By Wing Commander Travis Hallen

Michael P. Kreuzer, Drones and the Future of Air Warfare: The Evolution of Remotely Piloted Aircraft. New York, NY: Routledge, 2016. Index. Figures. Tables. Appendices. Glossary. Hbk. 258 pp.

‘Drones’ are the air power topic de jour. Unfortunately, much of the discussion taking place in the media, and even in some academic circles, displays a lack of nuanced understanding of what is a complicated subject. The use of the term ‘drone’ to refer to platforms from the networked high-altitude long-endurance MQ-4 Triton to small tactical hand-held systems such as the Black Hornet conflates vastly different capabilities in the mind of the public. Similarly, the statement made in a recent article by a professor at the Swedish Defence University that remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) can ‘strike targets with greater precision to avoid collateral damage’ when compared with inhabited systems highlights that even academics in the field do not appreciate what distinguishes inhabited from uninhabited systems.[1] With the subject often overly simplified and the claims at times unrealistic, it is little wonder that policymakers do not understand RPAs well enough to make informed and effective decisions about their acquisition, development, and employment. This is a problem.

Sailors prepare an MQ-8B MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned helicopter before performing ground turns aboard the USS Coronado in the South China Sea, 10 February 2017. (Source: US Department of Defense)

A few academics and military professionals are working to clarify the reality of RPA. Michael P. Kreuzer’s 2017 book Drones and the Future of Air Warfare: The evolution of Remotely Piloted Aircraft is one such example. In a compact 218 pages, Kreuzer, a serving US Air Force officer with a PhD from Princeton, places RPAs in their organisational, operational, strategic, and technological context, enabling the reader to reframe their understanding of RPA away from the hype towards an appreciation grounded in facts and logic.

Kreuzer aims the book at:

[t]hose who are active or have an interest at the level of national policy, and for those who have an interest in understanding the macro-effects of RPAs in modern warfare to understand to what extent they can be used to achieve strategic objectives, and what are the true hazards of their use. (p.22)

On this, the book delivers.

The first step is to address the curious definitional problem contained within the book’s title: is it ‘drones’ or ‘remote piloted aircraft’? Kreuzer’s approach to defining the subject is simple yet effective. He states unequivocally that RPA is the preferred term; ‘drone’ when used appears in quotation marks. He then distinguishes between ‘tactical’ RPA and ‘networked’ RPA, with the distinguishing characteristic being the integration of the sensors and weapons of the latter into a global network. Network connectivity has enabled RPAs such as Reaper to conduct ‘strategic bombing against non-fixed targets such as individuals’ (p.7). This, Kreuzer asserts, has made a significant impact on the conduct of air warfare: ‘The network, rather than the platform itself, is key to this innovation’ (p.7)

Kreuzer makes clear that he does not consider RPAs to be revolutionary in isolation; they are an enabling capability for a broader ‘targeting revolution’. To support his claim, he disentangles the often-conflated concepts of technological revolution, major military innovation, and revolution in military affairs:

A technological revolution is marked by a major change in technology with widespread effects across all sectors of society, a major military innovation is a major change in the conduct of warfare that increases the efficiency with which capabilities are converted to power often stemming from the technological revolution, and a revolution in military affairs is a shift in the character of warfare fuelled by a transformation of military systems. (p.8)

The proliferation of drones is undoubtedly a technological revolution; commercial and civilian RPA applications are already affecting airspace management, privacy laws, and delivery services. RPAs are also increasing the efficiency of military operations for both state and non-state actors. ‘Drone strikes’ conducted by the Western countries in the Middle East and South Asia, and the use by ISIS of commercial drones in surveillance and attack roles evidences a shift in the way military operations are being conducted, the rise of the so-called ‘remote control warfare’. RPAs are not, however, causing the changes in the character of air warfare which Kreuzer refers to as the targeting revolution, they are only contributing to it. Kreuzer’s point here is subtle but well made.

Precision munitions and intelligence are given as the key enablers of the targeting revolution. Guided weapons provide the ability to strike targets precisely; the development of networks enables the processing, exploitation, and dissemination of information to know where the targets are. These are the foundations of Kreuzer’s targeting revolution. What RPAs have provided is persistence, allowing improvements in the timeliness of targeting information. The addition of precision munitions on networked RPAs has marked a culmination of an evolutionary process.

[t]he main revolutionary capabilities have come about when RPA serve as critical nodes in a broader system of warfare enabling networked intelligence collection, global communication, near real time processing, target development, decision support, and strike operations. (p.80)

Technology has played a significant role in driving this revolution, but Kreuzer also highlights the importance of doctrine and organisational factors in realising the benefits of RPAs. He looks at two separate but related organisational issues: the organisational challenges in developing an RPA capability, and the influence of organisational capacity on a state’s ability to develop an RPA capability.

According to Kreuzer, the ‘human challenges’ of RPA are:

[s]ome of the greatest faced by states and organisations seeking to employ such weapons and will be the greatest barrier to successful employment. (p.89)

Unfortunately, these challenges are rarely examined in any great depth. This book addresses this deficiency in the literature.

Integrating RPA operators within a culture and hierarchy that favours pilots of manned platforms are proving difficult. Kreuzer draws attention to the disparity in promotion rates for RPA pilots and the controversy surrounding the Distinguished Warfare Medal as examples of how the United States is struggling to integrate RPA systems into existing culture.

The problem faced here is that ensuring the right people are attracted to and employed in RPA operations will be a crucial determinant of their operational success. Similarly, the development of an emerging capability is dependent mainly upon the promotion of RPA operators into positions of influence and power within the organisation. Kreuzer quotes from Stephen Rosen’s 1991 work on innovation arguing that it occurs ‘only as fast as the rate at which young officers rise to the top’ (p.110). This is appropriate, and in this regard, this, and his subsequent discussion on the implications of the ‘tribes of airmen’ and existing organisational culture on the integration of RPAs into the USAF is as applicable to other air forces investigating the development of an RPA capability.

An MQ-1B Predator sensor operator assists a MQ-1B pilot in locating simulated targets during a training mission conducted inside the simulators at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada. Both are assigned to the 11th Reconnaissance Squadron, USAF. (Source: US Department of Defense)

The capacity for militaries to adapt organisationally to the opportunities offered by RPAs will also determine the diffusion and proliferation of the capability. This is one of the most important points raised in the book. Drawing on Michael Horowitz’s adoption-capacity theory, Kreuzer predicts the rate of diffusion of RPA technology and the type RPA likely to be developed by states based on the state’s ‘financial intensity and organisational capacity available to implement major military innovations’ compared with their ‘perceived strategic imperative to develop innovation’ (p.157). His prediction is succinctly captured through an analogy with established air power capabilities: ‘it is easier to think of networked RPAs like strategic bombers (which few countries adopted) and tactical RPAs like attack helicopters, which are common worldwide’ (p.5). The organisational and financial costs of acquiring and maintaining networked RPAs creates high barriers to entry for this capability. Unless a state has compelling operational/strategic requirements or is willing to invest in a prestige capability, as some states have done with aircraft carriers, networked RPA proliferation will be limited to only a few states (p.184). Kreuzer’s logic is sound and well-argued; as with all predictions it may eventually prove to be wrong, but his matrix of probable RPA diffusion provides an excellent starting point for the discussion of RPA proliferation.

Overlaying questions of innovation and organisational adaptation is the contribution RPAs make to air warfare. Much has been written and discussed about the impact of RPAs on the conduct of military operations, but the majority of this discussion conflates platform with strategy. As Kreuzer puts it:

Too often, debates over RPAs ignore or write off counterfactual means of military intervention and criticise RPAs for traits that would be similarly exhibited by alternative means of conflict. In many cases, attacking the RPA becomes a substitute for attacking the underlying policy, which is an unnecessary distraction from the real debate which should be made. (Emphasis added) (p.21)

The question of RPAs impact on air power permeates all aspects of the book, which is not surprising given the book’s title; however, the way in which Kreuzer does this provides the book with utility beyond the narrow subject of RPA.

In discussing the importance of RPAs in the realisation of the targeting revolution, Kreuzer explores and analyses the strategic implications of targeted killings and signature strikes. His analysis goes beyond the use of armed RPAs and is just as applicable to the employment of manned platforms. Kreuzer highlights, quite correctly, that the developments of information age air warfare are challenging existing international legal treaties and norms, but to focus solely on RPAs is a distraction as these are issues of modern warfare generally which go beyond the question of having a human in the cockpit. The legality and ethics of these types of operation is a vexed issue, but the book’s treatment is balanced, considered, and informative.

Operationally, the employment of RPAs has already raised several questions relating to sovereignty, and the implications of airspace violations and the subsequent shoot-down of RPAs operating in sovereign or disputed airspace. Recent events in Israel have raised this issue in the public consciousness. Kreuzer’s examination of this topic looks beyond the usual case studies of US operations in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (though these are also discussed) to include RPA operations in the Caucasus and the Middle East. The use of RPAs by Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Hiz’ballah, and their subsequent shoot-downs by the Russians, Armenians, and Israelis respectively, provided test cases for the international community to consider the legal and strategic ramifications of airspace violations by uninhabited systems. The shoot-down of relatively expensive RPAs followed by reprimands from the international community for airspace violations demonstrate that RPAs have not changed the existing norms of airspace sovereignty. This does raise the question of US operations in Pakistan, but this subject is also well covered by Kreuzer.

Finally, Kreuzer addresses one of the perennial problems for airmen which has been exacerbated by the development of RPA: people just don’t get air power.

For all the attention airpower receives in modern war, it remains one of the least understood systems of war for outside observers […] for the average reader with a basic interest in what airpower means the subject is abstract, complex, and often subject to detailed debates about tactics and airframes rather than broader strategic implications. (p.198)

The lesson for air power professionals, scholars, and advocates is clear: more needs to be done to improve the way that air power is explained and articulated to the public. Kreuzer’s book is an excellent example of how this can be done.

Drones and the Future of Air Warfare is a must read for anyone involved in the decision to acquire, develop, and/or employ RPAs as it lays the conceptual foundation which should inform any decision to invest in an RPA capability. It would be wrong, however, to view the book solely as a treatise on RPAs. By placing the subject within their broad operational and organisational context, Kreuzer also provides insightful and informative commentary on military innovation, organisational design, capability development, and air power strategy. Accordingly, Drones and the Future of Air Warfare can rightfully be considered an analysis of the current state and future evolution of air power. It will, therefore, make an excellent addition to any air power professional’s reading list.

Wing Commander Travis Hallen is an Air Combat Officer currently serving as Deputy Director – Air Power Development at the Royal Australian Air Force’s Air Power Development Centre. He is also a Sir Richard Williams Foundation Scholar. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, the Australian Government, or the Williams Foundation. He can be found on Twitter at @Cold_War_MPA.

Header Image: The MQ-4C Triton unmanned aircraft system completes its first flight on 22 May 2013 from the Northrop Grumman manufacturing facility in Palmdale, California. The 80-minute flight successfully demonstrated control systems that allow Triton to operate autonomously. Triton is designed to fly surveillance missions up to 24-hours at altitudes of more than 10 miles, allowing coverage out to 2,000 nautical miles. The system’s advanced suite of sensors can detect and automatically classify different types of ships. (Source: Wikimedia)

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[1] Arash Heydarian Pashakanlou, ‘Air power in humanitarian intervention: Kosovo and Libya in comparative perspective,’ Defence Studies, 18:1 (2018), p. 52.

3 thoughts on “#BookReview – Drones and the Future of Air Warfare: The Evolution of Remotely Piloted Aircraft

  1. Great review, Trav. The cultural issue is an interesting one. Air forces seem to struggle to move beyond the manned pilot paradigm when it comes to promoting new talent. Of course, this is nothing new, and as you have heard me discuss, it is quite apparent when we look at the career trajectories of navigators and other non-pilot aircrews. Hopefully, this will change, but it will take some serious work to see that happen.


    1. Being led by western armies? US Army, British Army and Australian Army do not, and never have, used pilots for Shadow 200, Watchkeeper and Predator/Reaper…


  2. Thanks Trav. A few thoughts:
    Page 1 – The discussion over nomenclature has been running for years. There is definitely friction between technical definition/distinction and a requirement to communicate with non-specialists. In this latter regard, to communicate with the community, the generic term ‘drones’ is absolutely appropriate.
    Page 2 – The discussion over organisational challenges and capacity is important and pertinent in Australia: Does the RAAF have the org capacity?
    Page 3 – The analogy is very clever, and pertinent to RAAF. The one thing that could change this scenario is if barriers could be reduced, and many believe this is coming soon, by AI or cost of ownership.
    Great review and discussion!


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