Towards a new (restraining) global consensus on the use of armed drones (Jan 2016 - June 2018)

ICCS Research Brief: the use of drones for targeted killing


Lead G&S academic:

Professor Nicholas J. Wheeler (ICCS) –

Professor Nicholas J, Wheeler is the Director of the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security and was the academic lead of the Birmingham Policy Commission on ‘The Security Impact of Drones: Challenges and Opportunities for the UK’. He is the author of Saving Strangers: Humanitarian Intervention in International Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) and is currently writing a book titled, Trusting Enemies (under contract with Oxford University Press). He is co-editor with Professor Christian Reus-Smit of the prestigious Cambridge Series in International Relations.

Academic partners:

Professor David H. Dunn (ICCS) –

David H. Dunn is Professor of International Politics and Head of Department in the Department of Political Science and International Studies, as well as a member of the management committee of the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security, and a member of the Birmingham Policy Commission on ‘The Security Impact of Drones’. His main research interests are US foreign policy, security studies and diplomacy. He is also Chairman of the West Midlands Military Education Committee and he is the author of over sixty book chapters and journal articles on contemporary international politics. In 2013, he published an article in International Affairs on ‘Drones: disembodied aerial warfare and the unarticulated threat’.

George E. May (ICCS) –

George May is a Research Associate with the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security.  He has worked on the ESRC funded project 'The Political Effects of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles on Conflict and Cooperation Within and Between States' – specifically investigating terrorism, counter-terrorism and drone use in Yemen – and the Open Society Foundation funded project exploring the potential of a transatlantic normative consensus on drone use.  He is also a prospective doctoral researcher with the National University of Singapore with broader research interests including international security, the Asia Pacific, and sociological approaches to the study of IR practice.


Supported by a grant from the Foundation Open Society Institute in cooperation with the Human Rights Initiative of the Open Society Foundations.


The use of drones in targeted killing operations outside recognized war zones remains one of the most controversial practices in contemporary warfare, representing a quantitative and qualitative step change from other forms of targeting killing and traditional uses of airpower.

Whilst the US government and others have previously used special forces and intelligence operatives to conduct targeted killings, operational obstacles and risks to agents involved have necessitated the limited use of the practice.  Similarly, the use of conventional airpower for targeted killing has involved risk to aircrews, and generated increased political controversy.  By contrast, the use of drones has operated literally and figuratively under the radar.  Drones have, furthermore, been employed on such a scale as to render them almost a new form of warfare; with the Obama administration increasing drone strikes by twelve thousand per cent. 

Such changes in the conduct of targeted killing and warfare generally – and respective justifications thereof – raise pertinent ethical and legal questions.  In light of this, our project addresses the vital need to understand what kind of international normative framework can and should regulate the use of military drones.

Project aims and objectives

This project – supported by a grant from the Foundation Open Society Institute in cooperation with the Human Rights Initiative of the Open Society Foundations – aims at securing a new normative consensus that delegitimizes the use of armed drones for targeting killing outside of recognized war zones. Such a consensus does not exist within Europe, between Europe and the United States, nor globally. 

Our goal primary goal is to construct a legal and ethical approach which seeks to limit armed drone use by drawing together the views and concerns of European states (especially the UK, France, Germany and Italy).  Towards this end we will we will produce research that:

  • Promulgates a wider understanding of how the use of armed drones is viewed in European states in terms of legality, legitimacy, and morality,
  • Contributes to a new regulatory framework among European states,
  • Influences the UK debate in ways that shifts UK policy towards a European consensus.

Our secondary aim is to have an impact on how different constituencies in the United States view the legal and ethical questions surrounding armed drone use. The ultimate aspiration of the project is to lay the foundation for a new transatlantic consensus that restricts armed drone use and other targeted killings to traditional interpretations of international law.

Advisory Group

Sir Michael Aaronson
Ms Jennifer Gibson
Dr Peter Gray
Professor Sir David Omand
Ms Elizabeth Quintana
Mr Paul Schulte

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