The Political Effects of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles on Conflict and Cooperation Within and Between States


The ESRC has awarded a grant of £289,412.78, to Professor Nicholas Wheeler (PI), Professor Stefan Wolff and Professor  David Dunn to investigate “The Political Effects of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles on Conflict and Cooperation Within and Between States.” The study will use three case studies in its approach, Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan. The point of departure for this project, and responding to that part of the ESRC Global Uncertainties call which focuses on ‘Improving our ability to use S&T developments to increase co-operation and collaboration as a means of preventing future conflict’, this research will investigate in a comparative context how conflicting perceptions of the use of drones shapes the propensities for conflict and cooperation both within the territory of the penetrated state and between the intervening state and the state in which the drones are operating.

ESRC Global Uncertainties Strategic Plan

Project Background...

Current research concerned with the use of drones, to a large extent, focuses on questions of the morality, legality, and legitimacy of the use of drone strikes (e.g. Ratner, 2007; Quintana, 2008; Sanderod, 2009; Breau et al, 2011; Brunsetter & Braun, 2011; Columbia Law, 2011; Boyle and Foust, 2012; Carvin, 2012; Kaag & Kreps, 2012a & 2012b; Kennedy & Rennger, 2012). Empirically, these and other studies primarily focus on Israeli operations, and there is far less detailed work on the effectiveness of US drone strikes (David, 2003; Byman, 2006). The overwhelming majority of US drone strikes have been carried out in Afghanistan (67%), followed by Pakistan (26%), Yemen (3%), and Somalia (1%). As this data suggests, the use of drones has evolved into a core component of a US-driven global counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency strategy.

The need for more systematic engagement with the implications of drone technology is borne out by the fact that this technology is rapidly proliferating beyond the United States. Whilst Quintana (2008:9) identified 22 countries developing drones, the Drone Wars UK site recognises 31 countries making efforts in this area. Among those countries engaged in developing drones, the United Kingdom has already made a significant investment financially. According to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), the United Kingdom has spent £2bn in total, with £500m going on armed drones (Ministry of Defence, 2012). Consequently, there is an important need for research as to whether this UK investment is increasing or decreasing the security of UK citizens as well as those people and groups affected by drone strikes. An answer to this question can only be given on the basis of sound evidence, so that any UK policy on drones can contribute to the goals of both national and international security.

This research project will contribute to building the evidentiary base for informed policy making on the use of US/UK drones in overseas theatres of operation. As such, it will significantly contribute to two emerging strands in the research on drones. The first of these strands is research that has begun to look at strikes in specific geographic areas (Bergen & Tiedemann, 2010; Aslam, 2011, 2012; Swift, 2012) and which has begun to explore the psychological effect of the strikes on the residents of Waziristan (Pakistan). This is a crucial spring-board for our research but what requires further investigation is how the use of drones has been impacting on the perceptions of affected groups in terms of the possibilities for achieving a negotiated settlement of conflicts (NYU-Stanford 2012). The other strand of research concerns the even more limited analysis of the effect of US/UK drone strikes on relations between the intervening state and the state within which the drones are operating. To date, such analysis has been largely restricted to anecdotal observation, rather than being studied in its own right (e.g. Hudson, Owens & Flannes, 2011: 123; Swift, 2012).

The project team will seek to address the following primary research question:

Does the use of drones by a state on the territory of another actor increase or decrease the propensities for conflict and cooperation both within and between these actors?

As evidenced by existing data, drones as a means of contemporary warfare are primarily deployed in situations of insurgency and civil war that are considered as international security threats, specifically as threats to US and allied interests, because international terrorist networks have become embedded in the countries concerned: al-Qaeda and its local (Taliban) supporters in Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen, and al-Shabab in Somalia. Consequently, this primary research question gives rise to two further sub questions:

1. What impact does the use of drones have on the possibilities for containing and/or ending intrastate conflict?
2. What impact does the use of drones within a state’s borders have on the relationship between this state and the intervening state?

The underlying, testable proposition of this primary research question and the two sub-questions therefore is that the use of drones has an impact on actual interstate and interstate conflict (and the potential thereof) and as a consequence on national and international security.

Research Output |

This research project will produce briefing papers on each of the case studies; two articles (target: International Studies Quarterly; Journal of Conflict Resolution) co-authored by the PI and CIs, exploring respectively the lessons across the four cases and the impact that the use of drones has on the possibilities for transforming violent conflicts. In addition, the PI and CI’s will also write a shorter article targeted at practitioner communities exploring the implications of the research for future UK policy on drones (target The RUSI Journal).


The United States is currently using drones primarily in a campaign against the Taliban, al-Qaeda and associated groups in Afghanistan – (where the United Kingdom is also operating drones), - Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, and it is these cases that we will focus on, as, according to open-access data available, they cover over 95% of all recorded armed drone strikes over the past decade (excluding those conducted by Israel). While we thus achieve a near-complete universe of cases, there is sufficient similarity and variation between the cases to allow meaningful systematic cross-case comparisons. This can be briefly, but by no means comprehensively, demonstrated with the following illustrative examples.

Variation in the disposition of the governments of the target states to drone warfare, and their capacity to act on it, will allow us to investigate the effects of drone warfare on interstate conflict and cooperation, and vice versa (i.e., how different levels of interstate conflict and cooperation affect the effectiveness of drone warfare). In Afghanistan and Pakistan, where over 90% of armed drone strikes have occurred, US action is pushing an already fragile and volatile relationship with Pakistan to breaking point. Despite claims of secretly supporting the campaign, the Pakistani government has publically condemned the US use drones as a breach of sovereignty and it has become a major source of friction between domestic contenders for the Pakistani leadership and the United States (NYU-Stanford, 2012; Guerin, 2012). The recent NYU-Stanford study on drone strikes in Pakistan highlighted the way that these attacks are radicalising public opinion and this has the potential to encourage greater political instability (NYU & Stanford, 2012; Masood, 2012). By contrast, Yemen is undergoing a period of transition triggered by the Arab Spring in the country and has long battled with two insurgencies. Here, the government of President Hadi remains supportive of US drone strikes against Ansar Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law), an alliance comprising al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), local militants and foreign jihadists (ICG 2011). Exploiting Southern secessionist grievances and central government weakness has thus enabled one of the currently most active al-Qaeda ‘branches’ to expand and consolidate its basis in the country (The Voice of America, 2012). In Somalia, recent changes notwithstanding, no effective government has existed for the past two decades, thus creating a radically different context compared to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen for examining the impact of drone warfare on interstate cooperation.

By examining the different case-specific positions of the US/UK and their allies vis-à-vis insurgent and terrorist networks, the project will explore the effects of drone warfare on both intrastate and interstate cooperation and conflict and how the interrelationship between them affects international security gains (or losses). It will also give us an opportunity to examine the extent to which the use of armed drones for counter-terrorist purposes is governed by a different set of principles and effects compared to its use in a (simultaneous) counter-insurgency campaign. While across all four cases close links exist between insurgent and terrorist networks on the ground, the position of the United States and United Kingdom is different. In Afghanistan ISAF are directly engaged in a counter-insurgency campaign alongside a counter-terrorist campaign, whereas in Yemen, Pakistan, and, to the extent that a government can be said to exist, in Somalia, it is local governments fighting an insurgency while the US pursues a counter-terrorist campaign.