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The role of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (drones) in US grand strategy

This Ph.D. thesis examines the role of drones in US grand strategy based on their use by successive US administrations post 9/11 in 'targeted states' (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya) in pursuant of different typologies of grand strategies. Since 9/11, drones have been used for targeted killing operations and for dismantling terrorist organizations. However, while drones on the battlefield present tactical benefits and are attractive to modern militaries and political decision-makers, their use has several unintended consequences. These include the negative impact in targeted states, destabilizing international politics and, undermining US strategic objectives. These are real problems that have not been adequately explored in the existing literature on the topic. To address this gap, the overarching research question of the thesis investigates how drones support or undermine US grand strategy. In doing so, the thesis attempts to determine the broader strategic ramifications of drone use for US grand strategy beyond their short-term tactical relevance. Furthermore, it probes the political and strategic goals they supposedly advance and the consequences of drone proliferation for US strategic objectives at the national and global level. The thesis draws on publicly available data sets on drone strikes in targeted states since 9/11. It utilizes the international relations theories of realism, liberalism, and security dilemma theory to explain drone use and their intersection with US grand strategy. To examine the research questions, the utility and impact of drones in facilitating the grand strategy of successive US administrations before and after 9/11 are analyzed. Case analyses of the aftermath of drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan are undertaken, and the impact of continued drone diffusion among state and non-state actors is assessed. The thesis finds that continued use of drones by the US as a central counterterrorism tactic and an offensive war strategy in targeted states undermines US grand strategy. It does so by creating contradictory outcomes: on the one hand, it eliminates terrorists, but on the other, it causes anti-Americanism, the death of non-combatants, and generates unintended blowback. The significance of this thesis is that it supports the contention that the tactical use of drones has strategic ramifications that serve to undermine US grand strategy in the long term. These speak to a broader point about the evolving nature of modern warfare and its intersection with powerful emerging technologies. As these new technologies are integrated into warfighting and come to play an ever-larger role in statecraft, there needs to be a much more robust assessment and debate about their long-term strategic implications.
Type of thesis
Okpaleke, F. N. (2021). The role of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (drones) in US grand strategy (Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)). The University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10289/14539
The University of Waikato
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