Ukraine and the ethical debate on armed drones: some early reflections

Images of Bayraktar TB2 strike in Ukraine – undated.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has rightly been condemned across the globe.  The on-going war is horrific, with verified reports of indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas and a number of reports of killings which amount to war crimes.  At the time of writing, the UN reports that around 2,000 civilians have been killed since the invasion began although the actual figure may be much higher.  It is good to see so see such widespread condemnation of the war, although it is hard not to ask why there is little condemnation of other wars and not come to the obvious conclusion.

After seven weeks, there is a great deal that can be said about this awful war and the initial reaction to it. But our primary focus, as always, is on the use of armed drones and the ethical debate that surrounds their growing use.

Bayraktar drone use in Ukraine

While a variety of small unarmed drones have been used in Ukraine by both sides for surveillance and intelligence gathering, it is the use of the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drone by Ukrainian forces that has gained most attention.  Multiple news articles have reported that the Bayraktar drone has been used to deadly effect against Russian heavy weapons with headlines such as ‘Ukraine’s Drones Are Wreaking Havoc On The Russian Army’ and ‘Ukraine’s Secret Weapon Against Russia: Turkish Drones’

Misinformation is always a feature of war and perhaps more so in this conflict than most. Both sides, for a variety of reasons, are aiming to control the narrative and perception of the conflict and the use of Bayraktar drones has without doubt, been caught up in this.  As has been noted over the past few years, drone video footage has become part and parcel of modern war and is prized as giving a ‘front-seat’ view into what is happening on the battlefield and a window into modern warfare. However, it needs to be remembered that only a tiny amount of footage, from a small number of self-selected drone videos are released, and so rather than giving an insight into warfare, it is in fact giving a partial and somewhat distorted view. Meanwhile, the videos of drone strikes that are released are copied and shared via social media accounts thousands of times leading to a perception that in today’s wars, drone strikes are ubiquitous.

While Bayraktar drones have undoubtedly been successful in striking Russian military hardware – see, for example, Rob Lee’s social media thread here – the number of ‘kills’ that some have been talking about need to be taken with a pinch of salt.  Some commentators have gone so far as to claim that the Turkish drone is the hero of the conflict and even, the main symbol of resistance to the Russia invasion. This will be news to the thousands of brave individuals in both Ukraine and Russia, who have stood  – literally in many cases – against the war, putting their lives on the line.  More sober analysis shows that the Bayraktar is unlikely to be decisive in the conflict.

At this stage, we don’t actually know how many Bayraktar drones are in Ukraine’s inventory.  Ukraine received the first of an order of 6 in spring 2019 and we know these were in service as Ukraine launched a Bayraktar strike against Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region in October 2021 which received criticism from France, Germany and, of course, Moscow.  A further 24 were ordered in September 2021 but we don’t know how many were delivered before the Russian invasion of 24 February.  The Ukraine Defence Minister announced that a further shipment of Bayraktars had been received and put into service in early March, with Reuters reporting that this was an additional order of 16.  It is likely that this was in fact the final batch of the September 2021 order but it is hard to be sure.  At least three Ukrainian Bayraktars have been verified as having been shot down/crashed during the conflict.

Other drones use

While the Bayraktar has grabbed the headlines, there has been other uses of drones in the conflict.  Russia has only recently developed its own armed drone capability, the Orion (not to be confused with the much smaller, Russian unarmed drone, the Orlan 10).  The Russian MoD has released what it says is footage of Orion drone strikes in Ukraine, but the videos have been spliced together from different footage and look very suspicious and may or may not be falsified.  We do know, however, that Orion drones have been flying over Ukraine and are likely to have been used to launch strikes as one has been verified after being shot down/crashed.

Smaller, unarmed drones have been used a great deal, mainly for intelligence gathering and for targeting of artillery and rocket strikes.  Commercial drones have also reportedly been pressed into service to drop small bombs or as ‘flying IED’s’ in a similar way to other recent conflicts.

What does this add to debate about drones?

Politicians, military officials and industry advocates have long bemoaned the public perception of drones.  Public antipathy is primarily due to their close association with their use in US covert wars and, in particular, for the way they have enabled and expanded so-called targeted killing.  While advocates of the use of armed drones argue that remote-controlled drones enable high-levels of precision and accuracy, a number of high-profile civilian casualties incidents undermine such claims.

The use of armed drones by Ukrainian forces to destroy military equipment being used by  invading Russian forces is a very different context to their use over the past decade or so.  While Ukrainian drone pilots are remotely operating these systems from within their own country, they are not in the same ‘risk free’ situation as US and British pilots undertaking drone strikes from thousands of miles away.  Nor are they using them to cross the border into Russian territory to undertake strikes, and as yet, there have been no reports of the use of these systems to conduct targeted killings.  Does this then, in some way, undermine arguments challenging the development and use of armed drones?  Does this perceived ‘good use’ negate the various concerns about armed drones?  Some will undoubtedly argue that it does.  Some will grasp this example to argue that if armed drones can be used for good in one situation, then it is morally wrong to argue against their further development and acquisition by other states.

We would reject this.  Armed drones are intrinsically problematic in that they lower the threshold of the use of force, transfer the risk of armed combat away from combatants on to civilians, and distance populations from the consequences of the use of armed force.  None of these overall problems are negated by the fact that they have been used in a different context by the Ukrainian armed forces over the past few weeks.  Some will argue, as they have done over the past decade, that it is not the technology itself that is at fault, but rather how they are used – that the technology itself is neutral.  This is proved, advocates will no doubt argue, by the fact that in this situation drones have been used to counter illegal Russian aggression.  We would argue that it is too early for such an analysis.  The war, unfortunately, is still on-going and, dreadfully, it looks likely to continue for some time.  We may well see more use of armed drones by Russian forces and there has recently been discussion of the US supplying Reaper drones to Ukraine.

Wider consequences

More widely, the positive PR that drones have seen in the media over the past weeks is likely to be a boon for the drones industry and lead to more states acquiring the technology.   According to Time Magazine, Baykar the Turkish company that manufactures the Bayraktar drones is “set to reap the rewards” long into the future. “Now that Turkey has a growing defense industry, you want to showcase your items as battle-tested,” Galip Dalay of Chatham House told the magazine. “Those kinds of conflict zones have become major PR for the Turkish drone industry.”

And others, eyeing Turkey’s success, are likely to want to develop and export ‘cheap but lethal drones’ drones like the Bayraktar.  “There will be massive demand for drones over the next few years,” proclaimed financial commentator Matthew Lynn in the Telegraph, “and British companies should be stepping in to supply them.”

While many may want to see only good in images of armed drones destroying Russian tanks, care needs to be taken here.  Due to the on-going information war, the reality and actual impact on the ground of the use of armed drones in Ukraine is yet to be known.  Meanwhile the current ‘heroic little drones’ narrative is giving drone warfare a real boost that is likely to have damaging consequences in the future.


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