Professor Nicholas Wheeler, Professor Stefan Wolff, Dr David Dunn
Economic Social Research Council (ESRC)
This project will examine the impact of a recent and on-going development in science and technology (drones) on prospects for conflict and cooperation in countries where drones are deployed. The use of armed and unarmed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs/drones) by the United States and the United Kingdom has dramatically increased over the past decade. Aggregate data compiled from a range of open-access sources suggests that over 1,300 strikes have been carried out to date against enemy targets, killing almost 3,000 insurgents and nearly 500 civilians.
From the vantage point of the intervening states, these statistics are defended as markers of military success against enemy. However, from the perspective of the targets of these strikes - far from the use of drones reducing the risks of insurgency and terrorism - each strike justifies substantially increasing the level of violence against US/UK forces. These lashing assessments of the political effects of drone strikes can only be understood in a context of cultural misunderstandings; for the intervening side, drones represent the latest manifestation of progressive reduction of risk to Western intervening forces while for the populations affected by drone strikes, they represent the unacceptable combination of Western arrogance, technological hubris, invulnerability, and exclusivist beliefs and values.
Consequently, different values, belief systems, narratives, and historical contexts lead to radically different interpretations of whether US/UK drone strikes are increasing or decreasing the security of both the intervening and targeted actors. Yet, the evidence on which these claims and counter-claims are being made is highly contested, and there is very little systematic comparative analysis of the data.
This project seeks to rectify this lack of data and in so doing responds to that part of the ESRC/AHRC-Dstl Science and Security 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'. Consequently, 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.
To understand how conflicting perceptions of S&T are shaped by cultural context, and to explore how far the use of drones has generated new spaces of cultural misunderstanding leading to increased conflict, the project adopts an interdisciplinary theoretical framework rooted in the study of cognition, emotions, and the construction of historical narratives in the context of political action and decision-making. By utilising this framework, the project team will investigate whether the use of drones has established and/or further strengthened narratives which produce and reproduce violent conflict. Or alternatively, has it opened up new spaces for negotiations to mitigate and end conflicts? Thus, 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? Focusing on the cases of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia we will conduct systematic comparative case study research, utilising interviews, focus groups, literature review and open-source data analysis as our principle research methods.
The project will produce a number of outputs, including case study briefing papers and articles in refereed journals. These will form part of the substantive basis of our impact strategy that seeks to contribute to the shaping of a UK and international drone policy that is legal, ethical, legitimate, and effective in promoting security.