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Betting Against a Drone Arms Race

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Despite their advantages in warfare, drones such as this MQ-1 Predator are unlikely to change the fundamental rules of war.

Bold predictions of a coming drones arms race are all the rage since the uptake in their deployment under the Obama Administration. Noel Sharkey, for example, argues in an August 3 op-ed for the Guardian that rapidly developing drone technology — coupled with minimal military risk — portends an era in which states will become increasingly aggressive in their use of drones.

As drones develop the ability to fly completely autonomously, Sharkey predicts a proliferation of their use that will set dangerous precedents, seemingly inviting hostile nations to use drones against one another. Yet, the narrow applications of current drone technology coupled with what we know about state behavior in the international system lend no credence to these ominous warnings.

Indeed, critics seem overly-focused on the domestic implications of drone use.

In a June piece for the Financial Times, Michael Ignatieff writes that “virtual technologies make it easier for democracies to wage war because they eliminate the risk of blood sacrifice that once forced democratic peoples to be prudent.”

Significant public support for the Obama Administration’s increasing deployment of drones would also seem to legitimate this claim. Yet, there remain equally serious diplomatic and political costs that emanate from beyond a fickle electorate, which will prevent the likes of the increased drone aggression predicted by both Ignatieff and Sharkey.

Most recently, the serious diplomatic scuffle instigated by Syria’s downing a Turkish reconnaissance plane in June illustrated the very serious risks of operating any aircraft in foreign territory.

States launching drones must still weigh the diplomatic and political costs of their actions, which make the calculation surrounding their use no fundamentally different to any other aerial engagement.

This recent bout also illustrated a salient point regarding drone technology: most states maintain at least minimal air defenses that can quickly detect and take down drones, as the U.S. discovered when it employed drones at the onset of the Iraq invasion, while Saddam Hussein’s surface-to-air missiles were still active.

What the U.S. also learned, however, was that drones constitute an effective military tool in an extremely narrow strategic context. They are well-suited either in direct support of a broader military campaign, or to conduct targeted killing operations against a technologically unsophisticated enemy.

In a nutshell, then, the very contexts in which we have seen drones deployed. Northern Pakistan, along with a few other regions in the world, remain conducive to drone usage given a lack of air defenses, poor media coverage, and difficulties in accessing the region.

Non-state actors, on the other hand, have even more reasons to steer clear of drones:

— First, they are wildly expensive.  At $15 million, the average weaponized drone is less costly than an F-16 fighter jet, yet much pricier than the significantly cheaper, yet equally damaging options terrorist groups could pursue.
— Those alternatives would also be relatively more difficult to trace back to an organization than an unmanned aerial vehicle, with all the technical and logistical planning its operation would pose.
— Weaponized drones are not easily deployable. Most require runways in order to be launched, which means that any non-state actor would likely require state sponsorship to operate a drone. Such sponsorship is unlikely given the political and diplomatic consequences the sponsoring state would certainly face.
— Finally, drones require an extensive team of on-the-ground experts to ensure their successful operation. According to the U.S. Air Force, 168 individuals are needed to operate a Predator drone, including a pilot, maintenance personnel and surveillance analysts.

In short, the doomsday drone scenario Ignatieff and Sharkey predict results from an excessive focus on rapidly-evolving military technology.

Instead, we must return to what we know about state behavior in an anarchistic international order. Nations will confront the same principles of deterrence, for example, when deciding to launch a targeted killing operation regardless of whether they conduct it through a drone or a covert amphibious assault team.

Drones may make waging war more domestically palatable, but they don’t change the very serious risks of retaliation for an attacking state. Any state otherwise deterred from using force abroad will not significantly increase its power projection on account of acquiring drones.

What’s more, the very states whose use of drones could threaten U.S. security – countries like China – are not democratic, which means that the possible political ramifications of the low risk of casualties resulting from drone use are irrelevant. For all their military benefits, putting drones into play requires an ability to meet the political and security risks associated with their use.

Despite these realities, there remain a host of defensible arguments one could employ to discredit the Obama drone strategy. The legal justification for targeted killings in areas not internationally recognized as war zones is uncertain at best.

Further, the short-term gains yielded by targeted killing operations in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, while debilitating to Al Qaeda leadership in the short-term, may serve to destroy already tenacious bilateral relations in the region and radicalize local populations.

Yet, the past decade’s experience with drones bears no evidence of impending instability in the global strategic landscape. Conflict may not be any less likely in the era of drones, but the nature of 21st Century warfare remains fundamentally unaltered despite their arrival in large numbers.

Joseph Singh is a researcher at the Center for a New American Security. 

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