On 19th October 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron unveiled the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), which revealed that the defence budget of the United Kingdom (UK) would fall by 8% over the course of 4 years.  Cameron argued that the nation had to be ‘more thoughtful, more strategic and more co-ordinated in the way we advance our interests and protect our national security.[i]  As part of this plan, the BAE Systems Nimrod MRA4 was culled.  This decision, along with other reductions in military staff and spending, was and has continued to be a subject of controversy and debate.

The Nimrod MRA4 is a maritime patrol and attack aircraft, capable of attacking submarines.  The planes were equipped with advanced sensors and weapons systems, providing them with a number of capabilities, including the ability to detect and sink submarines, drop life rafts to sailors in trouble and play a vital role in drug-smuggling and counter-terrorism operations.  Many commentators argued that the scrapping of the programme was an enormous mistake, and heralded a risk to UK security.[ii]  The Prime Minister defended his choice by emphasizing the immense costs of the programme, as well as extensive delays in its completion.

As Michael Clarke notes: ‘The SDSR was undertaken in the midst of a financial crisis, a long-term reduction in government spending, and in a political atmosphere where there seems to be little public appetite to make defence a special case ahead of health, education or welfare.’[iii]  He goes on to contend that:

The scrapping of the MRA4 does not suddenly deprive the country of air and sea-based electronic reconnaissance. These functions can still be performed from existing ships, supplemented from land-based facilities and from a cheaper version of US off-the-shelf aircraft, such as new variants of the Orion P3, that we can buy during the coming decade. It’s an alternative; less good, more messy, more vulnerable. But it’s an alternative.[iv]

This is a prime example of a predicament that many states face today: When budgets are being slashed, and the economy is generally suffering, how do states maintain vital defence capabilities?  More specifically, how does the United Kingdom, and other states, best maintain aerial maritime defence in the midst of budgetary constraints?

Drones – a better alternative?

Many states have been pursuing the use of drones for use in aerial maritime defence and surveillance. Drones, or UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) are currently one of the most debated topics in international relations, defence, and security.  In the past decade, they have emerged as the primary tool in the United States’ military and intelligence operations following the events of 9/11.  As a result, there has been frequent coverage of drones and drone strikes in the media, as well as widespread debate over the effectiveness, morality, and legality of their use.  Much of this debate, however, has taken place among a small community of experts, primarily academics.  Correspondingly, public discussions on the use of drones and drone strikes by the US government have been decidedly limited, despite the Obama administration’s heavy reliance on the technology.

Moreover, while the United State’s current use of drones might be subject to criticism, the focus on this specific application might eclipse other more positive conversations about how drones can be used in other settings.  As with all technology, there are arguments to be made for and against the use of drones. Accordingly, it is helpful to discuss the wider possibilities in order to determine whether or not drones are suitable for use in aerial maritime defence.

The drones debate – significant for Scotland?

The debate over Scottish independence offers an excellent opportunity to discuss the potential use of drones, a driving question being whether drones might play a prominent role in the aerial maritime defence of a new sovereign Scottish state.  This is particularly relevant at a time when many nations are turning their attention towards the Arctic, as polar icecaps retreat and new shipping lanes are opened.  Much of the attention being given to the Arctic at the moment relates to the potential natural gas and oil reserves in the territory.  This became even more relevant in 2013 as Canada and Russia became colder towards one another due to competing territorial claims in the Arctic.  This dynamic saw an increase in military activity in the region from both of these nations.  Scotland might not be considered ‘an Arctic nation’ but these developments will certainly lead to a plethora of significant activity to Scotland’s north in the future – whether independent or not, the Scottish Government will have a stake in these activities and their consequences.

Scotland will face have important decision to make if it becomes an independent state.  In contemplating how it would secure its seas and airspace, Scottish military planners might consider drones as being a cost-effective option.  It is not the purpose of this article to discuss Scottish independence but to illuminate the conversation surrounding the merits and demerits of drones.  If Scotland does become independent, Scottish military planners might consider the points discussed here.

The issue of drones in the United States 

As a topic, drones have been discussed and critiqued from a number of angles, but the primary focus has continued to be on their use by the United States following the events of 9/11.  The issue came to the attention of the public after a now famous filibuster by Republican Senator Rand Paul in March 2013.  Paul’s criticism of the drone programme was largely drawn from the fact that a drone had been used to kill an American citizen suspected of involvement in terrorist operations, Anwar al-Awlaki.  Senator Paul was not the first person to criticize the drone programme but given his public profile, and given that his intervention focused upon the killing of a US citizen by a US drone, the issue was granted more public attention than it had hitherto enjoyed.


One of the most frequent criticisms of the US drone programme has been its covert nature.  In a speech on counterterrorism given at the US National Defence University in May 2013, President Barack Obama directly addressed these criticisms and defended his administration’s use of drones.  He asserted that drones are effective and claimed that they had spread fear among terrorists, making them incapable of planning and executing attacks.  Obama also pledged greater transparency over the use of drones in the future.[v] His speech was an attempt to silence critics of the drone programme, but it has not accomplished this.

Aside from the lack of transparency, there have been widespread concerns over civilian casualties as a result of drone strikes.  Initially, the United States claimed that there had been no such casualties, despite claims to the contrary by the Pakistani government and many non-governmental organizations.  In June 2011, John Brennan – then counter-terrorism advisor to President Obama and now Director of the Central Intelligence Agency – explicitly claimed that there had been no civilian casualties as a result of drone strikes.  It has become apparent that this is not true.

Under mounting pressure, President Obama eventually admitted that there had been civilian casualties as a result of drone strikes but argued that this was a risk in every war and not unique to the use of drones.[vi]  Despite Obama’s placatory attempts, US drone policy has continued to receive criticism from a number of areas.  The United Nations released a report in October 2013 which acknowledged that Pakistan’s government had confirmed at least 400 civilian deaths as a result of US drone strikes, an observation which contrasts starkly with what US officials had been asserting for so long.  The report found that one of the major obstacles in obtaining accurate figures on civilian deaths was the lack of transparency by the countries involved.[vii]

The issue of transparency thus continues to underpin much of the unhappiness over Washington’s drone programme.  As Brunstetter and Braun note, ‘Without transparency, there is no way to know why a specific strike was undertaken, if it was undertaken with discrimination and proportionality in mind, or even whether it reflected military necessity.’[viii]  It is also acknowledged that the US programme has set a dangerous precedent for other actors to follow.  Added to this, there is no consistent legal framework in place by way of allowing agreed oversight and adjudication.

Thus, despite persistent claims of effectiveness and ‘just cause’, the increased reliance on drones by the United States continues to be controversial.  It should be noted, however, that despite this, the majority of the US public has consistently supported the policy.[ix]  More broadly, the use of drones continues to divide international opinion and the next sections attempt to weigh up both the ‘pros’ and the ‘cons’ in an effort to come to a conclusion on the overall value of these platforms.

The Drone Debate: The Cons

Criticism of drones has emanated from various areas.  Critics such as Medea Benjamin view drone strikes as illegal and inhumane.  In his words: ‘Unlike US officials and a bamboozled US public, most people around the world do not believe that the United States – or any nation – has the right to attack whomever it wants, wherever it wants.’[x]  Accordingly, it has been argued that the use of drone strikes is extrajudicial and illegal, as the strikes often occur outside of the combat zone and ignore due process.[xi]   Similarly, it has been contended that the US government employs vague reasoning to make inaccurate claims about statistics surrounding civilian casualties from drone strikes:

Under the rules of so-called signature strikes, decisions about whether to fire missiles from drones could be made based on patterns of activity deemed suspicious … For instance, if a group of young ‘military-aged males’ were observed moving in and out of a suspected militant training camp and were thought to be carrying weapons, they could be considered legitimate targets.[xiii]

Along similar lines, Jane Mayer has argued that the US government keeps broadening its definition of acceptable high value targets in order to widen the playing field in terms of designating legitimate targets.[xiv]  Other commentators, such as Audrey Cronin, express concerns that the United States’ reliance on drones contradicts their larger strategic goals.[xv]  Likewise, there are concerns that drones only increase animosity towards the United States, perpetuating the so-called War on Terror.[xvi]  This argument appears to be a valid one; Faisal Shahzad, the man guilty of the attempted bombing of Times Square in 2010, cited drone strikes as his provocation.[xvii]

Additionally, drones have done great damage to the United States’ relationships with the nations whose territory it has targeted, such as Pakistan.  Pakistani politicians have consistently denounced the attacks as a violation of their country’s sovereignty and whilst these public condemnations have, at times, masked a private endorsement of the US drone campaigns, the continuation of strikes has increasingly strained relations between Washington and Islamabad.[xviii]

In this regard, a poll conducted in 2012 revealed that 74% of Pakistanis viewed the United States as their enemy.[xix] Moreover, in terms of the impact and effectiveness of drones, there are some that question the logic of killing a ‘terrorist’ before capturing and questioning them.  This eliminates the possibility of gaining intelligence that could help prevent future terrorist attacks.[xx]

Finally, there are also concerns over how drones reflect a fast-evolving generation of technologies which can be used for war-fighting but which increasingly remove humans from the battlefield.  P.W. Singer, a pre-eminent scholar on 21st century warfare, discusses the possible negative repercussions of what some define as ‘robotic warfare’.[xxii]  Singer notes that since drones require no human pilot, they eliminate the risk of loss to the user.  Consequently, the public may not feel any losses which do occur; for example, if a drone is shot down.  Singer worries that this may make war far easier to order, accept and tolerate.  It may thus, he surmises, make warfighting a more common activity in the future.  Drones therefore ‘…may entail a dark irony.  By appearing to lower the human costs of war, they may seduce us into more wars.’[xxiii]

As we can see, the arguments against drones are many and convincing.  However, their extensive use is a clear indicator of their perceived value and effectiveness by political and military policymakers.

The Drone Debate: The Pros

Regardless the undoubted controversies associated with the use of drones, they do currently represent a unique and effective aerial option:

The drone…combines known technology in an original way – aircraft, global telecommunications links, optics, digital sensors, supercomputers, etc. It greatly lowers the cost of persistent surveillance. When armed, it becomes a remarkable, highly specialized tool: a weapon that employs simple physics to launch a missile with lethal force from a distance, a first step into a world where going to war does not mean fielding an army, or putting any of your own soldiers, sailors, or pilots at risk.[xxiv]

For the war-weary United States, these qualities have made military drones an extremely attractive option.  Currently, the US Government finds itself in a situation in which the public is not fond of ‘boots on the ground’ but still demands that perceived ‘terrorist threats’ are engaged.  Drones appear to meet this dual-requirement.  With some drones costing as little as $4.5 million, the combined low cost and lack of human risk attached to employing them (at least for those deploying the drones) undoubtedly makes them an attractive proposition for use in hostilities.[xxv]

Proponents of drones also argue that drones offer the most discriminate and proportionate means of conducting warfare; indeed, some argue that they represent a breakthrough in so-called humanitarian warfare.[xxvi]  These factors allow for more limited military engagements and the circumvention of large-scale and prolonged campaigns.  If drones were used in aerial maritime defence a reduction of naval commitments in certain regions would become possible, freeing up valuable resources and personnel for more important tasks.  Ultimately, this could also facilitate a significant reduction in military spending.

It should be remembered that drones are platforms which do far more than just offensive warfare operations. Many drones are equipped with advanced surveillance technology, and they can spend up to 24 hours in the air at heights up to 26,000 ft.  As Mark Bowden explains:

Drones collect three primary packages of data: straight visual; infrared (via a heat-sensing camera that can see through darkness and clouds); and what is called SIGINT (Signals Intelligence), gathered via electronic eavesdropping devices and other sensors.  One such device is known as LIDAR (a combination of the words light and radar), which can map large areas in 3-D.  The optical sensors are so good, and the pixel array so dense, that the device can zoom in clearly on objects only inches wide from well over 15,000 feet above. With computer enhancement to eliminate distortion and counteract motion, facial-recognition software is very close to being able to pick individuals out of crowds.[xxvii]

Drones are thus perfect for tasks involving the 3-D’s: dirty, dull, dangerous.[xxviii]  They have tremendous surveillance, reconnaissance and rescue applications. Whilst it might be dangerous for a manned aircraft to venture out to sea on reconnaissance or rescue missions during a violent storm, deploying a drone undoubtedly represents a safer – if more limited – option.

When analyzing the evidence, it is easy to see why many depict drones as being the obvious future choice for aerial maritime defence.  As Daniel Byman notes, drones have formed the centerpiece of US counter-terrorism strategy throughout the Obama administration, devastating anti-American militant groups, at little financial cost, at no risk to US forces, and with fewer civilian casualties than many alternative methods would have caused.[xxix]  Drones have killed a high number of terrorist operatives (an estimated 3,300 Al Qaeda, Taliban and Jihadist fighters) and also numerous ‘lower-level’ operatives with special skills such as passport forgers, bomb makers, recruiters, and fundraisers.[xxx]  From the perspective of the US Government, it seems clear that from a quantitative standpoint, the use of drones has been a huge benefit to US policy aims.

However, the satisfaction of those residing in the White House and Pentagon does little to assuage the strong moral concerns which continue to saturate the debate on drones (and on US foreign policy more generally).  Critics continue to question whether drones are as effective as their advocates claim.  As Audrey Cronin notes:

‘Like any other weapon, armed drones can be tactically useful… The problem for Washington today is that its drone program has taken on a life of its own, to the point where tactics are driving strategy rather than the other way around.’[xxxi]

This is a pertinent point, one also acknowledged by Singer.  Thus whilst the UK and other states will undoubtedly continue to develop their drone programmes, they would do well to look to the American experience as they consider the pros and cons of this technology.

Drones, Drones Everywhere

It is notable that Australia is currently pursuing the use of drones in aerial maritime defence.  The Australian Defence Force is planning to buy $3bn worth of long-range maritime patrol drones.[xxxii]

The UK has used drones extensively in Afghanistan and it is known that the UK Ministry of Defence is already considering their use in maritime operations.[xxxiii]  The UK government, much like the US government, has been pressured to be more transparent with regard to its use of drones, particularly in relation to its intelligence-gathering role for drone strikes carried out by the CIA.  This pressure will likely increase, as it has recently been made apparent that Britain is pursuing the use of drones in multiple applications:

Defence planners are seeking to develop a new generation of unmanned sea drones with the capability of attacking submarines and launching missile attacks on enemy vessels, it has been reported.  The Royal Navy is already using unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) to help stop Iran laying mines in shipping lanes and also being considered for deployment for the pirate-infested waters off Somalia.  Documents obtained by a newspaper showed the Ministry of Defence wants to boost its unmanned warfare capabilities across the services, seen as a cheaper way of providing round-the-clock intelligence and surveillance.[xxxiv]

The UK government has insisted that it has only used drones in Afghanistan, despite strong evidence that British pilots operated drones in Libya in 2011.[xxxv]  It might thus seem that the UK is following Washington’s lead, both in embracing drone technology and in being less-than-transparent in doing so.  Amidst mounting opposition to this ‘culture of secrecy’, the UK Government will have to take great care in how it handles its utilization of drone technology.[xxxvi]

It would be wise for London to learn from Washington’s mistakes in this arena and to reevaluate its relative policy of silence on the UK’s use of drones.  A broader debate may well be forced upon national governments anyway as drones look increasingly set to be adopted for civilian applications.  Amazon’s proposed drone delivery scheme might be just the catalyst for a more comprehensive public discussion over the use of drones and privacy; this debate might in turn shed some light on the darker recesses of how state militaries use drones.

Drones can be equipped with incredible technology – particularly in terms of their weapons and surveillance capabilities – and it is disconcerting to consider the lack of public discussion that has surrounded their use.  It might take drones being deployed on the domestic front – where citizens are becoming increasingly more concerned about privacy as a consequence of revelations such as those divulged by Edward Snowden – for a more critical and robust debate to take place.


[i] BBC. 2010a. Defence Review: Cameron unveils armed forces cuts. [online] Available at: [Accessed on 27 November 2013]
[ii] Harding, T., 2010. Scrapping the RAF’s £4bn Nimrod fleet ‘risks UK security’. The Telegraph. [online] Available at: [Accessed on 27 November 2013]
[iii] Clarke, M., 2010. Nimrod: a sorry saga with a messy ending. The Telegraph. [online] Available at: [Accessed on 27 November 2013]
[iv] Ibid.
[v] The New York Times (NYT). 2013. Obama’s Speech on Drone Policy. [online] Available at: [Accessed on 27 November 2013]
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] Radhakrishnan, R., 2013. UN urges transparency over US drone deaths. Al Jazeera. Available at: [Accessed on 27 November 2013]
[viii] Brunstetter, D., & Braun, M. 2011. The Implications of Drones on the Just War Tradition. Ethics & International Affairs25(3), pp. 337-58.
[ix] Brown, A., Newport, F., 2013. In U.S., 65% Support Drone Attacks on Terrorists Abroad. Gallup. [online] (Last updated on 25 March 2013) Available at: [Accessed on 2 January 2014]
[x] Benjamin, M., 2013. Drone Warfare: Killing By Remote Control. New York: Verso.
[xi] Brunstetter, D., & Braun, M. 2011.
[xii] Bowden, M., 2013. The Killing MachinesHow to think about drones. The Atlantic. [online] Available at: [Accessed on 27 November 2013]
[xiii] Mazzetti, M., 2013. The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth. New York: The Penguin Press.
[xiv] Mayer, J., 2009. The predator war. The New Yorker [online] Available at: [Accessed on 27 November 2013]
[xv] Cronin, A.K., 2013. Why Drones Fail: When Tactics Drive Strategy. Foreign Affairs, 92(4), pp. 44-54
[xvi] Benjamin, M., 2013.
[xvii] Cronin, A.K., 2013.
[xviii] Masood, S., Mehsud, I., 2013. Thousands in Pakistan Protest American Drone Strikes. International New York Times. [online] Available at: [Accessed on 27 November 2013]
[xix] Byman, D., 2013. Why Drones Work: The Case For Washington’s Weapon of Choice. Foreign Affairs, 92(4), pp. 32-43.
[xx] Mayer, J., 2009.
[xxi] Thiessen, M.A., 2010. Dead Terrorists Tell No Tales. Foreign Policy [online] Available at: [Accessed on 1 January 2014]
[xxii] Singer, P.W., 2009. Robots at war: the new battlefield. The Wilson Quarterly, 32, pp. 30-48.
[xxiii] Ibid.
[xxiv] Bowden, M., 2013.
[xxv] Singer, P.W., 2009.
[xxvi] Byman, D., 2013.
[xxvii] Bowden, M., 2013.
[xxviii] Singer, P.W., 2009.
[xxix] Byman, D., 2013.
[xxx] Ibid.
[xxxi] Cronin, A.K., 2013.
[xxxii] Aviation Week. 2013. Australia Military Looks At Long-range Triton Patrol Drone. [online] Available at: [Accessed on 27 November 2013]
[xxxiii] The Telegraph. 2012a. New generation of unmanned sea drones ‘could launch attacks on other vessels’. [online] Available at: [Accessed on 27 November 2013]
[xxxiv] The Telegraph. 2012b. British drones may strike pirate boats. [online] Available at: [Accessed on 27 November 2013]
[xxxv] Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). 2013. Armed drones – unmanned aerial vehicles or remotely piloted air systems. [online] Available at: [Accessed on 27 November 2013]
[xxxvi] Dutta, K., Owen, J. 2013. UK use of drones in Afghanistan remains under wraps after disclosure campaign is thwarted. The Independent. [online] Available at: [Accessed on 27 November 2013]
John Haltiwanger is originally from the United States and grew up in the Washington DC area.  He studied history as an undergraduate student at St. Mary’s College of Maryland before moving to the Republic of Georgia to teach English for the Georgian government.  After his time in Georgia, he came to Scotland where he completed an MSc in International Relations at the University of Glasgow (Dec. 2013).   John continues to research and write in the areas of international relations, security, US foreign policy, war and media studies, conflict resolution, and human rights.  He runs the blog One World, Many Voices – A Global Conversation, which focuses upon an array of social and political issues.  John is a Communications and Project Support Officer with the Scottish Global Forum.