Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Book Review: The Drone Debate: A Primer on the U.S. Use of Unmanned Aircraft Outside Conventional Battlefields

Book Review: The Drone Debate: A Primer on the U.S. Use of Unmanned Aircraft Outside Conventional Battlefields

H-Net Reviews

Avery Plaw, Matthew S. Fricker, Carlos Colon. The Drone Debate: A Primer on the U.S. Use of Unmanned Aircraft Outside Conventional Battlefields. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2016. 356 pp. $34.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4422-3059-0.

Reviewed by Paul Springer (Air University, Air Command and Staff College)
Published on H-War (June, 2017)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey


Avery Plaw, Matthew Fricker, and Carlos Colon are political scientists linked through the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, where Plaw is a professor and Fricker and Colon founded the Center for the Study of Targeted Killing. Their current work is an examination of how the United States went from condemning targeted killings in 2001 to openly embracing them less than a decade later. By the time of the work’s publication, targeted killing had become the most prominent form of military operation used by the United States in the War on Terror. The authors collectively agree that the United States should maintain armed remotely piloted aircraft (which they refer to as “drones” for the sake of simplicity) within the national arsenal. However, they disagree about when and how said devices should be used. The work is topically organized into six sections dealing with the history of drones, the strategic utility of the aircraft, the ethics of drone warfare, legal issues surrounding the current drone usage, the influence of political considerations on the pursuit of drone warfare, and the most likely implications for future utility. Within each chapter, case studies are provided to illustrate the most important and challenging points.

The work contains a detailed analysis and an exhaustive search of open-source, unclassified materials that are accessible to any reader of the work. Their citations are thorough and extremely helpful, although the lack of a bibliography for the volume is an unfortunate oversight. The authors have presented a balanced study of each of their topic areas, and where applicable, have presented all sides of an open debate without forcing the reader to accept their perspective. In that regard, this is a wonderful introduction to the subject of remotely piloted aircraft and how they have been recently utilized by the United States.

The first chapter examines the history of drone warfare. It is a quick but effective study of the development of unmanned aircraft. There are some gaps in their analysis, and there is a decided habit of not digging too deeply into the reason for some of the weaknesses of drones. For example, the authors note that unmanned aircraft have much higher accident rates than those with a pilot aboard, but fail to illustrate that the repair rate for unmanned aircraft is also much higher, and that the cost savings provided by not utilizing redundant safety features more than make up for the higher accident rates. Chapter 1 also provides an outstanding explanation of the difficulty of accurately counting drone strikes and the casualties they create, and demonstrates the four main sources of data that underpinned much of this work. The chapter concludes by noting that as drone technology and usage has matured, civilian deaths as a percentage of total casualties in drone strikes have plummeted, suggesting that their use is becoming more accurate and discriminating.

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