Palmer Debates the Ethics of Drones

By Marianne Hause, April 5, 2024                                                          

In 1579, when the poet John Lyly wrote, “the rules of fair play do not apply in love and war,” was he right? Is all fair in war? Dylan Palmer ’24, a computer science major at Virginia Military Institute, considered the dilemma when he presented his honors thesis, “Drone Countermeasures, Ethics, and Drones’ Effects on a Modern Battlefield.”

According to Palmer, the nature of unmanned systems inherently reduces the risk to operators conducting missions during wartime. “Drones are put into combat situations because they can be operated remotely, and can execute missions without putting forward expensive human operators into very dangerous situations. Drones have the great advantage of being a cost effective and incredibly potent weapon in wartime. With the increase in technology and 3D printing, drones have become more lightweight and smaller. There has been a massive increase in the use of small drone airframes provided to soldiers, and can lift the omnipresent fog of war,” he said.  

All drones can execute very powerful strikes, and reduce the risk of collateral damage because the weapon system also conducts its own reconnaissance. Just like any technology with their greater implementation, there are questions of legality, strategy, and ethics that must be answered.

The use of drones in the modern battlefield has grown to greater numbers never before seen, as in the Azerbaijani-Armenian war, the Russo-Ukrainian war, and the Israel-Hamas war. Palmer focused primarily on the Russo-Ukrainian war for his research. “The use of drones is a necessity for a conventional war to be conducted, but it is not a sufficient capability for achieving victory in a contemporary conflict. Drones can’t take territory on their own, but they can work with humans to take territory, neutralize combatants, and have a greater effect on the battlefield with less casualties,” he stated.

Commercial drones have been used by both Russia and Ukraine during the conflict, introducing a new way of viewing air littoral, the airspace from the ground up to 500 feet. Before the use of small drones, the only aircraft that flew in the air literal were helicopters for air assault missions. “Now with the proliferation of drones in this in this airspace, it has created a minefield in the sky. It’s very hard to come for runways to deploy military aircraft without drones being an issue. Drones have been used to destroy aircraft on the ground, and helicopters and other low-flying aircraft are experiencing greater risk,” said Palmer.

There are three primary NATO categorizations of drones based on weight, payload capacity, and range of action: contact drones less than 150 kg; tactical drones from 150-600 kg; attack, strategic and operational drones over 600 kg. Common uses of drones in the Russo-Ukrainian and the Israel-Hamas wars are loitering and munitions. These drones conduct their own reconnaissance, can loiter in an area for a certain period of time, then are destroyed. They are packed with explosives, focused on taking out small targets as well as people as a massive morale hit to the enemy. They are commonly known as kamikaze or suicide drones.

With the proliferation of drones all across the world, there needs to be drone countermeasures. Counter-Unmanned Aircraft Systems (C-UAS) are used to detect and/or disable unmanned aircraft. Palmer estimates there may be up to 1,000 of these systems currently in service. C-UAS use many different methods to detect, track, identify, and interdict drones, including radar, radio frequency, electro-optical, infrared, acoustic, laser, high power microwave, nets, and projectiles. Most C-UAS are limited in their range and abilities, so capabilities must be layered, which can be expensive.  

With the implementation of almost any technology, ethics must be considered. Should drones face the same legal scrutiny as any other conventional weapons? Palmer concluded, yes. While the technological advances of drones increase the probability of success and decrease the risk of collateral damage, total risk can never be eliminated. Drones have become a necessary feature of war, and change the way wars are fought. 

Palmer’s research advisor, Amish Parikh, instructor in the Department of Computer and Information Sciences, stated that drone technology has expanded across the board. “Dylan did an excellent job of examining the distinct aspects of drone capabilities, including the recent addition of carrying munitions for kamikaze operations,” stated Parikh. 

Palmer is the son of Jewel and Bill Palmer of Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. He attended Fishburne Military School (Class of 2020 graduate) in Waynesboro, Virginia, and will be commissioning into the U.S. Army after graduation.