One Nation, Under Drones Cover

One Nation, Under Drones

Legality, Morality, and Utility of Unmanned Combat Systems

Edited by John E. Jackson

Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 2018, 256 pages

Book Review published on: May 3, 2019

In his cleverly titled work One Nation, Under Drones, Capt. John E. Jackson (U.S. Navy, retired) draws on his years of unmanned system experience and assembles a notable group of civilian and military experts in the fields of law, morality, military affairs, and tactics to provide contemporary insights into the embryonic challenges of the drone era. The book’s thesis is to thoroughly “develop the most current awareness of how these revolutionary systems are reshaping the legal, ethical, and operational nature of both war and peace.” The authors focus sufficient discussion on the history of unmanned systems and the effects of drones on the military domains of air and land.

What sets this book apart from others is the outstanding depth devoted in almost half of the book to the legal and ethical dilemmas of autonomous armed drones (AAD) pertaining to the current laws of war, laws of armed conflict, national sovereignty, freedom of navigation, and international human rights. Each of the authors thoroughly discusses the legal and ethical aspects that are gaining international consensus as well as debating those aspects that are disagreed on.

Autonomous armed drones that can select and engage targets without human involvement will have an enormous impact on the conduct of hostilities and change the laws of armed conflict. They can potentially create situations where humans are not deciding who, how, what, or when to fire on a target.

The AAD dilemma is particularly fascinating when applied to “sea ethics,” of which the authors assert “there is only a modest body of literature to date.” An AAD may be taught how to distinguish another vessel as enemy, friendly, or neutral, but will it distinguish an enemy vessel suddenly being used as a temporary hospital ship? It is unmistakably a war crime to fire on a vessel that has clearly surrendered, yet it is uncertain how an AAD would react when the enemy suddenly surrenders or when it is floating but so damaged it is no longer a threat. Even if the damaged ship has not surrendered officially, it is ethically wrong to fire on it.

Chapter author Holland Michel details how the maritime domain is set for a “development explosion.” He stresses, “No naval vision document can pass top brass muster without mention of small and large autonomous drone needs.” He highlights the proliferating global maritime drone technology as well. China is purportedly pursuing an “underwater Great Wall.” China’s 2015 and 2016 white papers stated “the world’s RMA [revolution in military affairs] is proceeding to a new level, as unmanned weapons and equipment are becoming increasingly sophisticated.” The white papers highlighted China’s breakthroughs in its “development of artificial intelligence and swarm drone technology.”

One Nation, Under Drones is recommended reading for all scholars, students, and military analysts to appreciate and debate. It is an up-to-date, well-researched body of work on the history and exponential progress from remotely piloted aerial systems to autonomous armed drones across the air, land, and sea domains, as well as on civilian applications in the United States. The sole criticism of the book is the lack of dialogue regarding the other domains, specifically space and cyber. Nonetheless, the authors unquestionably present compelling debates to the legal and ethical challenges for not only the United States but for international leaders as well.

Book Review written by: Col. Joe Judge III, U.S. Army, Retired, Redstone Arsenal, Alabama