Will Asian Drones Make Conflict More or Less Likely?
Image Credit: Ministry of National Defense: People's Republic of China

Will Asian Drones Make Conflict More or Less Likely?

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Those intellectual swashbucklers from the Center for a New American Security are at it again, this time with an essay over at Foreign Policy detailing the dangers likely to accompany drone operations in Asia. Precipitating their commentary was China's first deployment of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) over the Senkaku Islands. The overflight took place earlier this month, timed to coincide with the one-year anniversary of Tokyo's nationalization of the archipelago. (So much for Chinese subtlety.) This, they conclude, launches Asia into a brave new world where unmanned aircraft could escalate minor encounters into major conflagrations. Read the whole thing.

I have few quibbles about the CNAS crew's appraisal of the problem. Asia and the international community are indeed entering into undiscovered territory as UAVs of various sizes, shapes, and purposes proliferate in Asian skies. But if I had to comment — and you know I do — here are some rambling thoughts I might add.

First, the Clausewitzian formula with which I endlessly torment Naval Diplomat readers — that the value a competitor places on its political goals determines how much effort it puts into obtaining those goals — has ominous overtones in Asia. Effort is a multiple of two factors. One, there's "magnitude," meaning the rate at which a competitor expends resources on behalf of its political objectives. Then, there’s "duration," or how long that rate of expenditure must be sustained to attain the objectives. Multiply the rate at which you expend lives, treasure, and hardware by the total amount of time you expend these resources, and bingo — the result is the total effort spent.

How do UAVs figure in? Drones are cheap. And since they carry no pilots, they're expendable by contrast with manned tactical aircraft. The magnitude of any effort harnessing UAVs appears small as a consequence. The Clausewitzian calculus suggests that such a low-cost, low-risk endeavor can go on more or less forever, even if it commands only middling importance for policymakers. For an adversary, similarly, the psychological barrier against bringing down an intruding UAV may be lower than that against bringing down a conventional aircraft. No enemy airmen will have perished. How this dynamic would play out between two militaries that dispatch combat-capable UAVs into contested airspace remains to be seen. Would this be an automated war-by-proxy? What happens when two Skynets meet?

Second, there's an asymmetry to how competitors may view drone operations. What looks like routine military reconnaissance to the side operating UAVs may look like aggression to an antagonist if a flight passes over the wrong place on the map. If so, innocuous-seeming activities could appear to menace one's sovereignty or homeland — top priorities for any government. The value of the object of self-protection would spike — warranting the utmost defensive measures and, perhaps, escalating a minor encounter out of all proportion to the stakes.

Third, many of the pixels spent on the strategic setting in Asia, mine included, describe the plight of surface forces on the high seas or in port. The ocean's surface is a menacing place, whether you're sitting pretty in an Aegis destroyer or lumbering along in a logistics ship or amphibious transport. You're visible to enemy sensors and thus vulnerable to enemy weaponry. But radically different threat environments are coming into being along the z-axis, below and above the surface. Submarines lurk beneath the waves in increasing numbers, fielded by more and more navies. Detecting, targeting, and sinking this elusive foe is an undertaking of immense scope and complexity.

Drones pose the opposite problem from submarine proliferation. Rather than striking unseen, they're relatively straightforward to detect. Hence the Sino-Japanese incident over the Senkakus. But what do you do once you've detected an unmanned aircraft in airspace you claim? Send out combat planes to escort it away? Its operators may say no. In effect they dare you to escalate. You can either lodge a diplomatic protest, which could prove ineffectual, or act forcefully to remove the threat. If the side dispatching the UAV is stronger militarily, you will have been maneuvered into a conflict in which you're outmatched. Your prospects appear grim.

For Beijing, the logic of UAV operations resembles the logic of "small-stick diplomacy." The unmanned aircraft is like a fishing vessel exercising its right to ply its trade in sovereign waters, or an unarmed maritime enforcement ship patrolling those waters. It appears inoffensive, yet it's there. Refrain from acting, and you've let an opponent establish a presence — a stepping stone to control — on disputed ground. Act, and you justify countermeasures from a stronger adversary that can portray itself as the aggrieved party.

A tough problem, aloft as at sea. Understanding is the first step toward wisdom — and effective countermeasures.

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