The changing face of warfare: why Nato needs to talk about unmanned combat drones

Alliance cannot ignore the development of aircraft capable of homing in on fixed targets

UNSPECIFIED - DECEMBER 16: The first Turkish military drone lands at Gecitkale Airport on December 16, 2019. Bayraktar TB2 armed unmanned aerial vehicles, stationed at Naval Air Base Command in Turkey's Aegean district of Dalaman, landed in TRNC at 10 a.m. (0700GMT) following a green light from the government of the country. (Photo by Muhammed Enes Yildirim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The development of unmanned combat drones by leading nations must be addressed by Nato, academics and defence analysts say.

Alliance chiefs are scheduled to meet on Monday, and while the subject of armed drones programmed with artificial intelligence may not be high on the agenda, it cannot be ignored for much longer.

Countries such as Turkey, Russia, Britain, China and the US are developing unmanned aircraft that can select humans or fixed military targets and launch missiles without a living being's command.

That creates moral, legal and strategic questions.

Although the communique is likely to welcome Washington's re-engagement with the alliance and condemn Nato's adversaries, defence analysts told The National the drone issue needs to be discussed.

ANKARA, TURKEY - AUGUST 24: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) receives US Vice-President Joe Biden (L) at Presidential Complex in Ankara, Turkey on August 24, 2016. (Photo by Kayhan Ozer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

“Autonomous armed drones are absolutely something that Nato can't ignore any more,” Dr Julie Norman of University College London said.

“From what we’ve heard, it's something that's going to be a part of the conversation. Leaders are looking at the Nato 2030 initiative with a view to the new technological changes and threats.”

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Putin will very much want to see what's going on behind Biden's eyes<br/> Dr Alan Mendoza

The ease with which Turkey's Bayraktar TB2 unmanned aircraft took out Syrian tanks and Armenian armour last year was an "eye-popping" evolution on the battlefield, defence analyst Prof Michael Clarke told The National.

“Armed drones are a serious issue and their success has done Turkey's military reputation no end of good. But it has also started to change the balance of thinking about ground forces in Europe.”

One problem is that not all Nato partners favour autonomous war machines, and Germany in particular has taken a hard line.

Jack Watling, of the Royal United Services Institute think tank, said the Germans were locking themselves out of a system that could take out enemy radars and missiles.

“But for how long the Germans can hold their current position is debatable,” he said.

What can Biden do about Turkey?

Turkey, which has more armed drones than the rest of Nato except for the US, provides the alliance with its biggest challenges.

US President Joe Biden hopes to address the country's foreign ventures and disputes with fellow Nato members at a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Geneva, Switzerland, on Wednesday.

But there might be little he can do, one analyst said.

“Realistically, there are very few options you've got within the alliance as to how you deal with a member that's behaving badly,” Dr Alan Mendoza, a Henry Jackson Society director.

“Essentially, Nato doesn't really know how to deal with a member that's pulling in Turkey’s direction.”

Resolving this Turkish question will be one of many tasks for Mr Biden as he seeks to restore unity to an alliance battered by former president Donald Trump's actions that undermined European confidence in the US as a steadfast ally.

Mr Biden is not soft, ordering the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and continuing to press for greater European defence spending.

“There have been strong messages to Europe that Biden is not going to be a pushover just because he's not Trump,” Prof Clarke said, a view with which Dr Mendoza agreed.

“It turns out that Biden isn't as munificent as the Europeans would have hoped,” he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will have the opportunity to size the US leader up after his dominant relationship with Mr Trump.

Mr Biden is likely to continue his robust approach in questioning Russia’s continued cyber attacks, Ukraine skirmishes and human rights abuses.

“Putin will very much want to see what's going on behind Biden’s eyes, because all sorts of things occur when two world leaders of substantial weight meet,” Dr Mendoza said.

“If Biden is prepared to give a strong message and say: ‘Look, I don't want conflict but if you're prepared to foist conflict upon us we will respond in a very strong way’, that may send a message to Putin that this guy, unlike the last, is a bit more serious towards me. Maybe that will temper his behaviour.”

The US could attempt to keep Russia’s arms mission in check with a view to resurrecting the intermediate missile arms treaty.

“The Biden administration is going to be much harder on Russia than Trump was ever prepared to be,” Prof Clarke said.

Perhaps Mr Putin will retort with a pointed remark on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, with the Taliban ascendant despite 20 years of war. It will certainly be an issue Nato addresses because, by September 11, its 7,500 troops will have departed alongside 2,500 US soldiers.

epa09261536 View of the interior of the Villa la Grange during a press visit, in Geneva, Switzerland, 11 June 2021. The 'Villa La Grange' is the official venue for the meeting between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva, scheduled for 16 June.  EPA/MARTIAL TREZZINI

“What comes next in Afghanistan will be very important ... will it still be a formal Nato mission or something more flexible?” said Sarah Raine of the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank in London.

“Until the US has clarified its plans in Afghanistan, it will be very hard to get concrete measures in place.”

She said China, which is in "Nato’s area interest in multiple different ways”, would also be addressed in the communique, possibly with some hostility.

In the broader picture, the issue of autonomous armed drones will not take centre stage but it cannot be ignored for much longer, the experts said, because they are a significant feature in the changing face of warfare.

“We will sharpen our technological edge,” Jens Stoltenberg, Nato’s Secretary General, promised on Friday without referring to drones.

He said that the summit would agree an ambitious agenda with decisions taken on the “operational domains of cyber and space”.

"We should also see Nato focus on cyber attacks, cyber security, sharpening its technological edge and awareness of the changing nature of threats, especially from China and Russia," Dr Norman said.

“Nato just needs to look at what the future of war or peace is,” Dr Mendoza said. “How do you preserve the peace? Because those are the big questions that Nato hasn't been very good at addressing of late.”

He said Nato's relevance was through its ability to “stand up for its members in the face of aggression” and get the best equipment “to maintain the quality of edge and to make sure that others are attracted to its side of the argument rather than those of its adversaries”.

Central for Nato, and more importantly for Mr Biden before he meets Mr Putin and enters into discussions on the Iran nuclear agreement, will be presenting a united front.

“This Nato communique is an important one,” Prof Clarke said. “Biden is very vigorous, behaving like a young president and a man in a hurry for all sorts of reasons. The Americans are absolutely committed to Nato, but only if the Europeans really step up and Biden won’t allow them to remain cosy.”

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