Book Review: The Drone Age by Michael J. Boyle

The Drone Age: How Drone Technology Will Change War and Peace is a great introduction for anyone looking to get an overview of the important issues surrounding the use of military drones. It is clear, engaging and full of insight, as a result of the authors expertise in the field. For those who already very familiar with military drones, there is less that is unexpected but some of the historical context may be new and is certainly worth understanding. The book brings together a substantial amount of information and is highly recommended for people seeking to understand the origins of drone use and the reasons this technology is changing warfare.

Rather than hype up the dangers and speculate about a dystopian future, the book is a well-balanced explanation of where we are, how we got here, what changes are likely to take place in the near future and why the technology itself is ‘disruptive’ (an argument Drone Wars UK has consistently made). The book charts the different ways in which drones have changed numerous practices of war, balancing out the sometimes predictable focus on hunter-killer missions of Predators and Reapers with the surveillance and targeting support that are the work of the majority of most drone operations. Yet Boyle makes clear that these less headline-grabbing operations have also contributed to a step-change in warfare. ‘The Drone Age’ does not stop there however, and looks at the way in which drones have changed peace-keeping and domestic surveillance. The focus is mainly on state (military and police) use but it also covers the UN, human rights organisations, terrorist and rebel groups, and more.

Boyle argues that the full range of drone technology matters because it changing the “strategic choices” of war and peace. In chapters that cover targeted killing, surveillance at home and abroad, humanitarianism, non-state actors, proliferation and the future, the reader is given a pertinent example to illustrate the issue and each chapter follows through on the support for that particular use of drones as well the critiques. The book also introduces some of the main ethical issues regarding the confusion between efficiency and effectiveness, as well as the need to continue questioning whether a particular use is the right choice, rather than simply an improved technique.

The flight of a Predator drone over Black Lives Matter protesters in Minneapolis shocked many people

As an example, in the chapter ‘All Seeing Drone’, Boyle covers domestic surveillance drones inside the US and Boyle covers some of the interesting legal cases around privacy that have and may yet determine the extent of domestic surveillance. Although there has been much alarm expressed, rightly, by civil liberties advocates, Boyle insists that we are far from the “Orwellian nightmare” of losing all private space, but at the same time, notes that the trend is for surveillance that will further tip the balance towards the already powerful, i.e. the state, who’s capabilities will give it much more extensive reach than private actors (either malign or activist).

One helpful aspect of most chapters is that Boyle goes through where the technology is not as far on as it might be and gives a fair account of what hurdles there are against drone advocates achieving all that they hope, or the nightmare scenarios of those who oppose drones. For example, in the chapter ‘Terrorist Drones’ (which, as an aside, makes a very helpful distinction between terrorist and rebel use), Boyle takes us through the way in which terrorist groups have used drones thus far and what many militaries speculate could happen, then considers what the quite substantial obstacles are, such as being able to test in secret to get the level of accuracy needed to cause any substantial damage.

One thing to be aware of is that the book is clearly aimed primarily at a US audience and so there are some areas that could have had more of a thorough treatment. For example, ‘The New Race’ chapter that covers proliferation, focuses largely on the superpowers. But where drones are used in situations that don’t affect the US, such as internal repression like Turkey, there is little said. Although it is difficult to cover everything, this is perhaps an unfortunate omission since precedents are being set by actors other than the main super powers.

One of the fascinating things that this book does in providing a strong historical context is to show how key advantages in war began. When the British used surveillance flights over France in World War One and discovered part of the German army was secretly moving eastwards, the French and British were able to respond by encircling the German army and forcing a retreat after the first Battle of Marne. This changed the course of history by slowing the German advance and resulting in the digging in of trenches – the first sign that no-one was ‘coming home for Christmas’. Since then, to gain aerial superiority has been the privilege of a few advanced militaries, but in the ‘Drone Age’ it is possible for all actors in a conflict. Although Boyle doesn’t make this point directly, one wonders, if – as the advances in land warfare led to increased destruction as all armies acquired new technology – we too will become locked in a state of perpetual war and stalemate as a result of the drone age?

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