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Cheap Fights, Credible Threats: The Future of Armed Drones and Coercion

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Document pages: 41 pages

Abstract: Could armed drones ever coerce adversaries rather than kill them? At first glance, lethal unmanned aerial systems appear to be poor coercion tools. Today’s drones lack speed, stealth, and defensive capabilities to operate in hostile air environments. And while coercion theory has long held that costly threats make the most credible threats, drones are low cost weapons – posing no risks to the warfighter and enjoying high levels of domestic political support. This article challenges the conventional wisdom, finding that current drones offer three unique coercion advantages: sustainability in an era where conflicts are growing longer and less conclusive; certainty of precision punishment which can change the psychology of adversaries; and dramatic differences in the relative costs of war when a drone state seeks to coerce a drone-less state adversary. Moreover, next generation armed drones already under development will soon be able to substitute low-cost fighting – even in contested airspace – for high-cost signaling. The article probes the plausibility of these credibility mechanisms, as well as the costly signals rationale, with a unique survey of 259 foreign military officers. While a small sample, the survey is the first to directly examine how those charged with issuing and assessing coercive threats determine their credibility. Findings suggest that costly signals are less credible than theorists assume, that armed drones are considered just as effective as ground troops in some coercion situations, and that drones demonstrate resolve precisely because they offer the capacity for low cost fighting.

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