William C. Banks is the Board of Advisers Distinguished Professor of Law at Syracuse University.
Residents of Kyiv woke up last Saturday to the sound of explosions. For more than six hours, a Russian attack had sent wave after wave of drones across Ukraine’s capital city in what was the largest drone attack so far in the war.
The 75 or so Iranian-made drones (also called unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs) dropped explosives or exploded upon impact, terrifying residents and causing at least five injuries as well as serious damage to the power grid, residents’ homes and a kindergarten. Russia’s missile stocks are being depleted, so it has been increasingly turning to cheaply produced drones to keep the war going.
Drones also played a key role in Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel. The world was shocked that Hamas was able to so easily overcome Israel’s border defences to commit its horrific massacre of 1,200 people and take roughly 240 people hostage. At the start of the attack, Hamas gained a key advantage by using small commercial drones to drop grenades on Israeli communication towers and video surveillance stations, disrupting the Israel Defence Forces’ ability to relay information as fighters rushed across the border. The communications targets could be chosen with such precision because other Hamas drones had been collecting detailed intelligence on Israeli defences. Hamas also used drones to disable the IDF’s remote-controlled machine guns that were mounted along the border and to drop grenades on tanks and ambulances.
These off-the-shelf drones are easy to use for young Hamas fighters. The first models arrived in Gaza several years ago in the form of toys. As the drones became more sophisticated, they were smuggled into Gaza hidden in sacks of flour or on the backs of fuel trucks. By the time of the Oct. 7 attack, drones had become ubiquitous throughout the Middle East, often financed directly or indirectly by Iran. Indeed, drones have been so essential to the war in Gaza that the fragile ceasefire nearly fell apart last weekend, in part due to Hamas’s accusations that Israel was still flying drones over Gaza.
Drones have been a feature of war for several decades, but today’s conflicts such as the Israel-Hamas war and the Ukraine war show how the technology is changing modern combat. Ever more powerful drones have become cheaper and easier to fabricate and deploy. Terrorist groups and even criminal enterprises have invested in drone technology. Today, drones are everywhere, and their use as weapons of war and advanced surveillance are making conflicts more lethal, with escalating human and economic costs. The technology also makes it easier for terrorists and other non-state groups to attack and wage war on more powerful states.
Early-generation Predator and Reaper drones were used by the U.S. military as early as the summer of 1995 in reconnaissance roles over Bosnia. The Predator was then modified after the Sept. 11 attacks for use in Afghanistan and other active battlefields by the U.S. and allies to conduct sophisticated surveillance and employ targeting technology while carrying armaments, including Hellfire air-to-surface missiles capable of inflicting lethal force effectively from a safe distance. These pilotless Predators and Reapers are operated remotely, and its missiles are laser-guided precision weapons that can be directed against particular people, buildings or vehicles with considerable, albeit not perfect, accuracy.
The Predator is an ungainly, US$40-million, propeller-driven aircraft that flies as slowly as 130 kilometres an hour and is guided by an operator at a television monitor who may be hundreds of kilometres away. The drone can hover continuously for 24 hours or more at 15,000 feet above any battlefield, and it can send live video to AC-130 gunships or command posts around the world without putting any pilots in harm’s way. The drone’s radar, infrared sensors and colour video camera can track vehicles at night and through clouds, producing sharp enough pictures to make out people on the ground from around five km away. One year before the Sept. 11 attacks, an unarmed CIA drone captured video in Afghanistan of a man that intelligence officials believe was Osama bin Laden.
In those early years of drone use, only nation-states with sizable military budgets could afford the capital and operating costs of drones in combat. As such, drones became emblematic of the U.S. war on terrorism. Over the past decade, American drones have reportedly been used hundreds of times to fire on targets in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. Several terrorist leaders have been killed by drones. A number of innocent civilians have also been killed – sometimes deliberately as unavoidable collateral damage, and sometimes simply by mistake.
Drones have been a critical part of the battlefield in the Israel-Hamas war. Both sides have used drones to collect intelligence and to inflict lethal force. Meanwhile, drones from Hezbollah and its Iranian-backed allied militias have attacked inside Israel with UAVs launched from Lebanon and Yemen. As expected, IDF drones have been downed by Hezbollah counterdrone interceptors. While Israel has a large stockpile of easily accessible and interchangeable drones, the Palestinian factions have been forced to use theirs sparingly because resupply is virtually impossible under current circumstances.
Since the IDF began its ground incursion into Gaza, Israeli drones helped its military manoeuvre in dense urban environments, in part by rigging drones to capture personal data from nearby cellphones, allowing Israeli intelligence to determine whether Hamas fighters or Israeli captives were hiding inside buildings. The Israeli military has uncovered more than one Hamas drone factory, where the weapons were being fabricated inside residential buildings.
The Hamas drones come in all shapes and sizes, and thousands of them have been smuggled into Gaza and hidden in recent years. Those being made in Gaza during the conflict are small and compact and do not require sizable factories. Many of the smaller drones may be handled and operated by a single person, fired from a shoulder or ledge, and may drop munitions and conduct surveillance. The smaller drones weigh as little as 9 kilograms and have ranges of 80 to 160 km and 25 hours of flight time. Meanwhile, U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drones were flown over Gaza to aid in locating and recovering hostages.
In the war in Ukraine, both sides have effectively relied on the most advanced drones as weapons and as intelligence gathering devices. Both Russia and Ukraine are also using electronic warfare countermeasures to thwart each other’s drone use. Electronic jamming with electromagnetic waves and manipulation of wireless signals cause drones to fall from the sky short of their targets or home bases. Russia and Ukraine have also installed counterdrone guns that can target and disable drones in flight after tracking their trajectories over long distances.
Supported in part by the cache of drones in their arsenal, the brazen Hamas assault on Israel on Oct. 7 violated at least two core norms intended to promote international peace and security: using force to breach the sovereign border of a state and intentionally attacking civilians. As a result of the Hamas attack, Israel had the legal and moral right to take measures in self-defence. There is a fierce debate taking place right now about the law of war in regards to Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, but there is no doubt that the proliferation of drones in the hands of the Palestinian groups has facilitated armed attacks on Israeli civilians in violation of the laws and norms of war.
Nation-states that employ drones for gathering intelligence and as weapons of attack in armed conflict by and large have the capabilities to use these technologies within legal limits. There are notoriously grievous exceptions, such as Russia’s attacks on defenceless civilians in Ukraine. Over the two-plus decades since the 9/11 attacks, targeted killing by drones have taken dozens of al-Qaeda commanders, bomb makers, trainers, and operatives off the battlefield. Drone strikes have disrupted plots that would have targeted international aviation, transit systems, cities, and troops in the field. Arguably targeting a terrorist with a drone may cause fewer casualties than seeking to arrest him in hostile territory.
On the other hand, targeted killings carry significant costs as well. Terrorist groups adjust to the new technology. Successful targeting requires nations to invest heavily in continuing real-time intelligence and surveillance, as well as rapid response capability. Even successful targeted killings may create martyrs for the terrorists, aiding in terrorist recruitment and perhaps prompting retaliation.
Now states are wrestling with an additional dilemma. As artificial intelligence becomes ubiquitous and as its potential applications multiply, some countries want new legal constraints on what could become a version of robot warfare, as pilotless drones rely on AI to hit and destroy enemy targets.
In any case, when these new technologies are in the hands of loosely organized terrorist groups or other non-state actors, there are no attempts to follow the laws of war. That’s the tragedy of the proliferation of drones: It leads to more civilian suffering and levels the playing field between terrorists and better-resourced national armies.