One Nation, Under Drones: Legality, Morality, and Utility of Unmanned Combat Systems

  • Published

One Nation, Under Drones: Legality, Morality, and Utility of Unmanned Combat Systems edited by CAPT John E. Jackson, US Navy, retired. Naval Institute Press, 2018, 238 pp.

In a sea of diverse drone-themed literature, retired Navy captain John E. Jackson, professor of unmanned and robotic systems at the US Naval War College, uniquely blends the perfect mix of history, military dimensionality, and perspectives from leaders in the drone space into his anthology One Nation, Under Drones.

The first two chapters provide historical context and modern drone considerations that provide a basis for further discussion. Subsequent chapters by Dan Gettinger and Dillon R. Patterson stress the dynamic realities of modern drone warfare.The former focuses more on the macro-level happenings in the drone space and acknowledges the multipolar spectrum of drone powers globally—including the emerging Iranian and Turkish drone programs. The latter focuses on the micro level, small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS). Patterson and Gettinger treat sUAS developments as credible threats, especially when leveraged by sub-state actors. Gettinger’s note about ISIS’s Baraa bin Malek Drone Brigade, which fielded sUAS systems in Iraq, highlights the extent of the proliferation of drones and the implications that these low-cost, off-the-shelf commercial systems can have when adapted for military uses by non-state actors.

Insights from Arthur Holland Michel about the Navy and Robbin Laird about the Marine Corps add much-needed diversity in drone literature. Michel’s piece—while comprehensively mapping the Navy’s history with drones operating multidimensionally on, below, and above the seas—shows the Navy focusing on manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T). Laird’s interview-centric piece successfully allows us to dissect the thought process of Marine Corps leaders as they deal with the increasing demands of aerial drones and the complexities of drone deployment from ships. Through the interviews and commentary, one can grasp the Marine Corps leaders’ mindsets as they approach aerial drone technologies in a directly digestible, conversational format for readers. As Michel notes, the abruptness of the X-47B’s cancellation when it had performed successfully caught many off guard. Perhaps answers to its cancellation can be found in the grander discussion that Jackson has been priming readers for this entire journey: autonomy.

Among the book’s densest sections are undoubtedly those discussing drone autonomy and philosophical insights across multiple domains of drone warfare. Robert Sparrow and George R. Lucas Jr. thoroughly outline the legal and ethical considerations in the naval sphere to granular levels of detail. Of particular consideration is extrapolating to other domains their view that “legitimacy” may change sharply when something goes wrong with autonomous systems on the high seas, which could also mean violating international law and ethics. Things are even worse on land, according to Christopher M. Ford, where the luxury of an uncluttered environment as on the seas is replaced with the complex clutter created by civilians and combatants mixed together in modern battlespaces. Yet Ford remains optimistic that autonomous weapons systems—through a sophisticated regimen of testing—will be able to navigate the clutter, accounting for proportionality and legal, ethical, and other requirements of war. Ron Arkin, too, is optimistic, positing that the current and future battlefield tempo may certainly outpace war fighters’ ability to make rational decisions in combat situations. In fact, Arkin’s piece challenges preconceived notions of many readers that autonomous systems are inherently inhumane. It provides a glimpse into a greater discussion that will no doubt be at center stage tomorrow and for decades to come. On the legal front, while Michael N. Schmitt states that international consensus has narrowed on international law surrounding drone operations—particularly about international human rights law during armed conflict—readers will appreciate that this consensus will evolve and may not hold.

These discussions on autonomy and legality—as well as Jackson’s injection of Chapa’s inputs from a military and psychology background into a broader discussion about what role humans will play (or not play) in curating autonomous decisions—may be difficult to digest for first-time readers on the subject. However, they offer readers a rare glimpse into some of the highest levels of thought that American thinkers are engaging in. One can only hope that other, nondemocratic employers of autonomous weapons systems will be as thorough in considering logic, standards, laws, and ethics from military, academic, and civilian stakeholders, including humanitarian organizations.

Wynne’s assertions about the deployability of drones in commercial and other civilian applications should highlight to readers the vital reach drones will have in the civilian sphere. Policy makers should take note that while the novelty inherent in deploying the Yamaha RMAX to spray grapevines in Napa Valley, as mentioned by Wynne, is an accomplishment worth toasting, this exact machine has been operational in Japan in an agricultural capacity for nearly three decades. This lends to the next point, that future editions of this anthology should integrate contributions from experts on the international drone landscape to highlight how we are soon to be, if not already, one world, under drones. Ample attention could be provided in framing American and allied drone progress in light of the advances of others worldwide.

Jackson has managed to masterfully weave together voices from different national drone stakeholders across several disciplines and backgrounds into one holistic anthology that covers not only multiple domains of warfare but also those of legality, morality, and utility. This book has something for all audiences interested in drones, including military stakeholders and policy makers. From the tactical level, where UASs may pose risks to the platoon leader, all the way to the strategic level, where policy makers must chart the parameters of a drone future, a multifaceted approach to discussions and realities in the drone space will be pivotal to the continued leadership of the United States of America. This is especially so in a multipolar drone world where even smaller states and non-state actors continue to advance at spectacular rates.

Arin Kumar Ghosh


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."