America’s use of drones has also prompted many other countries to develop their own or buy drones from the international market, including Britain, Israel, India, Russia, South African and China. Indeed, China is particularly ambitious, having sold Wing Loong UAVs to a number of countries. It is now developing its stealth drone “Li Jian” (Sharp Sword), which makes it the third country capable of producing such weapons, after America’s X-47 and France’s nEUROn.
Countries that don’t have drones may feel threatened and less secure, and seek similar or other asymmetrical means to maintain the balance of power. This could lead to an arms race. What’s more, as the adage says, to the man with a hammer everything looks like a nail. Leaders and field commanders may become overconfident in their technology, making them more assertive than prudence would normally dictate.
Security experts worry that drones, usually fielded in geopolitically dangerous areas of the world, may contribute to the outbreak of more small wars and conflict escalation. In the Middle East, Iran and Israel are adversaries armed with advanced drones. Israel is now more likely to use drones in strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities. If that happens, Iran will certainly retaliate, probably using drones, too. In East Asia, China has used drones to monitor the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, and Japan has indicated that it plans to do the same. Tokyo has said it may shoot down Chinese drones, prompting a warning by Beijing that this would mean war with China. Taiwan, South Korea, India and a number of ASEAN countries are seeking to buy Global Hawk drones from the U.S., potentially escalating tensions in the South China Sea.
While the U.S. today enjoys the advantages of drones in its fight against terrorism, the White House needs to consider the strategic implications: proliferation, possible arms races, and the irresponsible use of UAVs in regional disputes and conflicts. As a global leader, the U.S. should cooperate with the UN and other international organizations to monitor and regulate the use of drones. Irresponsible use should be taken very seriously, and condemned by the international community.
Duan Xiaolin is a PhD student in Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National university of Singapore. Research interests include small wars, foreign and public policy analysis.