The Platform

The now-retired battleship USS Iowa.

We live in an era of unprecedented global connectivity. With leaps and bounds in technology, this is the first era where the world is at our fingertips often instantaneously. Connectivity, transport, trade, and other factors have become quick and global. Looking back merely a hundred years, things that would take months or weeks can be achieved in moments. This has brought us to a new position concerning how we look at geopolitics.

Due to how interconnected the world is, and the nature of the modern, post-Cold War world that is characterized by a lack of direct conflict between major powers, power projection and external application of influence have become integral. Unlike the previous centuries, and leaving aside the war in Ukraine, major industrial wars between global or regional powers have become almost obsolete.

Today, most geopolitical actions and use of force are enforced through indirect means such as hybrid warfare. Methods such as carrying out surgical or targeted strikes on specific targets, supporting proxies, conducting electronic attacks, and concentrated bombings are the main avenues of power projection.

Along with this, we have seen an immense rise in drone warfare technology, which has brought the focus to the unmanned sphere as the main method to engage in the use of force with plausible deniability.

In previous centuries, power projection was often achieved through naval dominance, and through large fleets and battleships roving the seas, able to reach locations and apply force without necessitating immense economic, military, or political expenditure. Today, this mantle has been taken up by air power and drones.

It has exponentially increased the speed and reach of operations. It is imperative for geopolitical actors today to understand and not ignore the changes that have come to the use of force and power projection, both because of increases in technology as well as the changing face of politics and war.

Today, drones, missiles, and planes have taken up the place that ships and fleets held a hundred years ago. The further we go into the 21st century, the further aerial technology, especially aerial warfare technology develops. The further we go into the 21st century, the further warfare changes, the more peacetime, and wartime get muddled, and conventional warfare seems unattractive.

Along with this, the amount of international cooperation or involvement of powers such as more overseas military bases have increased the reach for such power projection and unconventional warfare. To better understand how to utilize the new prospects brought about by the 21st century, we can look into the past, and how power projection evolved with naval technology. We can take lessons from the past to see how drones can add to the uses of air power in geopolitics.

To understand this, we must go back to the 19th century, and look at the idea of gunboat diplomacy. At the time, the seas were the best option for states for long-term transport outside territorial bounds. The seas were what facilitated trade and connected the world, and for a large part, the former still applies. Hence, for many great powers, a major method for projecting power and achieving geopolitical goals either without or with minimal use of force was a substantial navy. Gunboats, battleships, and dreadnaughts were used by many of the great powers of the time to achieve foreign policy objectives.

USS Pennsylvania in January 1945
USS Pennsylvania in January 1945.

Gunboat diplomacy specifically refers to the idea of pursuing foreign policy objectives, backed by the implicit threat of force which is applied through the use of naval actions. The term refers to the idea of using naval fleets as threats that can be acted on, to achieve foreign policy goals.

This harkens back to a time before international cooperation and when the bullying of weaker states was considered acceptable. We should by no means try to emulate or implement such policies as they were fundamentally wrong. But we can learn how they were formulated and how they were attempted to understand how we can use our newer technology.

The modern-day situation with drones and air power is not too different from the situation with navies, where better naval military technology allowed powers to apply force. With drones and modern air power, similarly, states gain a greater reach and area where they can project power. They can apply air power faster, cheaper, with more precision, and with more plausible deniability through drones and guided munitions.

This is to an extent a parallel to the situation which spawned gunboat diplomacy. States will attempt to utilize these new factors to improve conventional military capabilities, but the utility of such technology for actually limiting military conflict and achieving policy goals through force projection should not be ignored.

Even in the maritime sphere, drones have become important tools for both conventional and unconventional actions. American armed forces have been using naval drones for reconnaissance purposes and have made leaps and bounds in their applications. Ukrainian forces have used drones to great effect to inflict heavy casualties on Russia including helping sink the Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.

The importance of naval drones can be seen through the fact that Iran recently intercepted and detained two American naval drones, releasing them after a while. Their importance to intelligence gathering as well as their potential value to militaries can be seen through the fact that Iran attempted to capture and hold these. It would be in their interest to try to reverse engineer the drones to find similar technology for themselves. Naval drones can be used for reconnaissance, targeting as well as direct attacks on vessels.

What drones have in common with gunboat diplomacy is the fact that they give a large reach of operation, allowing a high proportion of force to be applied away from the source of origin at a relatively low cost with plausible deniability. Drones are a constant hovering threat, with a high reach being able to operate far without needing much in terms of a base. They do not require as much maintenance as planes, they are cheaper, they are surgical, and they don’t involve putting your own soldiers in danger.

These factors are extremely attractive for actors looking for low-cost methods to project force. New technologies have provided a greater reach at a fraction of the cost. Drone technology gets cheaper and better as time passes, with new ideas and technology revolving around “drone swarms” coming into the picture. This refers to groups of multiple drones set for an operation who communicate and coordinate among themselves to swarm the opposing force.

This has many uses in power projection as it allows a group of cheap small drones to perform actions like targeted strikes or recon, due to their numerous and connected nature. Current anti-drone technology does not work well against such a setup although it will soon catch up.

Drones are the future of power projection, and their use for this purpose should not be ignored in face of other, more conventional military uses.

Prathamesh Yemul is an avid reader and writer, and an admirer of classical music like Vivaldi and Mozart. He completed a Bachelor's degree in Political Science, and is aiming at pursuing a Master's degree in International Relations or Strategic Studies. He loves to read and speculate about geopolitics and international affairs.