Drones and Cyberwarfare: Let the User Beware!

January 14, 2013   ·   2 Comments

Source: NYTX

Cyberwarfare and drones

By Daniel Warner:

A debate is raging about President Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel as the next United States Secretary of Defense. Behind this debate is another debate about the future role of the United States in the world. On the one hand, conservative critics are accusing Hagel of being reluctant to intervene militarily to protect Israel or to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. On the other hand, progressives are cheering the potential national security team of John Kerry, Chuck Hagel and John Brennan as being realistic about the limited possibilities for projecting U.S. power. Their preference for “light footprints” or “leading from behind” is seen in stark contrast to George W. Bush’s bellicose foreign policy. At last, David Sanger writes in the January 10 International Herald Tribune - the global edition of the New York Times - the United States will have a more diplomatic foreign policy if all three nominations are confirmed.

The debate about military intervention has a very long history, recently brought to the fore in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Mali and potentially Syria. Whereas the United States seems less and less inclined to intervene militarily, it continues to be more than generous in providing weapons to allies or future allies. The U.S. provided material to the French during the Libyan intervention and has been said to indirectly supply opposition forces in Syria. While a policy of no indirect intervention has the advantage of not involving U.S. lives, it has certain unintended consequences that should not be ignored (See my article “What were they thinking? Libyan rebels and the weapons candy store” in the Dec. 7 NYTimes eXaminer).

There is, however, another debate that should be taking place. That debate would involve the implications of using new means of power projection. Instead of sending troops or material overseas, a new focus of defending the country has become drones and cyberwarfare.

Drones have become a crucial part of United States military hardware. Their primary advantage is that they put no American lives at risk. Often used for intelligence gathering in difficult to reach regions, they have frequently been used to fire on suspected terrorist leaders. Two criticisms of the use of drones have emerged. The first is that there has been considerable collateral damage. Targeting terrorists has led to civilian deaths which have inflamed local populations. While the military insists that civilian casualties have been reduced, the accuracy of drones remains suspect.

Moreover, and this critic needs further elucidation, the use of drones has for the moment been limited to the United States. Are we naïve enough to believe that other countries or groups will not have them in the future? And further, would it be legally defensible for a group to target a region in the U.S. in the name of self-defense if that region was the site of drone command and control?

The same self-defense argument could be used in terms of cyberwarfare. The advantage of cyberwarfare, obviously, is that it does not directly involve human lives. It has been rumored to have been used to slow down Iran’s nuclear weapons program. But, what would happen if a hostile group were to use cyberwarfare against the West? Can we imagine electricity being crippled in Europe? Are there any rules for cyberwarfare? The Geneva Conventions were developed as the normative laws for war beginning in the 19th century. Are there any rules for modern cyberwarfare? Or for drones?

The old saying goes that generals are always preparing for the last war. Drones and cyberwarfare are part of a technological evolution. For the moment, there seems to be a monopoly of this technology in the hands of the United States and perhaps its allies. While the West has for the moment technological advantages with drones and cyberwarfare, people should also be thinking about the consequences of their use by others, thinking about unintended consequences, and thinking about how to limit their use in the future. To paraphrase the expression for consumers: Let the user beware!


Daniel Warner is a political scientist living in Geneva, Switzerland, and the author of “An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations”. Daniel is a contributing writer to NYTX’s “Geneva Dateline” column.


Readers Comments (2)

  1. admin user says:

    (1) If Cuba or Iran, both long term targets of USA covert and overt aggression since at least the 1950s, were to suddenly declare USA “enemy combatants” a target of their drones flying over USA territory, would the USA have any moral standing to criticize them?

    (2) Advanced societies have much more to lose in asymmetrical cyberwarfare. A 3rd world country does not risk nearly as much as a technologically dependent country. There’s a reason China is becoming very aggressive in space exploration. Ironically, all of USA drones are totally dependent on satellite transmission to function.

    (3) The technology the West uses to wage war and commerce is inherently flawed. Within the next two years we will see just how flawed. Pearl Harbor was known in advance, Sepetember 11th was known in advance, the West’s techno-Waterloo is clearly written on the wall…

  2. Nicholas Richmond says:

    I think it is more self-blindness than naivete. Objectively our unilateral bombing campaigns are as much terrorism as Al Qaeda attacks — in fact you could look at the military-industrial complex in Washington as a kind of Al Qaeda of our own hiding in plain sight in our endangered democracy. But we don’t look at it that way at all. In fact, the more weapons we get and the fewer mortal enemies we have, the more politicians and pundits in Washington clamor for yet more weapons.


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