Why Concerns Over Drone Proliferation Are Overblown

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Why Concerns Over Drone Proliferation Are Overblown

Why the ‘drone revolution’ will not bring about a redistribution of military power in the global system–just yet.

Why Concerns Over Drone Proliferation Are Overblown
Credit: Flickr/U.S. Air Force

In a recent article in Foreign Policy, “Terrorist Have Drones Now. Thanks, Obama,” James Barmfort summarizes the conventional wisdom in the media and among analysts about the diffusion of drones. According to this view, drones represent a “game-changer” that could promote instability and conflict around the world and even lead to a shift in the distribution of military power in the international system. Thus, by having promoted the development of this technology, Barmfort claims, the U.S. might have then contributed to undermine the international stability it tries to maintain. For this reason, according to many observers, a new legal code for the use of drones is in order – and this legal code is in our very self-interest.

There is a problem with the conventional view on the proliferation of drones: it is misplaced. In a recently published article, “The Diffusion of Drone Warfare?” for the journal Security Studies, we tried to address the existing misconceptions among both academics and policy experts (for a summary, see here; for an excerpt see here). In our work, we assert that the diffusion of drones is unlikely to produce the catastrophic consequences for the international system that many scholars and analysts have warned about. Our conclusion stems from a simple consideration: drone warfare is more than simply possessing drones. Drone warfare is about the employment in military operations of remotely piloted or autonomous aircraft. As we explain in the concluding section of our article:

 While different types of drones will continue to spread, our analysis suggests that only the most advanced and wealthiest countries will be able to field and exploit combat-effective platforms that can affect the global distribution of military power—especially as counter-drone systems emerge.

For drone warfare to affect international peace and stability, it requires in fact, both advanced and reliable aerial platforms and extensive infrastructural and organizational support. Developing the former is far from easy while building the latter calls for significant financial resources, time, and political capital. As a result, drone warfare is unlikely to spread quickly – in contrast to what many warn.

Three main misconceptions exist in the public debate. Some argue that drone warfare has already spread: on the one hand many countries possess drones and, on the other, some of these countries have even conducted drone strikes. Moreover, according to drone proliferation pessimists, allegedly many countries are quickly catching up with the U.S. both in terms of drone technology and in terms of operational skills. Unfortunately, these criticisms miss the mark because they are based on unwarranted simplifications, unsuitable evidence, or questionable assumptions.

1. Eighty countries already possess drones. And so what?

According to some, drone warfare has already spread since more than 80 countries already possess drones. There are three problems with this claim.

First, drones vary significantly in their capabilities. That many countries have drones does not mean they all possess the most capable platforms. In fact, from public sources, we know that most countries possess low performance-drones. Thus, the diffusion of platforms with very limited endurance, sensors, and computing power is, per se, not very relevant from the perspective of international stability. Consider that many countries possess mechanized trucks produced by Caterpillar, Komatzu or CNH, but this does not mean that they can wage mechanized warfare. The same applies with respect to drones. One could respond that terrorist groups and non-state actors do not need particularly sophisticated platforms. The truth is that available alternative to drones – from mortars to car bombs – are just much more cost effective.

Second, counting drones without considering the infrastructural support they call for is tantamount to counting trains in the early 20th century without considering the extension of a country’s railroad network. That a country possesses a drone or a main battle tank does not mean it can leverage these technologies and cast a serious military or even strategic threat. Organizational factors further reinforce this dynamic: the employment of any military platform, drones included, requires complex and expensive organizational codes, practices, doctrine and experience. As we discuss, developing such infrastructural and organizational support is extremely difficult, expensive, and time-consuming.

Third, the current generation of drones – regardless of their capabilities – is largely vulnerable to even basic counter-measures such as rifle shots and off-the-shelf software. This means that even if more than 80 countries possessed both advanced drones and the infrastructural and organizational support required for complex military operations (for the record, they do not), their arsenals would still be vulnerable to relatively simple counter-measures. As a result, the global diffusion of drones many analysts worry about is unlikely to have any sustained effects on international stability even in the short-term.

2. Also, drone strikes have already proliferated. Or have they?

Some argue that not only drones, but also the practice of drone strikes has already proliferated. As Peter Singer writes on Twitter, “Even the Iraqi Air Force already figured out how to use armed drones” (the other notable cases are Iran, Nigeria and Pakistan) – a point he has reiterated with August Cole on Aviation Week. There are three problems with this perspective.

First, warfare is not about individual or scattered bursts of violence. It is about the capacity to systematically employ force in order to affect battle outcomes and thus, ultimately, achieve political goals. That some third-world militaries have conducted one or a few drone strikes against stationary and non-hardened targets does not say much. Additionally, from a force structure perspective, it is not really clear why many are concerned over Iraq or Nigeria possessing a limited amount of underperforming drones when their military fleets already include more capable and deadly platforms like main battle tanks, attack helicopters, and even combat aircraft.

Second, as discussed, organizational aspects complicate the employment of any technology, drones included: this also applies to drone strikes. The example of the Iraqi Air Force Singer relied on is interesting in this regard. Singer, in fact, neglected to mention a crucial detail: the first drone strike by the Iraqi Air Force led to a friendly fire accident. Rather than hitting ISIS fighters (the intended target), Iraqi drones killed Iraqi soldiers on the ground. This is hardly an accomplishment. Improvements can certainly occur in the near future. However, this learning-by-doing process requires extensive time and resources and, more importantly, is never easy, as the literatures in economics and in security studies suggest. The performance of the Russian Air Force in Syria provides an interesting example: despite decades of training and investments in air-to-ground warfare, its manned aircraft still performed very poorly in terms of target neutralization. There is then little reason to believe that with unmanned aircraft, with which Russia has had very limited experience, it will quickly fare any better.

Third, save for the U.S., the United Kingdom and Russia, the other countries that have carried out drone strikes have launched them within their own borders. This is not a small detail. It means that the dystopian future of interstate wars fought with drones that some have depicted is simply not viable at present or on the near future. In general, most commentaries about drones miss in fact two central aspects. On the one hand, most countries do not possess communications satellites and advanced command and control centers. Thus, they cannot operate drones over the line of sight or much beyond 100 km. On the other hand, because of their vulnerabilities, existing drones cannot be employed in segregated air spaces, also as communication relays in order to extend combat drones’ operational range. As a result, most countries can employ unmanned platforms either against adversaries bereft of even basic anti-air defense system or after having established air superiority. However, basic anti-air defense systems like the Zu-23-2 have literally spread all over the world while, save for NATO members, Israel, Russia, and Sweden, very few other countries possess the capabilities required to achieve air superiority against potential adversaries.

3. Other countries are catching up. Or are they?

Finally, according to some, allies, adversaries, and even enemies of the U.S. are allegedly catching up quickly both in terms of drone technology and in terms of operational skills. As a result, the American primacy in this realm will soon come to an end. There are several problems also with this view.

First, in terms of technology, the history of the RQ-1 Predator and of its successor, the MQ-9 Reaper, clearly shows the presence of steep learning curves: several different problems initially undermined the performance of the platform. Only by accumulating extensive experience, manufacturers could learn how to (partially) solve these issues. In fact, even the U.S. MQ-9 Reaper (the platform the U.S. has been using for carrying out drone strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Yemen, and that other countries have tried to imitate) still suffers from significant technical deficiencies. Self-evidently, as increasingly advanced anti-drone systems will emerge, designing, developing, and manufacturing more advanced unmanned platforms will become more difficult. As a result, the learning curves process will remain steep and possibly get even steeper, as newer and more complex challenges will have to be addressed, thus making catching up for second-movers even more difficult.

Second, producing reliable and combat-effective drones is far from easy. Peter Singer claims that other countries are currently where the United States was in 2004. In fact, this is incorrect. Russia is one of the countries credited for allegedly catching up. However, its armed forces can conduct drone strike only against stationary (fixed) targets. The RQ-1 Predator could strike moving targets from the inception of its striking capabilities in 2001. The troubles of Russian drones are not surprising, as experts are well aware of the limitations of its defense electronics industry.

Interestingly, however, even more advanced countries have struggled. France is the most advanced country in the world after the United States with regard to military technology and she is also renown for her protectionist policies, especially when it comes to defense acquisition. Yet, her venture into the business of drones manufacturing has not been particularly successful so far. Starting from the late 1990s, her government has funded several programs aimed at imitating U.S. and Israeli long-range unmanned surveillance platforms. However, such efforts have all systematically failed – despite different partnerships with Israeli manufacturers and other European countries. After almost 15 years, in 2013, the French government ultimately decided to buy the U.S.-made Reaper: hardly proof that other countries are catching up.

Rather, this suggests that building even relatively unsophisticated platforms such as the Reaper is challenging. Analysts and pundits often point to the cases of China, Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey as evidence of successful indigenous developments of unmanned platforms. Unfortunately, we know relatively little both about these platforms and about their capabilities. Available information, however, indicates that they are not very reliable. For instance, Turkey has not been able to produce her own version of the Predator yet, a less sophisticated version of the Reaper that is now a 20 years old technology (and in fact, like France did, Turkey is trying to purchase the Reaper from the U.S.). Similar considerations apply to Iran, a country with a long history of producing fake military platforms (see here, here and here – and also here).

Third, in addition to having reliable state-of-the-art technology, as recalled, any actor trying to exploit drones for military purposes needs to also have operational skills and experience, along with sound codes, doctrine, and concepts, before it can turn them into a concrete operational and strategic advantage. Interestingly, despite its extensive experience in operating drones (in the order of millions of hours), the U.S. armed forces still struggle with this technology and in fact about 40 percent of mishap rates are due to human error. Additionally and intuitively, mishap rates seem to be strongly correlated with operational experience. Since no country can rival the United States in experience with operations of drones, the darkest predictions about catching up appear questionable, especially as anti-drone systems are increasingly integrated into existing force packages.

Last, but not least, and closely related, similar considerations apply to the development of the infrastructure drone warfare requires. Not only is this infrastructure massive, complex and expensive but the diffusion and emergence of cyber and electronic warfare capabilities, among others, is also multiplying the vulnerabilities of existing battle networks. As a result, catching up is going to be increasingly more difficult for most countries in the world.


The reactions to the emergence of drones bring to mind what Lord St. Vincent said about British Prime Minister Pitt, who in the early 19th century was interested in submarine prototypes:

Pitt was the greatest fool that ever existed, to encourage a mode of war which they who commanded the seas did not want, and which if successful would deprive them of it.

Many analysts, scholars, and observers believe in fact that by having promoted drone technology, the United States might have undermined the international order it is trying to uphold. This view is misplaced. Drones will continue to spread, but there are strong reasons to doubt that the robotic revolutions will bring about the catastrophic consequences some observers have worried about. Even if poor countries or even non-state actors use drones, their reliance on this technology will not promote regional instability or conflict and certainly will not change the distribution of military power in the international system. Interestingly, this educated prediction stemming from our work, recently found additional support in a forthcoming article by Michael Horowitz, Sarah Kreps, and Matthew Fuhrmann.

Andrea Gilli is a Post-doctoral Fellow at Metropolitan University Prague. Mauro Gilli is a Post-doctoral Fellow at Dartmouth College. This article draws from their recently published “The Diffusion of Drone Warfare? Industrial, Organizational and Infrastructural Constraints”, which appeared in the latest issue of Security Studies. The authors would like to thank Jonathan Caverley, Eugene Gholz and Alexander Lanoszka for suggestions and feedbacks.