The Political Effects of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) on Conflict and Cooperation Within and Between States

Principle Investigator

Professor Nicholas Wheeler

Research Institution

University of Birmingham

Project Summary

The approach adopted by the US government in its cross-border counterterrorist campaigns of RPA [UAV] strikes is ethically and legally problematic, and we do not see a role for it in UK RPA use

Birmingham Policy Commission, October 2014

The Political Effects of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) on Conflict and Cooperation Within and Between States project has used comparative case studies of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen to explore how the use of UAVs has shaped the propensities for intra- and inter-state conflict. In particular, the project examined whether the use of drones has had any impact on the possibilities for achieving a negotiated settlement of conflicts in the three countries considered.

The project generated a number of key findings, including:

  • The use of UAVs does not have a significant impact on either the initiation or the failure of intra-state peace processes;
  • The covert nature of the US UAV campaign in Pakistan has aggravated state-society distrust and undermined the credibility of elected civilian governments;
  • UAV strikes kill more civilians than combatants in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and contribute to economic hardship, disruption of daily life, and psychological stress;
  • The covert nature of UAV campaigns precludes any state compensation for collateral damage, destruction of property, and loss of livelihood, thereby aiding militant recruitment;
  • The US UAV campaign in Pakistan has increased anti-US sentiment in the general public in tribal and settled areas. UAV attacks add substantially to the misery of the people already suffering at the hands of militant violence and Pakistan military bombardments in FATA. The people of Waziristan have an especially negative view of US-Pakistan cooperation over UAV attacks;
  • The use of UAVs does not have any direct impact on inter-state relations;
  • There is no evidence to suggest that UAV strikes in Yemen increase terrorist recruitment, support, or attacks; and
  • Open source data has been misinterpreted, leading to miscalculations of the number of attacks, collateral damage, and casualties.


As part of the project, Professor Wheeler and his team submitted evidence to both the House of Commons Defence Committee and to the enquiry on Remote Control: Remotely Piloted Air Systems Current and Future UK Use.

Further to this, the Birmingham Policy Commission Report on the Security Impact of Drones, chaired by Sir David Omand, the first UK Security and Intelligence Coordinator and a former Director of GCHQ, was launched at the Royal United Services Institute in October 2014.

Since then, the Birmingham Policy Commission Report has been cited in a number of documents, including:

  • a parliamentary Early Day Motion on 6 November, which called on the Government to distinguish UK from US practice and protect UK personnel;
  • a question lodged in the European Parliament on 7 November 2014;
  • a press release issued by Article 36 on 14 November 2014 to coincide with the annual meeting of the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons; and
  • a letter to Philip Hammond MP, co-signed by Sir David Omand, calling on the government to consider disclosing the guidance relating the sharing and use of UK intelligence in terms of individuals who are at risk of targeted lethal strikes outside traditional battlefields.

Contact Information

For further information email Professor Wheeler at