'The armed drone is really one of the defining weapons of the post 9-11 period'

Drone is a slang term for a remotely piloted aircraft. It's a weaponized plane but it's not got a pilot on board. The pilot the operator is usually thousands of miles away controlling the aircraft by satellite. The armed droen is really one of the defining weapons of the post 9/11 period, in fact the first proper weapons testing of a drone took place about three days, I think, into George W Bush's presidency back in 2001, and they were first used in anger just weeks after the 9/11 atrocities when the United States used armed drones during the assault on Afghanistan. They've become a key weapon in the fight really because of where the fight took place. Initially against al Qaeda in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, and then in other theatres as well. Why were the drones important? Because these were remote and inaccessible places that militaries had generally not been able to reach before. 

The British and American air forces have cooperated extensively for decades, and for the Royal Air Force as they saw the emergence of armed drones, firstly used by the CIA and then by the more conventional American US Air Force, I think the British were aware of the potential of armed drones but also of their potential to disrupt the way that things were done. So the British were involved in the American armed drone program very early on, within three years of drones being weaponized the British were part of the American program. They were sharing pilots and analysts so that the British could get a feel, and then in 2008 the UK acquired their own armed drones for the first time, and since then have been using them very heavily in all of the conflicts that they've been involved in. 

The benefits that armed drones bring to militaries is not having the pilot on board. That does two things: first of all it takes risk significantly out of the equation. If you need to fly an aircraft into hot hostile space you're risking the pilots. If you don't have a pilot on board then perhaps you can take more risks. But also it means without a pilot you can have a much, much lighter airframe. Modern armed drones can stay in the air for more than 24 hours. They can loiter, they can observe, and because they have the munitions on board you don't have to then call in a subsequent airstrike or a cruise missile strike, which was the old way, you have the weapons already there and you can take the shot. So they open up all sorts of potential. 

The temptation it is to conduct such operations in areas which are away from the regular battlefield and that is a legal grey area, because many very reputable lawyers argue that such strikes would not be covered by the laws of war, they're covered by the far more prescriptive international human rights law, which is the the law applicable for non-conflict events in any particular country. So when the United States has bombed in Pakistan or Yemen or Somalia, countries it's not officially at war in and yet it is conducting military actions in those countries, there has been a red flag about the legality or illegality of such strikes. 

Targeted killing, targeted assassination has always been part of war. Military commanders have always sought to kill their opposite numbers for the great strategic benefit that that brings. Armed drones turned out to make that process much easier, that the not just the finding of enemy leaders, whether military or terrorist, but also the near-simultaneous killing of them once you find them. And that's because armed drones are effectively an assassin's rifle in the air. It gave a great new capability to the American military in particular, so for example when they were trying to hunt down the leader of al-qaeda in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki, one of the key leaders of al-qaeda in Yemen, armed drones were crucial to that process. They tracked him down, they were able to identify and they played a pivotal role in the assassination of that terrorist leader. Without armed drones they may have had to have called in manned aircraft, cruise missiles perhaps. By the time those other assets had got to the scene the terrorist leader, the military leader, may be long gone. So armed drones have really improved the ability to carry out targeted killing, but not without risks. Those risks are often reflected in other ways, for example, displaced violence in the countries that strikes take place, or the risk to civilians on the ground who can get caught up in these very violent acts. 

There is a fascination with the men and women who remotely fly these armed drones, and I think much of that fascination and concern, it must be said, actually comes from military officials themselves. There is something disconcerting for many soldiers, sailors, airmen about pilots and analysts being at home conducting war, in effect, thousands of miles away. You leave the family home, you go to work, you sit in a chair, you work the controls, and you may be killing 5,000 miles away, and then at the end of the day you go back home to the husband and kids. This is a really disconcerting form of warfare for many people who have a more traditional concept of soldiering is on the battlefield. Well of course much of modern warfare, particularly for Western militaries, is remote. Tank battles sometimes taking place miles apart, aircraft firing over-the-horizon, ships firing cruise missiles from hundreds of miles away, so much of modern warfare is remote but perhaps the general public's understanding of modern warfare hasn't quite caught up with the reality of how we fight wars. 

Armed drones are really one of the defining weapons of the post 9/11 period and they've become really a lightning rod not just for concerns around the military use but also around the ethics involved, and they've also become a point at which many artists, filmmakers, documentarians have also engaged. They are a weapon that I think tie into popular imagination, our fascination with science fiction, and fascination with robotics, they're not robotic of course they're piloted by real people they're just not in the aircraft. So they've become this lightning rod, they've become this point at which we engage with modern warfare and our concerns about modern warfare.

What role does drone warfare play in contemporary conflict?

Chris Woods is an investigative journalist who leads Airwars, a project that tracks and records military actions in conflict zones.

In our interview, he discusses the use of armed drones since 9/11 and explores how this particular type of weapon has become a ‘lightning rod’ in discussions about modern warfare.  

Related content

MQ-9 Reaper, RAF Waddington
RAF, MQ-9 Reaper, Waddington
Contemporary conflict

A Brief History of Drones

The first pilotless vehicles were built during the First World War but drones now have many functions.

James Bridle Installation
Contemporary conflict

Drone Shadow installed at IWM London

Drone Shadow is part of Age of Terror: Art since 9/11, the UK’s first major exhibition of artists’ responses to war and conflict since the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001.

Training Peshmerga soldiers in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, December 2014.

Fighting Isis in The Middle East

The rise of the extremist Islamic group ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) became front page news in 2014. After ISIS quickly and brutally took control of parts of Syria and Iraq, an international coalition formed to combat their progress. Operation 'Shader' is the British contribution to this coalition.