Drones – Security, Sovereignty and Identities

anil chopra, air power asia, Drones, Unmanned,

Drone attacks entered the mainstream news and gained prominence around the very beginning of the 2010s decade their increased usage by the Obama administration, even though it wasn’t the first time drones were used in the role. The use of drone strikes to eliminate supposed terrorist elements hurting the American War on Terror in Afghanistan in Pakistan and Afghanistan, saw the first widespread use of the technology in a combatant role, before which they were primarily employed in ISR (Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance) roles. As the amount of drone strikes increased in Pakistan, important questions from the purview of International Relations and Human rights began popping up. The public sentiment against the US in Pakistan took a nose-dive, after all, how could a nation strike targets in an allied country, and after that does Pakistan even remain a US ally for supposedly harbouring declared enemies of the US? The sensors on Drones are physically limited by the heights at which they operate, and thus is any targeting at those heights credible? If the US had the impunity to operate in the FATA region and to strike anyone their analysts declared a credible target, was anyone in the region safe due to mistargeting, as Shaw (2013) had shown in his paper? This paper aims to chart the implications of drone strikes in the 21st century vis-a-vis the questions of sovereignty, security, and identity.

Drone Strikes. Image Source: vanderbiltpoliticalreview.com

The Question of Security

Drones are seeing extensive usage in 21st Century warfare, and as time goes on, this usage only keeps on increasing. No recent conflict comes to mind where drones didn’t play a decisive role. Drones have evolved a lot since their mainstream popularisation during the Obama administration era, and now not only used for ISR and HVT elimination roles, which were highly specialized roles mostly used by Intelligence agencies but now rather also being equipped en-masse with various militaries and have a direct combat capability as seen during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. A parallel in terms of evolution can be drawn with the advent of Aeroplanes at the beginning of the 20th Century and their early adoption in standard military operations. It is exactly due to the trajectory drones are following that they seriously challenge the idea of conventional security, much like airpower had changed warfare in the 20th Century. Drones are cheap, small, able to pass through the gaps in security coverage, and in numbers can overwhelm almost every defensive measure against them. Security of citizens, from the perspective of realist theory, is only followed by the security of the state. The realist idea is challenged when considering the drone strikes as seen in Pakistan and Yemen, where citizens were targeted without targeting the state by the US, and hence even though the state itself was secure, the citizenry wasn’t. Although it might seem the drones themselves threaten the realist definition of security, their usage itself can be guided by realist principles and agree with it completely, as Campbell (2014) points out in his paper discussing the Obama administration’s use of target killings using drones and comparing it with a liberal perspective. He concludes that although the administration would publicly hold on to the ideals of liberal international order, in practice the actions and rationale strongly align with the realist ideals.

Drone Trageted Killings. Image Source: criticallegalthinking.com

 As the proliferation of drones would increase and more and more states and non-state actors acquire them, everyone becomes a potential target. Drones also bring up an interesting challenge of non-reciprocation. As Renic (2019) points out in his paper, that wars till now involved platforms, usually manned (barring missiles), that could in turn be targeted back, and hence wars were based on the idea of immediate self-defence by both participants. Drones skew this arrangement by taking away the possibility of reciprocity and turn wars into mere one-sided homicidal events without any possibility of retaliation. Coupled with the expendable nature of drones, and both the anonymity and security of being geographically far away from the theatre of battle lends the aggressor more security than the recipient. When a weapon, touted as the most precise weaponry ever made, can pass through almost every national security grid, the idea of security of population within the states’ border starts being questioned.

A constructivist approach to the problem could be the relationship of the aggressor with the sovereign state in which the strikes are being conducted. Even though the US was targeting the Pakistani population within its borders, it was precise because both the states were allied and the US was doing so with the Pakistani state’s approval, that the security was indeed still maintained for the population. The attack by the US would be supported by the Pakistani state as being against non-state actors that posed threats to not only the US but also to Pakistan. Hence, the strikes contributed to increasing the security of the general populace in the region.

US drone strike on Pak-Afghan border. Image Source: business-standard.com

The Question of Sovereignty

If an actor can use drones to pass through a security grid and target a population with impunity, as the US has done in the past, it can essentially project its power in the said region without any serious repercussions. What then happens to the claim of sovereignty by the state in that region?

The question of a drone strike vis-a-vis the question of sovereignty is an interesting one. The recent 2019 Abqaiq–Khurais attack in Saudi Arabia can provide a great case study. The attack was claimed by Houthi Rebels, due to the Kingdom’s intervention in the Yemeni civil war. Saudi Arabia although blamed the attack on Iran. The attack which utilised swarm drones for the first time in modern history was on Saudi-owned Aramco’s oil processing facilities at Abqaiq–Khurais. The facilities were “the largest crude oil stabilization plant in the world”. The attack caused Saudi oil production to be cut in half temporarily. It was an attack of strategic importance. The response to the attack from Saudi Arabia is what interests us. Iran got off that engagement relatively scot-free, after projecting its power in an area which is irrefutably Saudi Arabia’s. Another example one could look at is the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. Azerbaijan’s decisive usage of drones in the conflict, gained them the upper hand in the war. The one-and-a-half-month-long fighting stopped with Azerbaijan retaining control of the territories during the war. Drones used by them had directly affected the sovereignty of Armenia. Drones had evolved from being largely used for targeting HVT (High-Value Targets) to now being capable of rivaling standard military equipment like tanks and waging war.

Drone attack on the Saudi Aramco oil pro-cessing facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais. Image Source: vifindia.org

Drones aren’t limited by geographical distance, the command and control relayed by satellites permit their operation from anywhere in the world. Historically the US has justified drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq based on the assumption of the imminent threat posed by the HVTs and their associations. Citing drone strikes as an immediate self-defence measure, the US has, as Kindervater (2016) points out in her paper, effectively expanded the battlefield to the entire world, even where they have no jurisdiction. This prompted what Derek Gregory (Shaw 2013) called the ‘Everywhere war’. States can technically fight everywhere, simultaneously in multiple theatres, that too with relatively cheaper costs than deploying troops on ground.

Capture from video released by Azerbaijan Ministry of Defense depicting a drone strike on Armenian. Image Source: forbes.com

This was in turn aided by the de-facto ownership of almost all the military drones in the early 2000s. Since last decade, this asymmetry has been broken, and a lot of states like Turkey, China, Iran have produced top of the line drones and have shown ability to field them and proliferate them effectively to other states. As more and more war-capable drones are produced and deployed, the idea of sovereignty of contested or even assumed sovereign territories starts being questioned.

The Question of Identity

Shaw (2013) tells the story of a family who was forced to once serve lunch to the Taliban, and later the house was targeted by drone strikes because CIA analysts concluded that the family was ‘affiliated’ with the Taliban. The only son of the family was killed in the strike. This anecdote springs up our last question, one that of the identity and its relationship with the new way of waging war. Civilian casualties aren’t a new phenomenon, civilians have always been caught in the crossfire, but in the age of drones, the question demands another look. The question of identity springs up with two focal points, the identity of not only the recipient of the aggression but also the identity of the aggressor itself. To the aggressor, drones bring up the challenge of the question of the ‘blame’ or ownership. Who’s to be blamed for a human right violation or loss of life by misidentification of a target, like the one mentioned above? Currently, the militaries around the world operate manned drones, but the technology of autonomous drones is fast catching up and might soon become the standard across the militaries. The question becomes more pronounced than when say an algorithm causes a drone to either attack a non-combatant group or mistakenly acquires allied groups as targets? When the target acquisition moves beyond the ‘Human’ element, who do you blame the attack on? Or say a terrorist attack happens using drones, and multiple groups claim responsibility. With the commercially available drones being as generic as possible, who’s to be blamed for the attack, who’s ownership is genuine? This is an extension of the ‘blame’ question, the identity of the operator/actor, and comes up in the light of recent attacks, and the proliferation of drone technology. The 2019 Abqaiq–Khurais attack which was claimed by the Houthis, is generally accepted to be Iran’s doing. A realist theory position would agree with the likes of Saudi Arabia and the United States in putting the blame entirely on Iran, while a constructive position like that of the UK, France, etc would put joint blame on Iran because even though Houthis claimed the attack and might have executed it, the weapons originated from Iran. The identity of actors thus diverges when we consider situations such as this, which involve non-state actors. Surely a more constructive approach regarding the identity of the actors makes sense when considering the threat perception by the states, similar to that with nuclear weapons. As Shaw (2013) mentioned in his paper, a Pakistani Official stated, with respect to the American strikes, that ‘it is the only thing militants fear’. So even though the US, an ally of Pakistan, was projecting power for its goals deep inside Pakistan, since the act was approved by the Pakistani establishment, it wasn’t considered a threat to the state of its sovereignty. There the identity of the operator which was an ally played an important role.

Saudi-led coalition intercepts two Houthi drones. Imaage Source: thearabweekly.com


Drones and drone warfare in the 21st century can be described as disruptive at best. The technology has disrupted and has brought in question some of the very fundamental understanding of International Relations theories, as seen throughout history whenever new methods of waging war come up, and it is indeed a new way of waging war. 

The new way to wage war is to do so from very far away, with violence against the aggressor being inherently asymmetrical and non-reciprocal in nature and thus offer another advantage of being cheaper, both financially and in terms of overall human lives. It is a new type of legally backed war, conducted in the name of immediate self-defense, supported by the jurisdiction to conduct extra-territorial strikes. They also offer a relatively cheaper alternative to contest the sovereignty of other territories, as Shaw mentions, in an ever-expanding ‘everywhere war’, which spreads horizontally over different continents and vertically into Earth’s upper atmosphere. This quality also sets a very dangerous precedent regarding proliferation, as seen by Houthis against Saudi Arabia, which disrupts how we conventionally see the security of both citizenry and the state itself. 


Campbell, B. (2014). Realist or Liberal?: Theoretical Interpretations of the Obama Administration’s Counterterrorism Strategy. International Studies, 14, 48-48.

Kindervater, K. H. (2016). Drone strikes, ephemeral sovereignty, and changing conceptions of territory. Territory, Politics, Governance, 5(2), 207-221. doi:10.1080/21622671.2016.1260493

Renic, N. C. (2019). Justified killing in an age of radically asymmetric warfare. European Journal of International Relations, 25(2), 408–430. https://doi.org/10.1177/1354066118786776

Shaw, I. G. (2013). Predator Empire: The Geopolitics of US Drone Warfare. Geopolitics, 18(3), 536-559, doi: 10.1080/14650045.2012.749241

About the Author: Shwetabh Singh is a military observer with a special interest in aviation. He is a Senior Editor at Indian Defence @IndianDefenceRA His Twitter handle is @singhshwetabh71 The views expressed are the author’s own.

Header Image source: airforcemag.com

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

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