Military Innovation

If you are interested in the ongoing research I am doing on military innovation, especially including robotics, drones, autonomous weapon systems, and related topics, this page catalogs my ongoing research in this area. It separates that research into longer papers designed for academic outlets and shorter-form pieces.

Longer-form articles

The possibility that today’s drones could become tomorrow’s killer robots has attracted the attention of people around the world. Scientists and business leaders from Stephen Hawking to Elon Musk recently signed a letter urging the world to ban autonomous weapons. Part of the argument against these systems is that they violate the public conscience provision of the Martens Clause due to public opposition, making them illegal under international law. What, however, does the US public think of these systems? Existing research suggests widespread US public opposition, but only asked people about support for autonomous weapons in a vacuum. This paper uses two survey experiments to test the conditions in which public opposition rises and falls. The results demonstrate that public opposition to autonomous weapons is contextual. Fear of other countries or non-state actors developing these weapons makes the public significantly more supportive of developing them. The public also becomes much more willing to actually use autonomous weapons when their use would protect US forces. Beyond contributing to ongoing academic debates about casualty aversion, the microfoundations of foreign policy, and weapon systems, these results suggest the need for modesty when making claims about how the public views new, unknown, technologies such as autonomous weapons

There is growing concern in some quarters that the drones used by the United States and others represent precursors to the further automation of military force through the use of lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS). These weapons, though they do not generally exist today, have already been the subject of multiple discussions at the United Nations. Do autonomous weapons raise unique ethical questions for warfare, with implications for Just War Theory? This paper describes and assesses the ongoing debate, focusing on the ethical implications of whether autonomous weapons can operate effectively, whether human accountability and responsibility for autonomous weapon systems is possible, and whether delegating life and death decisions to machines inherently undermines human dignity. It concludes that the category of LAWS is extremely broad and it may make sense to separate LAWS into three categories: munitions, platforms, and operational systems.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), more popularly known as “drones,” have become emblematic of 21st century military technologies. Yet scholars have yet to convincingly explain the drivers of UAV proliferation. This article makes sense of the intensifying global interest in UAV technology. We develop and present initial evidence on four theoretical arguments for why countries pursue UAVs, utilizing a new comprehensive dataset on UAV proliferation. Our data underscore the vital importance of understanding drone proliferation: 87 countries have some UAV capability, 23 possess more sophisticated drones, and 30 have armed UAV programs. Our analysis reveals some important findings. First, countries that experience security threats – including territorial disputes and terrorism – are more likely to seek UAVs. Second, prestige-seeking countries are especially likely to obtain tactical UAVs, but prestige is less relevant for acquiring more sophisticated drones. Third, we find a “U-shaped” relationship between a state’s regime and the spread of armed UAV programs, suggesting that autocracies and democracies have their own unique incentives to acquire this technology. Fourth, supply-side factors play a major role in the UAV proliferation process. A state’s level of technological sophistication and its alliance relationships with major suppliers are strong predictors of unarmed drone proliferation. The theories and evidence presented in this article challenge emerging wisdoms about UAV proliferation, and shed useful light on how and why drones spread.

What are the consequences of drone proliferation for the international security environment? Despite extensive discussions in the policy world concerning drone strikes for counterterrorism purposes, myths about the capabilities and implications of current-generation drones often outstrip reality. This paper separates fact from fiction by examining the effects of UAVs in six different contexts — counterterrorism, interstate conflict, crisis onset and deterrence, coercive diplomacy, domestic control and repression, and use by non-state actors for the purposes of terrorism. We show that, while current-generation drones introduce some unique capabilities into conflicts around the world, they are also unlikely to produce the dire consequences that some fear. In particular, drone proliferation carries potentially significant consequences for counterterrorism operations and domestic control in authoritarian regimes. Drones could also enhance monitoring in disputed territories, potentially leading to greater stability. However, given their technical limitations, current-generation drones are unlikely to have a large impact on interstate warfare. Our analysis has important implications for a range of policy issues, including the management of regional disputes, the regulation of drone exports, and defense against potential terrorist attacks on the homeland.

  • Military Robotics, Autonomous Systems, and the Future of Military Effectiveness (under review as book chapter in edited volume, email for draft)

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), more popularly known as “drones,” have become emblematic of 21st century military technologies. Yet scholars have yet to convincingly explain the drivers of UAV proliferation. This article makes sense of the intensifying global interest in UAV technology. We develop and present initial evidence on four theoretical arguments for why countries pursue UAVs, utilizing a new comprehensive dataset on UAV proliferation. Our data underscore the vital importance of understanding drone proliferation: 87 countries have some UAV capability, 23 possess more sophisticated drones, and 30 have armed UAV programs. Our analysis reveals some important findings. First, countries that experience security threats – including territorial disputes and terrorism – are more likely to seek UAVs. Second, prestige-seeking countries are especially likely to obtain tactical UAVs, but prestige is less relevant for acquiring more sophisticated drones. Third, we find a “U-shaped” relationship between a state’s regime and the spread of armed UAV programs, suggesting that autocracies and democracies have their own unique incentives to acquire this technology. Fourth, supply-side factors play a major role in the UAV proliferation process. A state’s level of technological sophistication and its alliance relationships with major suppliers are strong predictors of unarmed drone proliferation. The theories and evidence presented in this article challenge emerging wisdoms about UAV proliferation, and shed useful light on how and why drones spread.

Shorter-Form Articles