The issues security scholars focus on are hardly ever those that drive global security, let alone the conflicts that currently plague the globe. The drone debate is a very good example for an agenda that is driven by research interest and not actual warfare or, for those who pretend to care, its victims. The current issue of Foreign Affairs devotes quite a number of pages to that debate and yours truly got into the debate as well.
Some opponents of drones argue that drones are just a first step towards fully automated warfare. And though they cannot clearly explain what makes a Predator drone different from more old-fashioned artillery systems and thus the first step towards that sort of warfare, there is another issue we tend to forget. Western powers are not the only ones working on remotely operated weapons or weapons that are triggered automatically. A weapon more devastating than drones, more widespread, either remotely controlled or fully automatic and with a high likelihood of proliferation is the Improvised Explosive Device (IED). And yet, IEDs have hardly received scholarly attention.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) just released its latest report on Afghan civilian casualties [pdf]. Remember that many opponents of drones base their case against drones on the exceedingly high number of civilian casualties (though the number of civilian casualties is actually pretty low). But if the concern for civilian casualties would really drive the research agenda, the UNAMA report would gain far more attention. After all, it states that Afghanistan witnessed no less than a 23 percent increase in the number of civilian casualties over the first six months of 2013 compared to last year, 74 percent of those casualties are attributed to anti-government forces, mostly the Taleban. One of the most commonly employed weapon by the Taleban is the IED, which has a pretty indiscriminate impact.
In Tell Me How This Ends, Linda Robinson describes in great detail the impact IEDs had on the Iraqi battlefield and she made some important observations on how insurgents used IEDs, learned to improve them and gained the skill to employ them more effectively. Of particular impact were IEDs made with Iranian support that could pierce even the armour of a modern Bradley tank. These experiences should raise important questions on how these weapons and related techniques are being proliferated, particularly since the costs of acquiring these techniques should be relatively low. I don't have the funding to start that research myself, but given the impact these weapons have, at least some of the bucks spent on drone related research in social sciences in certainly misdirected.