Antonio Calcara, Andrea Gilli, Mauro Gilli, Raffaele Marchetti, Ivan Zaccagnini; Why Drones Have Not Revolutionized War: The Enduring Hider-Finder Competition in Air Warfare. International Security 2022; 46 (4): 130–171. doi: https://doi.org/10.1162/isec_a_00431
According to the accepted wisdom in security studies, unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as drones, have revolutionizing effects on war and world politics. Drones allegedly tilt the military balance in favor of the offense, reduce existing asymmetries in military power between major and minor actors, and eliminate close combat from modern battlefields. A new theory about the hider-finder competition between air penetration and air defense shows that drones are vulnerable to air defenses and electronic warfare systems, and that they require support from other force structure assets to be effective. This competition imposes high costs on those who fail to master the set of tactics, techniques, procedures, technologies, and capabilities necessary to limit exposure to enemy fire and to detect enemy targets. Three conflicts that featured extensive employment of drones—the Western Libya military campaign of the second Libyan civil war (2019–2020), the Syrian civil war (2011–2021), and the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh (2020)—probe the mechanisms of the theory. Drones do not by themselves produce the revolutionary effects that many have attributed to them.
Over the past two decades, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have progressively become a constant feature of modern conflicts and, if current trends continue, they will likely become even more important in the future.1 Substituting troops with various types of robotic systems on the ground, in the air, and at sea raises major ethical, legal, and philosophical questions.2 Equally important are the implications for international security: Some scholars believe, for instance, that drone technology could unleash an “unmanned revolution in military affairs,” which would affect not only military doctrine, organization, and force structure but also regional and international stability.3 According to the conventional wisdom, drones are considered revolutionary because of three direct effects that they exert on military conflict and world politics. First, given their small size and other features, military drones are supposedly more effective at avoiding or limiting detection by modern radars compared with traditional military aircraft. Drones can thus more easily penetrate enemy air defense systems, which in turn favors offensive military operations. Second, the conventional wisdom holds that the affordable cost and technological unsophistication of drones lower the entry barriers for acquiring advanced military capabilities. By canceling or reducing existing asymmetries in military power, drones can thus strengthen militarily weaker and resource-scarce actors. Finally, some believe that UAVs, by making long-range precision strikes more accessible, will eliminate close combat from the battlefield, which would relieve states from the need to deploy ground troops.4