Battleland

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. 

23 comments
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sscarzz
sscarzz

I'm gonna buy a kit and fly it around the hood amp; beyond......

O_Pinion
O_Pinion

The arguments presented here don't take account of potential advances in drone technologies. Sure air defences may pose a severe limitation to current drone technology but now that this weakness has been exposed I am sure that it is top of the list for  weapon system designers to overcome via Drone miniaturisation, Drone Swarms etc. Humans have an unlimited ability to find new ways to kill each other.

H_Swan
H_Swan

 Absolutely.  Some dismiss drones as inherently inferior to manned aircraft based on their current limitations.  Current drones were designed to perform missions under current conditions (actually, what they were expected to be) at a lower cost than manned aircraft.  Future drones will be able to do things that manned aircraft can not.  For example, a drone could turn so sharply the G-forces would disable a human pilot.  They can already stay in the air longer without tanker support.

O_Pinion
O_Pinion

Good points. One concern though (and it is mirrored in the rush to place commercial applications on the "cloud") in removing the human element is the increased vulnerability of Command and Control systems to cyber attack. Find the way to exploit vulnerabilities at key nodes in the system and the whole defensive/offensive capability could be taken down in one stroke. Maybe beyond the power of minor states but there is always the potential for the 'innovation' that gives someone the power to do so. Still, your points are valid and point to the fact that in such a battle situation (drones vs humans) our frail bodies just won't be up to the challenge.

Sebastian DeLuca
Sebastian DeLuca

Definitely a good perspective. I think the commenters ignore the sheer realities of Mr. Singh's arguments- @EverettColdwell:disqus seems to ignore the anarchistic world that we exist in. Yes, it would be nice if there were limitations on what governments would do to maintain power, but Mr. Singh is dead on in terms of assessment of state vs. non-state actors in the realm of drone-strike capabilities. Basically, Joseph Singh crushed it.

D_Coder
D_Coder

This argument completely ignores the reality that terrorist organizations are not the US Armed Forces. They will buy off-the-shelf RC planes, add some explosives, launch from any paved road, and won't bother with maintenance or analysts. It won't cost $15 million per plane or take 168 people to handle... if only because they don't expect to get their drone back.

Egger
Egger

I saw a YouTube video of model airplane enthusiasts building and flying various custom miniature aircraft, including a B52 with miniature jet engines and 6-ft wingspan for about $10,000, if I remember correctly.  A few of these delivering significant payloads into vulnerable key electrical grid weak spots...voila, country-wide blackouts.

Egger
Egger

Exactly.  And malicious groups can use cellphones' built-in video (FaceTime?) and existing GPS location apps (Find My iPhone?) on their cheap drones instead of billion-dollar satellite links to monitor and target individuals and places.  These drones could carry a small explosive or incendiary device.  They would be too small, low, and slow to show up on most radar.  Scary.

Fatesrider
Fatesrider

The notion that just because there is minimal risk to military  personnel doesn't translate to the idea that using drones indiscriminately carries little military risk.  An intrusion into the airspace of another country is still an intrusion whether it's by drone or manned aircraft and is usually viewed as such - especially by people who know how these things work. 

Drones are currently used primarily in countries with friendly (nominally speaking) ties to the U.S. or in places where governments are weak that harbor terrorists.  While the legalities can be discussed, the use of drones in assassinations of these terrorists has had an undeniable negative impact on the networks of the terrorists targeted.  If there is a "drone arms race" of any kind, it's only because the effectiveness of the devices is obvious.  Militarily speaking, you don't deploy obsolete weapons systems if there's something better out there.

Even if one goes to pilotless aircraft (ROV's), their use would merely fulfill a mission formerly carried out by manned aircraft.  Diplomatically, militarily and internationally, there should be no difference in their impact except for the fact that parading around a shot down drone doesn't really play well compared to dragging the bodies of pilots through the streets.

Gary McCray
Gary McCray

New electronics, sensors and computers now make it very easy to produce aerial and ground robots that can pretty much do whatever we want.

Growing military use is inevitable, and it's only the Taliban's disavowal of technology that prevent them from being more of a threat than they already are.

Civilian use is also bound to grow rapidly and the FAA is likely to be excessively restrictive, but they know mishaps will garner a lot of negative media attention.

There are tremendous good uses for Drones / Robots and some seriously negative ones as well.

I hope the future permits us to get the best from them and spares us the worst.

Gary McCray
Gary McCray

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Gary McCray
Gary McCray

Removed Because of Stupid and Without reason Flagging by Discus Website!

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EverettColdwell
EverettColdwell

Being able to remotely kill people across the world, with the push of a few buttons is far too much power for any government; even the United States.

O_Pinion
O_Pinion

Did you mean to use the word "even" or "particularly"?

CW
CW

 Thing is it only takes a push of a few buttons to call in a special ops team, a conventional air strike...drones are just one tool among many

Rolf Steiner
Rolf Steiner

Yeah, let's send in our troops and let them get slaughtered instead.

Leanne E. Vega
Leanne E. Vega

 These drones could carry a small explosive or incendiary device.  They would be too small, low, and slow to show up on most radar...KingofProfits.blogspot.com

Lonesome_Cowboy_Bill
Lonesome_Cowboy_Bill

Another Obama apologist's pretzel logic.

Fatesrider
Fatesrider

 Yep, especially when all of the drones being deployed today were developed under Clinton and deployed by Bush.

Wow, I mean, does your skull contain any gray matter at all anymore?

Lonesome_Cowboy_Bill
Lonesome_Cowboy_Bill

Yes - my grey matter has deteriorated significantly. Nevertheless, I can still tell that by your reasoning, the Wright brothers are responsible for the World Trade Center terrorist attack.

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