war caused to the American treasury or the link between them and the US-China relation in the financial domain, Beijing being Washington’s biggest lender, or the current confused situation in Syria or the Asian pivot that took place in American grand strategy are undeniably linked with this war that started in Iraq in March 2003.

There is however another face to this war that was undoubtedly of great importance in the global dynamic of the last decade. It produced significant changes in the way modern war is being waged, it entailed crucial innovations in the way armed conflicts take place, considering that the asymmetry between belligerents called for the identification of new ways and means of making up for the difference and obtaining victory. From IEDs (improvised explosive devices) to the invention of up-armored Humvees and the “surge” strategy adopted by the American side in 2006-2007, from suicide bombers used as powerful bombs in urban sprawls to drones (unmanned aerial vehicles – UAVs), the current asymmetrical war called for – and the war in Iraq as well as the similar one in Afghanistan, expected to be over through the withdrawal in 2014, made them extremely visible – reconsiderations and innovations we will meet in the wars of the future. Drones are probably the most important technological innovation in this new context of armed confrontations. “Unmanned aerial vehicles,” controlled electronically from a great distance, capable of identifying targets through sensors “read” from cyberspace and to hit them with great precision, avoiding collateral casualties massively and in an unprecedented way, have made their almost quiet entrance on the battlefield at the end of the 1990s.

We have to point out among other things that Romania was among the first armies of the world that bought this modern weapon (the famous “Predator” drones). Today there is a veritable arms race when it comes to these weapons, all great powers being engaged in an almost unprecedented technological competition. Last week in Herzliya, Israel, a renowned centre of strategic studies hosted a regular annual conference, a forum usually reserved for very important announcements made by members of Israel’s high leadership. One of the points of interest this year was the presence of a Chinese strategist, evidence of his country’s rising interest in the Mediterranean and the Mideast in general. Asked what China’s expectation from its relationship with Israel is, the Beijing specialist answered: “unmanned spy planes, that is what we want to get,” adding that he heard the Israelis developed a technology that could physically see through walls. At the same time, the Chinese specialist said: “we worry about how the USA provokes democracy in the Middle East” and “what if this wave of democratization continues to spread to other areas, how about China? We don’t deny democratization, we just don’t want it suddenly.” As known, Israel is one of the strongest – in some cases the strongest – developers of UAVs in the world, great powers assiduously asking it to engage in technological exchanges in this field. As a parenthesis, referring to the changes in the way current war is waged, the aforementioned conference in Herzliya amply discussed the way Israel will fight in the future. In this context, the chief of the Israeli defence forces’ general staff stated that the army has to be ready to fight into “the tunnels of Gaza, into the foxholes and the villages.” Israel cannot be content, Gantz said, to “play videogames,” referring specifically to drones. Not only did drones hold a central place in the experts’ analyses on the transformation that recently intervened in the art of war – one of the ideas presented in American academia is that they tend to efficiently replace aircraft carriers – but they have become a constant preoccupation of the US Congress. Why? Ever since 2008 drones started to be massively used in the anti-terrorist fight in Afghanistan, Pakistan, as well as elsewhere in Yemen or Somalia for example. They were increasingly used to target the leaders of terrorist forces, who were identified in moving convoys in the said countries, thus decisively hitting the enemy’s strategic command and control system. According to statistics, in the last decade the drones decisively hit 2,600 to 4,700 people, of which 4 were American citizens. In such drone strikes, known as “signature strikes,” the individuals targeted are selected in a process that some sources, especially those opposed to the current administration, deem illegal or illegitimate. Raising questions like what is the legal justification of such strikes?; what justifies a deadly strike on an individual?; how many civilians were killed in such cases?  Such questions were raised especially during the recent confirmation of new CIA Director John Brennan, leading to a lively debate on Capitol Hill. Basically the debate, massively perturbed by partisan interests in the US, is opening an ample chapter that will eventually determine the adoption of international rules in this field, as for instance happened in the last 100-150 years when the appearance of new weapons against the backdrop of the industrial revolution called for regulations in the way wars are waged. In this case, drone attacks on individuals that will thus be killed without being sentenced in a legal trial will have to be regulated. In conclusion, we will quote the positive comment posted by the reader of one of the numerous press articles dedicated to the legal aspects of drone strikes in the global antiterrorism war. According to him, “in an ideal world such a policy would not be needed. In a world where folks are refining underwear bombs to make them more lethal and effective in bringing down plane loads of people, where the rights of innocents are ignored, and where folks say we love death more than you love life” voting for the legality of such actions.

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