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Game of Drones: The Effect of Technology on Conflict Onset and Initiation

Fri, September 1, 10:00 to 11:30am, Hilton Union Square, Golden Gate 1


What effect do drones have on the likelihood of conflict onset and escalation? More broadly, what characteristics of military technology exacerbate or stabilize escalatory spirals? Despite the rapid proliferation of drones, existing literature has not examined whether dominant theories of conflict onset and escalation remain valid as unmanned weapons become increasingly common in arsenals around the world. Drawing from a series of original survey experiments and over 70 interviews with military and civilian decision-makers from a dozen countries, this paper challenges current logics of conflict onset and escalation. Existing theories that link technology with conflict dynamics argue that conflict is more likely when technologies make warfare easier, overlooking characteristics of emerging military technologies that can promote stability. The interviews and survey experiments suggest that drones may provide a new currency for coercive diplomacy and military action by making it easier for a state to use force, while at the same time avoiding significant escalation.

On one hand, drones may increase the use of force by removing political barriers to military operations. States on the receiving end of drone missions may also be more apt to attack drones than manned assets as doing so enables states to challenge rivals without hurting an opponent’s military personnel, minimizing the risks of retaliation. At the same time, technologies – like drones – that allow an actor to overcome information asymmetries or offer a more precise alternative to traditional military operations may help limit escalation, even if the new weapons reduce the perceived costs of waging war. Further, attacks on drones are less likely to cause escalation because attacking a machine does not endanger a state’s military personnel. These findings raise questions about policy discourse that describes drones as inherently destabilizing.

The paper begins by identifying limitations in current theories that attempt to explain the effect of technology on conflict onset and escalation. Next, the paper draws from an innovative mixed-methods approach that combines rich interview material with experimental data to identify characteristics of technology that shape escalatory dynamics, helping to clarify and expand existing theories. The paper then tests these modified theories using case studies of military drone use by the United States and Israel.