The expansive use of armed unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV), or ‘drones’,
by the United States over the past decade has occurred within a particular strategic
context characterized by irregular warfare operations in permissive environments.
Ongoing strategic, ethical and moral debates regarding specific uses of drones may
well be overtaken by a new generation of armed combat drones able to survive and
operate in contested airspace with design elements such as stealth and greater levels
of machine autonomy. These design parameters, and the likely strategic context
within which second generation UCAVs will be deployed, suggest a fundamentally
different set of missions from those performed by the current generation
of drones. The most beneficial characteristic of current unmanned systems has
been the ability to combine persistent surveillance with the delivery of small
precision-guided munitions. With a shift to more contested environments, this
type of armed surveillance mission may become less practical and second generation
UCAVs will instead focus on high intensity warfare operations. These new
systems may have significant implications for deterrence, force doctrine and the
conduct of warfare.