The proliferation of military drones (and non-military ones, too) has been sneaking up on us for some five decades or more, but until very recently, the process was largely invisible. Military and intelligence authorities were saying very little. The media weren’t taking much notice. And the minds of observers – even those normally attentive to international affairs – were focused, for the most part, on more obvious and familiar issues. The drones phenomenon, by contrast, was both technical and esoteric – seemingly the stuff of an unreliable and fantastical futurology.
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Not so any more. The escalating use of drones by the CIA and other American security authorities to attack targets linked to al-Qaeda and related sources of mischief (especially, but not solely, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen) has attracted increasing attention across professional and social media platforms. The growing reportage has intensified the concerns, in particular, of observers preoccupied with the moral, legal, political, and operational implications of the new surveillance and combat technology. Their reflections on the subject have been stimulated further by ongoing events like accidental drone crashes near civilian airports, and, in volatile regions like the Middle East, drone deployments by security-sensitive governments, as well as by political actors of other sorts – notably, Hezbollah and Hamas (in each case, allegedly with Iranian help).
The scope of the proliferation process has been extensively documented in an unclassified version of a congressional report released in February of this year by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). The report indicates that the number of countries possessing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) increased from 41 to 76 between 2005 and 2011. Most of the drones at issue were designed for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance functions and had operational ranges limited to 300 kilometres or less, but a few were also capable of targeting and attacking specific individuals or groups (and hence, presumably qualified as UCAVs, or Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles). Of the 76 countries involved, as many as 50 were themselves engaged in UAV development activity. The remainder had acquired their fleets from foreign suppliers.
Lest there be any doubt, Canada is one of the 50, and the sector is currently represented by Unmanned Systems Canada - Systèmes Télécommandés Canada (USC-STC), an association of some 400 individual and 50 corporate members which, among other things, sponsors the world’s second-largest annual conference on unmanned systems each year. It also co-chairs, with Transport Canada, the Canadian regulatory body dealing with UAVs in civil airspace.
The technological genie, in short, is out of its bottle, and there is no putting it back, even if we wanted to. Most of the actual or potential civilian and law-enforcement uses of the technology are peaceful, of course, and presumably, UAVs of this sort would warrant development on their own merits, irrespective of the regulatory regimes required to keep their deployments appropriately tamed and free from abuse. In any case, the process is well advanced, and the U.S. GAO has estimated that as many as 30,000 UAVs will be operating in American airspace alone by 2020. Canadians are already aware that the Americans are using them to keep an eye on some of the more remote sections of the Canada-U.S. border.
As civilian uses become more common, and as the UAV industry continues to expand, the proliferation of drones for malignant military purposes will become increasingly easy, even for non-state actors. Machines intended for straightforward civilian or public service uses – search and rescue, firefighting operations in remote areas, natural disaster assessments, wildlife tracking, pipeline inspection, geological survey work, and a host of others – will, in some cases, be susceptible to adaptation for military or paramilitary purposes, including not only reconnaissance, but also payload delivery. Amateur model airplane enthusiasts, long accustomed to flying their creations by remote control, attest to the ease with which this sort of thing can be done, particularly since some categories of drone (and drone parts) are now commonly traded international commodities. The United States alone approved drone exports valued at $380 million between 2005 and 2010, and in 15 cases, authorized the transfer abroad of complete drone systems. In October of this year, the Israel News relayed a story from a Lebanese newspaper, Al-Jumhuriyah, to the effect that a Hezbollah drone that had infiltrated Israeli airspace had originally been manufactured by a firm in Germany, and purchased through a dummy Iranian corporation.
In matters of this kind, what’s easy soon becomes inevitable. At the moment, the principal international agreement governing the transfer of drones is the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), which began life (as its title indicates) with another technology in mind, but has since addressed some of its attention to UAVs. Recent American-led attempts to extend the application of MTCR rules for larger-capacity drones to include lighter models as well have been rejected, however, by other members. In any case, violations of the agreement are not subject to sanction (under the terms of the agreement, at least) by other countries. The most probable reality is that regulating the general traffic in UAV systems and components through multilateral mechanisms holds little more prospect of success than the attempt to restrict the traffic in small arms.
These are still early days, and forecasting the implications of all this for international peace and security over the longer term is a risky enterprise. But perhaps a few speculations are warranted, if only to encourage rumination.
First, the proliferation of drones with very long-range flying and payload delivery capabilities among the great powers – powers with significant intercontinental interests – may not, in itself, be a destabilizing influence, and could conceivably add to stability by enhancing the level of military transparency all around. China, for example, has a UAV/UCAV development program, and in response to the expansion of Chinese naval capabilities, the Americans are busily developing (among other things) seaborne drone systems that will extend the ranges from which they can deliver unpleasantries to future targets in the region should this become necessary. But it seems highly unlikely that military exchanges of this order will actually occur, not least because of the traditional logic of deterrence, and because both states have such a daunting array of diverse military capabilities at their disposal. Arms races can intensify levels of distrust, but in the modern context of great power relationships, so many other elements are in play that the prospect of the proliferation of drone equipment alone being responsible for amplifying the danger of an outbreak of direct military conflict appears remote.
Second, however, the danger of this happening may be considerably greater in the case of drone systems being deployed by smaller states situated in close quarters in deeply adversarial circumstances. Again, the underlying forces of conflict are bound to be more fundamental, but, as the Middle East example may illustrate, the more real the threat becomes, the greater the risk that military action (whether reactive or pre-emptive) will be taken in response. Drones are relatively slow-moving, and given enough time, are open to defensive counter-attack. But the presence of UAVs, even if deployed only for surveillance purposes, can generate alarm and cause players on both sides to become trigger-happy. The proliferation process itself, moreover, can be an invitation to major pre-emptive assault in much the same way the Iranian development of nuclear capabilities is an escalating incitement to attack even now. This will be especially true in cases in which one side has a significant military advantage and has reason to fear what will happen if it loses it. In such circumstances, diplomatic approaches to conflict resolution can become even less likely to succeed than they may be already. At the very least, the proliferation of drones, like the proliferation of rockets, is an encouragement to greater investment in countermeasures. Such responses are “rational” for each of the players, even if they carry the risk of producing an “irrational” collective result in the end.
Again, the drones – as a weapons system – are not the primary cause of the conflict, but they can make the underlying confrontation a little less stable, and hence, a little more dangerous. They can also affect perceptions in a way that makes de-escalation by political means more difficult.
Finally, and perhaps more alarmingly from a general vantage point, there is the growing prospect of UAVs and UCAVs being acquired by non-state or parastatal actors – including actors that are performing as allies of, or even as proxies for, state governments (or for the sometimes “rogue” agencies of such governments). The danger here is intensified by the fact that non-conventional actors of this sort are notoriously difficult to deter. They tend to be intensely – even fanatically – motivated. They organize themselves in highly decentralized small groups. Like classical guerrillas, they conceal themselves whenever they can in the midst of general populations (thus behaving, as Mao Zedong famously put it, like “fish in the sea”). In a sense, they are free of the constraints that play on the statecraft of even the most autocratic governments. Yet, for various reasons reflecting the exigencies of a wider politics, they can often gain the clandestine assistance of conventional governing regimes. The roles played by the latter, moreover, are not confined to polities of the illiberal sort. Western governments with access to the necessary assets routinely do the same sorts of things when it suits their perceptions of their interests to do so.
For the reasons discussed earlier, the potential danger here is increasing with the dissemination of UAVs into the civilian domain, and with the growing diversity of their specifications (size, range, flying time, lift capacity, and the like). In due course, targets almost anywhere may become open to drone attacks by transnationally orchestrated guerrilla cells – the equipment they use having been concealed by a cover of legitimate commercial deployments, just as the guerrillas have concealed themselves in the law-abiding population in whose company they reside.
There is no need to belabour the possibilities here, but their range is hard to deny. Whether these are more difficult for guerrillas to exploit than the other, similarly unpleasant, options open to them remains to be seen. Wise defenders of the realm are presumably reflecting on the problem. If they aren’t, perhaps they should be, even as they consider the pros and cons of deploying government-controlled drones for our own defence.