Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have been used for combat purposes since Austria deployed bomb-laden balloons controlled by long copper wires in 1849 during the First Italian War of Independence. Granted, that was a pretty rudimentary display by the standards of contemporary air warfare. UAVs came a long way between Austria’s primitive foray into combat aeronautics and when a U.S. Predator drone fired a Hellfire missile at an enemy target for the first time in Afghanistan on 7 October 2001. That mission failed, but it nevertheless marked a major turning point in the history of remote-operated and automated warfare. Technological advances in those areas immediately began to expeditiously accelerate and continue to do so today.
Since those early days of Operation in Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, drone strikes as a means of neutralizing suspected terrorists have become chillingly commonplace events. Indeed, they are ubiquitous in regions of some countries. The U.S. military and CIA heavily relied on drones for both surveillance and targeted killings under U.S. President George W. Bush’s tenure, and U.S. President Barack Obama substantially increased their usage when he came into office in 2009. As Micah Zenko reports at the New York Times, “Whereas President George W. Bush authorized approximately 50 drone strikes that killed 296 terrorists and 195 civilians in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia, Obama has authorized 506 strikes that have killed 3,040 terrorists and 391 civilians.”
While the U.S. is perhaps the most notorious operator of armed UAVs, it of course isn’t the only country deploying drones for military purposes. The U.K., China, Israel, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, South Africa, and Somalia (reportedly) all have weaponized drones as well. Israel has an impressive fleet of its domestic Heron TP UAV, and plans to triple its size by 2020. In February Nigeria used drones to bomb the terrorist group Boko Haram for the first time. Numerous other countries, such as Russia and India, have surveillance drones like the Searcher, which is also manufactured in Israel, and are in the process of developing weaponized drones. Even terrorist organizations like Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic State are trying to acquire or develop weaponized drones — sort of. However, as one source points out, “this is where the distinctions between ‘weaponized drone’ and ‘model-aircraft-with-a-grenade-strapped-to-it’ begin to become important.”