Funded PhD opportunities

Using risk theories to understand the displacement of political and military risk in lethal drone use by the US and UK

  • Application end date: Applications currently closed
  • Funding Availability: Funded PhD project (UK students only)
  • Department: Institute of Criminal Justice Studies
  • PhD Supervisor: Dr Peter Lee, Dr Alison Wakefield, and Dr Risto Talas

ESRC South Coast Doctoral Training Partnership (SCDTP) funded. Project code: HPSS3731018

Applications are currently closed for this project, though may re-open in the autumn. If you wish to submit an expression of interest, please contact

Project in brief

The project will assess decision theory and theories of risk perception as means of exploring the ethical and social implications of the key thesis that underpins this study. Namely, that the US and UK deploy lethal drones as a means of reducing or displacing political risk which, in turn, attaches to civilians in affected areas. Methodologically, discourse analysis will be used as a means of applying these theories to two case studies: CIA unconventional drone use and RAF conventional drone use. Open source discourses to be analysed will include: government, UN and NGO policy statements, key speeches, and parliamentary debates.

Project in detail

Weaponised drones have introduced new capabilities and new understandings of war and military intervention to the international security domain since their advent in the early twenty-first century. Applications extend from the CIA’s unconventional use of Predator and Reaper drones in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia to the UK’s deployment of Reaper drones in conventional military roles in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Furthermore, drones have had an impact across multiple conceptual domains and academic landscapes: culture, identity, political violence, ethics, geopolitics and more (Stanford and NYU, 2012; Galliott, 2012; Sauer and Schörnig, 2012; Baggiarini, 2015; Williams, 2015). Drones are now explicitly used to ‘minimise the risk to the forces we commit to battle’ (Ministry of Defence, 2013: 2-8). This project seeks to research the ethical and social dimensions of the deployment of lethal drones as risk mitigation. Specifically, the extent to which use of drones mitigate risk in the political and military domains of the user, while increasing  the degree of risk experienced by civilians in areas where drone strikes occur.   Discourse analysis of open source government, UN and NGO policy statements, key speeches, and parliamentary debates will be used in the application and assessment of theories of risk across two case studies: CIA unconventional drone use and RAF conventional drone use. Findings from this research will help to provide a broader understanding of the ethical and social consequences of lethal drone use from a risk perspective. This, in turn, will enable more comprehensive and nuanced risk calculations in future policy decisions regarding the deployment of weaponised drones.

Specific research questions:

  • To what extent do governments deploy armed drones as a means of reducing political risk?
  • How is risk distributed across the strategic, operational and tactical levels of military interventions?
  • How are civilians affected by displaced risk from drone use? 

Candidate specification

  • Essential: A background in International Relations, ideally with a particular interest in security studies.  
  • Essential: Willingness to participate in appropriate discourse analytic research methods training.

For all funding, students must have qualifications of the standard of a good honours degree at first or upper second-class level, from a UK academic higher education institution. Degree qualifications gained from outside the UK, or a combination of qualifications and/or experience that is equivalent to a relevant UK degree, may be accepted.

How to Apply

Before you apply, please make sure you meet the candidate specification.

Candidates do not need to submit a project proposal, however are required to submit a 500 word personal statement to include:

  • Details of how your skills and interests match the project
  • Background and previous experience
  • Research interests

If you need to discuss this project and your application further then please contact a member of the supervision team as listed below, in advance of the deadline dates:

Dr Peter Lee -

Dr Alison Wakefield -

Dr Risto Talas -

There are two stages to the application process:

(1) The first application form you need to complete is for your chosen programme of study at the University of Portsmouth.

Apply to the University of Portsmouth through our standard online application form and follow the instructions given under the 'Research Degrees' heading on the following webpages before you submit your SCDTP application:

When applying to the University of Portsmouth, you will need to enter project code - HPSS3731018

The closing date for University of Portsmouth applications is 21 July 2017, 12.00 noon.

(2) The second application form which requires completion is the South Coast DTP Funding Application Form.  There are two versions of this form which can be downloaded. In accordance with the SCDTP guidance, please ensure you use the correct form (in this case the 'South Coast DTP Project Specific Application Form').

The 'South Coast DTP Project Specific Application Form', and more information on the South Coast Doctoral Training Partnership can be found at:

You will then need to submit your funding application to the SCDTP by 28 July 2017

Funding notes

As well as covering all tuition fees, the studentship also includes an annual maintenance grant, of £14,553 (2017/18).

Please note, students applying without a Master's qualification containing a substantial Social Sciences methods component may be required to complete such a Master's beforehand. The Master's will be fully funded by the SCDTP.