Drones series, Part V. The biopolitics of drone warfare

By Daniel Møller Ølgaard:


The current debate on armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones, focuses mostly on legal implications and moral implications of their use. Issues such as civilian deaths, as well as the strategic implications and tactical advantages of drones are reigning supreme in the academic and public discussions. Yet these examinations fail to look at the wider implications of drone warfare. Through the prism of ‘biopolitics’, we can expose how war and governance is transformed and how increasingly life itself comes to be categorized and populations come to be controlled through the use of armed UAV’s.

A Biopolitical Understanding of War

With the emergence of a liberal paradigm, where the right of the individual trumps the rights of the sovereign, a global system of liberal governance is changing the way in which war is conducted. This has been characterized as the ‘liberal peace project’, and is associated widely with Kant’s notion of perpetual peace through the pursuit of cosmopolitan values.

As such, the concept of war is changing. Today, according to Derek Gregory, ‘vulnerabilities are differentially distributed but widely dispersed, and in consequence … late modern war is being changed by the slippery spaces through which it is conducted’.[i] As we enter a ‘global state of war’ where threats to liberal life are indeed seen as omnipresent, political and technological measures of control aimed at categorizing bodies and dividing populations become the basic principle of liberal governance in securing populations.

In drawing on Foucault’s notion of ‘biopolitics’, this form of control can be examined in terms of power directed at the control of populations; a ‘governmentality’ that works through the promise of protecting life rather than threatening it. As a consequence, ‘biopolitics is the pursuit of war by other means'[ii] and is weaved into all layers of socio-political action on an increasingly global scale.

To perform this, the state apparatus of modern liberal states are, according to Julian Reid and Michael Dillon, ‘comprised of techniques that examine the detailed properties and dynamics of populations so that they can be better managed with respect to their many needs and life chances’.[iii] Yet, in order to enhance life, the principal task of liberal governance must first be to define life along the line of those who are to be protected and those who are deemed threats.

The Virtue of the Drone

Several authors have pointed to an emerging drone strategy that, rather than identifying ‘known’ individuals from personal characteristics, focuses on examining, characterizing, dividing and targeting certain patterns of life as threatening. These signature strikes are performed on the basis of the movement of bodies. For example, simply being approached by suspected Taliban members can make you a target of drone strikes.[iv] This clearly indicates a move away from the official US emphasis on drones as tools to eliminate identified individuals, to a strategy ‘which takes as its target potential rather than actual risks’.[v] Characteristically, in defining legitimate targets for drone strikes outside of war zones the US defines combatants as all military-age males killed in a strike zone unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

Consequently, for Shaw, ‘dangerous signatures or patterns of life are assessed on their very potential to become dangerous’.[vi] Anyone in the proximity of a suspected threat is in essence targetable, and as the focus shifts from known threats to potential risks, everyone in essence becomes a potential subject to surveillance, control and punishment. It is here the drone most clearly emerges as a ‘technology of control’, that directs it power at groups and populations on a wider scale, rather than the individual body. The population subjected to its power is transformed from corporeal, fleshy bodies to sets of digital data that are categorized, catalogued and evaluated. In this way, life comes to be life as information; a mass of data on maps of movement rather than fleshy bodies.

In fact, it is the very lack of the human, both in terms of the digitisation of the body of the victim, but also specifically the lack of a pilot, that renders the drone a tool of a ‘clean’ war where the operator is situated in another space, free from the fog of war[vii] and is thus rendered less likely to fall short to human error. This is clearly reminiscent of Foucault’s notion of biopower that hides its use of violence and ‘gives to the power to inflict legal punishment a context in which it appears to be free of all excess and violence’.[viii]

Drones, Discipline and Global Governance

Yet, rather than punishing and targeting threats with the aim of integrating them into the global state of liberal governance, it seems that the drones are a tool to patrol and control; preventing threatening life from entering the global. What makes the drone so significant to how power and governance is imposed globally is its role as a technology of control that is in a sense enforcing a global liberal governmentality; a technology that is comprised of biopolitical techniques that examines, divides, and seeks to control populations through a promise of enhancing life for those living outside the targeted areas.

In essence, drones can be said to perform what Vivienne Jabri has characterized as ‘policing access to the modern’[ix] and to pre-empt threatening life from entering space deemed ‘safe’. Drawing on Foucault, one might even characterize the armed drones as a manifestation of the late modern Panopticon, a conceptualization of the omnipresent ‘tower of control’ patrolling the distant borderlands. This form of governance works not only through kinetic violence; it utilizes fear and anxiety that spreads through the population of the targeted areas. It does not impose control exclusively through death, but rather through the constant potentiality of death. In this way, areas such as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan are moving ever closer to a space of total control. Here, to quote Foucault, in ‘this enclosed, segmented space … in which each individual figure is constantly located, examined and distributed’ a ‘compact model of the disciplinary mechanism’ is formed.[x] Except, in the case of drones, the surveillance of each individual figure becomes biopolitical as the tools of control are focused on life as mass rather than on individual bodies. Areas such as the FATA becomes sites of assessment and control, visible tropes of biopolitical power that focus on dividing the global population through technologies of control, to impose governance on a massive, global scale.

The drone, rather than a mere weapon, is a biopolitical tool aimed just as much at examining populations as it is killing individuals. The armed drone has both the capabilities and the (biopolitical) agency to categorize, catalogue and kill bodies,and its violence directed at ‘them’ is masked behind the promise to enhance life for ‘us’. As such, the conditions and capabilities for examining, categorizing and dividing bodies on an increasingly global scale are greatly enhanced with the emergence of the drone as a tool of war.



Daniel Møller Ølgaard is an MA candidate at the Department of War Studies. He is a former intern with the Foreign Affairs Spokesperson of the largest Danish government party, and writes for the Danish political magazine RÆSON (www.raeson.dk). His research focuses broadly on poststructuralist theory and international politics with a special focus on resistance movement


[i]Derek Gregory, ‘The Everywhere War’, The Geographical Journal, Vol. 177, No. 3 (2011), p. 239.
[ii]Michael Dillon & Julian Reid, ‘Global Liberal Governance: Biopolitics, Security and War’, Millennium – Journal of International Studies, Vol. 30, No 1 (2001), p. 41.
[iv]Ian Shaw, ‘Predator Empire: The Geopolitics of US Drone Warfare’, Geopolitics, Vol. 18, No. 3 (2013), p. 548.
[vii]The term was coined by Carl von Clausewitz and was made famous by former US Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara, which illustrates the difficulties of making decisions in the midst of conflict, chaos and uncertainty.
[viii]Michel Foucault, Society Must be Defended: Lectures at the Collegé de France 1975-76′, Picador (2003), p. 203.
[ix]Vivienne Jabri, The Postcolonial Subject: Claiming Politics/Governing Others in Late Modernity (Routledge, 2013), pp. 31-56.
[x]Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison (Penguin, 1991), p. 197.

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