A Conversation with Jennifer Ramos

Jennifer Ramos, associate professor of political science, studies the causes and consequences of political change, U.S. public opinion and foreign policy, drone warfare, and religion and foreign policy preferences. She is the author of “Changing Norms through Actions: The Evolution of Sovereignty” and teaches in the Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts. We spoke to her about the capabilities of drones and their use in warfare.

When were unmanned aircraft systems — military drones — first deployed and by whom?
Israel first deployed them, and quite successfully, in the 1982 Lebanon War. The United States had the basic technology in the 1990s, using them for surveillance in the Balkans war, but didn’t use armed drones in a context of war until 2002, when they were used to target a terrorist in Yemen after 9/11.

Which countries manufacture drones?
The United States and Israel are the only nations producing high-quality armed drones, which are also available for sale abroad. About 78 nations produce very basic unarmed drones for domestic surveillance. Other countries that have armed drones are China, France, Iran, Nigeria and South Africa; and about 10 are developing armed drones, including Sweden, India and Spain. In February, the United States for the first time authorized the sale of armed drones to allies.

How much do Reaper and Predator drones cost?
The Reaper system costs $55 million and the Predator system $13 million. When considering costs, you have to take into account that these weapons are part of a complex, technologically advanced system, on the ground and in the air. A drone itself is cheaper than a fighter jet, but it’s one part of a costly system that involves a large staff of support personnel.

Is the international sale of military drones tracked as other weapons are?
Sales are being tracked, but it can be difficult to do so.

Would some nations like to keep their possession of drones a secret?
There is prestige attached to having these weapons, so countries are more likely to say they are developing drones. There doesn’t seem to be a stigma attached to possessing them.

Are there any internationally agreed limits on nations acquiring drones?
There are no agreements about the acquisition of drones. In my research with Kerstin Fisk, a visiting professor at LMU, I study whether there are international norms developing among states about the use of these weapons. There does seem to be at least tacit approval of the use of these weapons among nations. But the United Nations and human rights organizations have come out explicitly against the way the United States has used drones, because, they say, we are not in compliance with international law. They argue that the United States uses them outside of declared war zones and for preventive purposes, not pre-emptive — meaning an attack against us is not imminent. And there is concern about how indiscriminate drones are in terms of causing civilian casualties. Governments, on the other hand, say drones are the most discriminating military tools they have.

What does the American public think about the use of drones?
If you look at polls taken as recently as 2014, the majority of the American public supports the use of drones.

What is your greatest concern about the use of drones?
It’s a slippery slope to go from what is supposed to be limited, preventive strikes to a longer-term war. Drones make it easier to become comfortable with preventive self-defense, but we risk becoming overly reliant on drones to achieve our long-term foreign policy goals. Of greatest concern perhaps is that the U.S. is setting an international precedent that will come back to haunt us in the future.