The use of drones in armed conflict and other situations has increased over the past few years, raising different legal issues. Legal scholars have expressed a variety of opinions on the use of drones, including arguments that support the use of drones as lawful weapons under international law in a time of an armed conflict and arguments that drones are being used in ways that violate international law.
A drone is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). It is usually armed and does not have a human pilot on board, but is typically under real-time human control. Under international humanitarian law (IHL), drones are considered a regular and lawful weapon at time of combat operation. Whether a drone strike during armed conflict is legal requires looking at the applicable international rules, including the fundamental principles of IHL—did the strike only target combatants or military objectives whose destruction or neutralization provided a definite military advantage? Were civilian casualties not excessive in relation to the military advantage anticipated?
Technically, if a drone strike is launched against a legitimate military objective by using a weapon that does not cause unnecessary suffering of combatants, and the attack does not harm civilians to a degree that makes the action disproportionate, the attack complies with IHL.
|The MQ-1B Predator has been the primary UAV used by the United States Air Force and the CIA since 2001. It carries cameras and sensors as well as two Hellfire missiles. Although offensive uses of the Predator are classified, the Predator is known for its intelligence and reconnaissance-gathering abilities. The MQ-1B’s capabilities make it uniquely qualified to conduct irregular warfare operations in support of combatant commander objectives.|
|The Dominator was designed and manufactured to meet the requirements of the Israeli Defense Force. Flying at a maximum altitude of 30,000 ft., the Dominator captures real-time data by executing surveillance and reconnaissance missions over a large area and is designed to operate even in adverse climatic conditions.|
|The MQ-8B Fire Scout is a helicopter drone that weights 3,150 lbs. (1428.8 kg) and is capable of continuous operations. It has the unique capability to autonomously take off and land on any aviation-capable warship as well as at prepared and unprepared landing zones in proximity to the soldier in control of this drone.|
|The RQ-5A Hunter is a heavy weight drone that operates in deep enemy territory and collects intelligence and target-acquisition information. It has been used by the American Army since 1996 and has accumulated more than 37,000 hours of use.|
|The CQ-10A Snow Goose is a GPS-guided parafoil cargo delivery UAV that is used for delivery of small cargo items to Special Forces and can carry up to 600 lbs. It was originally designed for leaflet dispensing but can support different kinds of missions.|
|The KZO is a German UAV that is launched out of its container with a booster rocket and lands with a parachute. The KZO’s main objective is to locate mobile threats and provide target locations for artillery. It can reach speeds of up to 220 km/h, can operate during the day or night, and in various types of weather conditions.|
|The Fotros is an Iranian UAV that, according to Iranian military officials, is capable of flying for 30 hours and can reach a distance of 2,000 kilometers. The Fotros is able to carry recce equipment or guided munitions. Besides Iranian publications about this drone in November 2013, not much in known about this UAV.|
|The Hermes 450 is an Israeli medium size multi-payload UAV designed for tactical long endurance missions. It can remain in flight for over 20 hours, with a primary mission of reconnaissance, surveillance, and communications relay. This UAV has been purchased by various countries including Colombia, Singapore, Brazil, and Azerbaijan.|
|The Chang Kong-1 (or CK-1) is a radio-controlled target drone developed in China. It is a basic target drone that features a parachute recovery system. Since its release in 1960, advanced models have been made including the CK-1B, which was optimized for low-level flight, and the CK-1C, which has an improved control system to provide greater maneuverability.|
|The Nishant UAV is an Indian UAV. It main task is to gather intelligence over enemy territory as well as reconnaissance, training, surveillance, target designation, artillery fire correction, damage assessment, ELINT and SIGINT. The Nishant can remain in flight for 4 hours and 30 min, requires rail-launching from a hydro-pneumatic launcher, and is recovered by a Parachute System.|
These are just a few examples of the different types of drones and their uses in armed conflict. Furthermore, in the past few years the use of drones is not been exclusively by states but has expanded to non-state actors that have also been using drones for different purposes.
In sum, drones can be used in different ways in an armed conflict. Due to the fact that international humanitarian law does not always have clear answers on the use of these weapons and other new technologies in armed conflict, each situation and case should be treated and examined separately to determine whether the act is lawful or whether it violates international humanitarian law.