Lets say in the near future our research into automated drones and remote controlled weapons has grown better. We have reached the point where putting people in the weapons is counterproductive, it requires engineering a location where people can be protected, adds an extra avenue of attack, and in case of flying machines limits the machine by the Gforce the humans can maintain etc etc.

Thus new weapons tend to all be either 100% automated (I am not talking hard thinking AI, I'm talking like the smart missiles of today, soft AI with enough programing to probably blow up the thing that is shot at) or remote controlled by human pilots. Limits to our AI ability means remote control of more complex weapons, like fighter jets, is still required. For now assume that fighter jets and tanks still exist (yes I know were likely move more and more to only using missiles, but in the world I'm most interested in I have used hand waves to keep human flown fighters because that's the story I want to tell)

Humans will have to be relatively close ('relatively' can still be quite a distance, no risk of stray bomb blowing you up) to these weapons due to the limits of light speed communication and the harm that even minor latency can cause. This could make a tempting tactic to attack the pilots of the machines, via missiles or even suicide bomber approach. Hit one place with a even a half dozen remote pilots you can knock out a huge number of expensive weapons...

This trend in weapons in some ways makes warfare more about economic power then human capital. There is no point in infantry or grunts, and while pilots, and the massive support team for weapons, we have still gotten to the point where it's much easier to train up new pilots and support staff then build new fighters, and thus whoever can build better weapons or build weapons faster has the advantage, not whoever has the most people willing to die for their country.

At the same time the bigger-badder conventional weapons mean that if a country decides to turn these weapons on civilians they are absurdly lethal. Even if they aren't weapons of mass destruction...well Napalm killed more Japanese civilians then the nukes in WW2 ultimately. With weapons traveling so fast it's become harder and harder to protect civilian, or economic, structures; it's not really possible to hold the line at some point away from civilians. It's possible for even a few weaker fighters/bomber hybrids to be quite devastating if they choose to attack civilians.

Recognizing both the lethality, and impossibility to prevent, conventional weapons turned against civilians or even infrastructure, and the fact that battles have focused more and more ultimately on infrastructure and who can knock out the others weapons rather then attrition of personnel, some have decided to try to encourage wars to be a more economic battle. They write a pact, similar to the Geneva convention, designed to allow these weapons to attack and destroy each other without killing humans. The conventions include not killing the remote pilots of weapons (capture is allowed), and setting up a system where a territory which has a few weapons over it without any competing sides fighters nearby is considered captured and should cooperate with the captures so long as they abide by the conventions rules etc.

How far can such a convention go while having any hope of being respected by larger first world nations (the smaller nations won't sign or respect it, gurella warfare and terrorism being the only viable ways of fighting for them, so I'm focused only on the big factions for this question). Some kind of casualties will have to be allowed sadly, but how much will the larger nations agree to focus on a system where humans are off limits?

My question is, would it be reasonable to expect a geneva convention style agreement to avoid attacking human pilots of these weapons? Or more generally to avoid attacking humans with your big-expensive-blow-things-up weapons so long as they comply with specific rules, to basically make wars an economic battle to see who can blow up the other's sides big-fancy-weapons first with limited human casualties?

I'm trying to think real world, and real world will have humans dieing no matter what in a war of course. So perhaps the better question is what sort of convention could be written that is likely to actually be respected by the bigger powers (I'm looking at the big first world nations, smaller nations with fewer expensive weapons would be more likely to use gurella warfare and terrorism and basically ignore the convention obviously).

  • $\begingroup$ Current technology allows remote drones to be operated anywhere in the world, regardless of where the pilot is. Are you suggesting drone technology gets worse in this future? $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Nov 19, 2015 at 17:28
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    $\begingroup$ Most drones can be controlled from anywhere in the world with a long time delay, in the area of 5 seconds. But when real time control is need, like during takeoff and landing the pilot has to be much closer. $\endgroup$ Nov 19, 2015 at 17:38
  • $\begingroup$ I have a system like this in my own sci-fi stories, however I have it enforced by a group of omniscient time-travellers who are essentially immortal and issue justice via giant hammers that break every chemical bond in your body. Needless to say, people don't break the rules often, though it is sort of a cop-out. $\endgroup$ Nov 19, 2015 at 21:18
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    $\begingroup$ How would the big players deal with the smaller ones who did not sign? Different conventions have different ways of handling that. Sometimes you are bound to the method of warfare always, and sometimes you are only bound to the method when fighting a fellow signatory. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Nov 20, 2015 at 1:12

4 Answers 4


It seems unlikely.
The Geneva convention and treaties like it tend to outlaw things that are very good at killing civilians but very ineffective at damaging a real military. Poison gas is very dangerous to civilians but a real military has gas masks. Where firearms or nukes are far more lethal but are not banned because the military needs them to attack other militaries.

Attacking drone pilots doesn't hurt civilians at all and seems one of the best ways to beat a military drone. So it seams unlikely there would be a convention against it, either by large or small countries.

Standard tactics would tend to have the drones first attack military air defense targets and other drones before hitting civilian targets. They would destroy the things that could destroy them then attack with impunity. At the point when a country's air defense was destroyed they might negotiate or surrender to prevent the massive loss of life when drones switch from military to civilian targets. This would still have a war that was mostly economic in cost.


I think this could plausibly happen only when the first world nations expect the vast majority of their warfare to be waged against other first world nations. There is no point entering a pact unless your enemy agrees to it also. So if the current global trend of first world nations having to contend primarily with guerrilla tactics continues, this treaty seems unlikely, but if it shifts to a scenario reminiscent of the Cold War, this type of treaty would make a lot of sense. (And in my humble opinion, a near future where the US and China are engaged in Cold War II isn't that much of a stretch.)

It would also help things considerably if either a third (and uninvolved) first world nation or a group of smaller nations enforced the treaty by pledging to attack any nation that violated it. One nation may think it can achieve victory by mascaraing enemy civilians with a first strike, but if it knows it can't withstand the retaliation from the UN/India/whomever, it will follow the rules.

The key thing to remember is that the treaty and political pressure will enforce what first world nations do publicly, but there will still be clandestine operations that violate the rules. It will be very profitable for one nation to bomb another's piloting base as long as they can "get away with it" by making it look like someone else did it.


In real terms this is quite possible. Drones and remote controlled weapons will be vulnerable to ECM and cyber attack, so the idea of having the controllers a short distance away or able to control with an unjammable link (think a finer optic cable) makes perfect sense.

The controller is going into danger, so while a AWACS type airplane can hold a lot of electronics and teams of controllers, it is a big, slow moving and vulnerable platform. AWACS

What you will want is an airframe which is a full up fighter jet that carries enough electronics and perhaps a two man crew to control a flight or maybe squadron of drones. Being a full up fighter means that it can move and shoot with the drones, and if they are somehow burned through by advanced ECM or other defences, there is still a fighter jet capable of protecting itself and perhaps flying the mission on its own under the human pilot. The proposed FB-23 gives you an idea of how that would look: FB-23

This also adds flexibility to the force, a small number of control ships could fly a large number of drones, or a large package of manned ships could be used to overcome strong ECM defences with fewer drones.


I do not think it is likely.

I do not agree with your assumption that there is no point in infantry or grunts. Unless there are advanced androids available, infantrymen are necessary to police the civilians. That makes them a vital target for enemy's drones.

Note, that major military powers (USA, PRC, Russia) have not signed the Ottawa Treaty banning so-called antipersonnel mines. Drones have potential to be much more selective antipersonnel devices than land mines (which do not discriminate between combatants and non-combatants). They also allow for striking the personnel actively while mines are just area denial devices.


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