In the first Persian Gulf War, a small group of Iraqi soldiers famously surrendered to an unarmed U.S. drone. Those Iraqi soldiers proved not cowardly in their fear of drones, but prescient: by the next Iraq war, the United States had in its possession a small but growing hanger of pilotless planes armed with air to ground missiles that would soon begin a campaign of targeted killings that has resulted, according to some estimates, in between 2,500 and 3,500 deaths in Pakistan alone. Outside of the United States, there are 75 countries that possess or are developing unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology.
The swift pace of the development and deployment of UAVs is unsurprising given the nature of the technology. Drones are politically expedient because using them does not require putting troops in harm’s way. Therein lies the danger: there is very little political cost associated with employing drones, thus making it easier for political leaders to employ force. Lowering this threshold will create an important problem in the years to come as armed drones proliferate, as unarmed drones already have. If history repeats itself, this technology will be used against U.S. interests in the not too distant future.
Since the Gulf War, UAVs have advanced from simple tactical reconnaissance units to advanced stealth platforms. The Pentagon initiated a program to develop UAVs in 1998 after two missed attempts to kill Osama Bin Laden with cruise missiles. Just three years later, a Predator drone killed al-Qaeda military chief Mohammed Atef in Kabul, marking the first UAV-initiated fatality. This early success initiated a hurried increase in U.S. drone production. From 2002 to 2010 there was a 40-fold increase in American UAVs. Today the total is approximately 7,000 units. The arsenal includes drones that fit all missions and capabilities: tactical to strategic, reconnaissance to assassination and hand-launched to jet powered.
UAV development has not just been limited to the United States. The speed at which UAV proliferation has followed initial development is extraordinary. This proliferation is driven by both exports and indigenous development. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), in 2005 there were already 41 countries that had a UAV capacity. By 2012 that number has almost doubled to 76. There are some 50 countries developing 900 different UAV systems, the remainder having procured their capability from the emerging cadre of drone exporters. The United States and Israel dominate the export market, but South Africa, Germany, Austria, and Italy all export UAV technology, as well.
The spread of UAVs has also reached America’s foes. Iran touts an indigenously developed UAV program that includes unarmed reconnaissance drones and (purportedly) kamikaze attack drones. More alarmingly, Iran has transferred UAVs to its non-state allies, such as Hezbollah. Just this month Israel shot down a Hezbollah operated drone a mere 30km from the Dimona nuclear facility. The unit was a rudimentary reconnaissance UAV, but just as armed drone development lagged behind non-armed drone development in the United States, there is no reason to believe that the proliferation of armed drones won’t soon follow.
So what sort of a threat does the proliferation of armed UAVs represent? The main threat is that future operators will use them as frequently as the United States does. As the most visible user of armed UAVs, American officials already realize that the United States is “establishing precedents that other nations may follow.” As armed drones proliferate, UAV attacks could become commonplace as foreign leaders will not face the same domestic restraints as they do when employing soldiers. With fewer constraints on the use of force, decision-makers might use force more often. This is destabilizing, as more frequent employment of armed drones will increase the chances of miscalculation of what an opponent will tolerate before resorting to full-scale war.
This is not to argue that the United States should halt armed UAV missions, but rather make them less frequent. Drone strikes, combined with precise intelligence and targeting, are an important tactic in the U.S. counterterrorism strategy. Yet, policymakers must not become overly reliant on UAV strikes; they are a tactic and cannot masquerade as a strategy. Drone strikes should be reserved for high-level terrorist targets. By limiting the frequency of UAV strikes, the United States will help set the precedent that drone strikes are just one more tool in the arsenal, not a new type of unrestricted warfare.
Unmanned aerial vehicles are here to stay, which is largely good. Without the need to cater to the material needs of human pilots, UAVs can potentially redefine what is possible in flight, bringing new capabilities to reconnaissance, search & rescue, scientific research, and air transport.
Armed UAVs are an important military instrument for the United States, which is the world leader in drone technology. The United States should maintain this technological supremacy. However, policymakers should be mindful of the dangers of the norms they are setting. The over-use of armed UAVs sets a dangerous precedent that future drone-operating countries might follow to the detriment of global security. The president should seek to strictly curtail UAV strikes to ensure that they contribute to rather than detract from U.S. and global security.
David L. Knoll is a freelance defense analyst. He is a doctoral candidate in International Relations at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University. He tweets at @DLKnoll.