The Drone Wars: Episode Hype?

As more states beginn to build and arm drones, we need to assess and prioritize security risks.
By: /
November 29, 2012

When security analysts strategize about how to deal with the proliferation of drone technology, they aren’t working with a George Lucas inspired hypothetical. Headlines now remind us daily that the United States is no longer alone in possessing unmanned systems technology, and the capability to deploy these systems to conduct remote warfare. We’re not just talking about broadening the UAV club to include other U.S. allies besides Israel – The NYT’s International Herald Tribune recently reported that China displayed a fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles at an air show in Zhuhai this November. The Tribune article quotes a Defense Science Report that declares China could “easily match or outpace U.S. spending on unmanned systems, rapidly close the technology gaps and become a formidable global competitor in unmanned systems.”

 China’s progress, as well as a spate of drone-related incidents involving Iran, Israel, Hezbollah has led some to declare that a drones arms race is underway. Buy beating the drums for a drone war among the superpowers, whether China vs. the U.S., China vs. Russia, or some other Cold War game scenario, distracts from a more pressing concern: the potential for export of militarized drone technology by China or others with more lax export regulations than the U.S. to rogue actors – state and non-state – whose agendas may include retaliation against the U.S. for drone strikes in the Af-Pak region and Yemen.

 A drone arms race implies neck and neck competition in innovation and production, but the capabilities of Chinese models leave a lot to be desired when compared to American ones. As Wired Magazine writes, however, that’s unlikely to deter smaller states looking to buy unmanned systems on the cheap, “bargain shopping for flying death robots”.

 So, while a drones arms race among superpowers could be around the corner, the more immediate danger would seem to be drone spillover. The frame for the questions we’re tracking should be less Cold War inspired and more in line with the post-Cold War debate over how to deal with Iran acquiring nuclear weapons – should we enforce limits on the development of a now widely accessible technology? Can we effectively monitor who develops what and for what purpose, as well as what's for sale and who's buying?

 It’s what we don’t know – i.e. those states that don’t parade their drones at air shows for the world to see – that probably ought to worry defense analysts most.