For policymakers, the main appeal of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) is that by keeping pilots and ground crews far from harm’s way, they dramatically reduce the political risks and costs of conducting military operations. That explains why the Obama administration is relying on drones to play the lead role in what used to be called the war on terror, unleashing swarms of Predator and Reaper UCAVs to kill suspected terrorists in Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan. These pilotless bombers fly into hostile airspace largely undetected, gather terabytes of imagery and intelligence, search for targets and strike at will—and when they are shot down or experience mechanical failures, few Americans notice and even fewer care. That will change when drones from other countries start hunting their enemies by remote and sporadically falling from the skies. What may seem unlikely today could be a given in the not-too-distant future.
The skies over Somalia offer an unsettling glimpse of that future. As pirates, terrorists, rival clans, neighboring militaries and even U.S. commandos fight pitched battles over Somalia’s ungoverned lands and waters, drones are filling Somalia’s unfriendly skies. As The Washington Post reports, some of those drones are slamming into refugee camps, plummeting perilously close to fuel depots and buzzing passenger airplanes.
It’s highly unlikely that these runaway drones are being piloted by U.S. airmen or CIA operatives. Instead, they are probably being flown by less-skilled, less-trained controllers serving in the African Union’s peacekeeping detail. Indeed, the drone that almost hit a Mogadishu fuel storage facility was a Raven, which the U.S. has shared with AU forces.
So what do drone incidents in the failed state of Somalia have to do with the future of the United States, which is anything but a failed state?
Let’s stipulate, for the sake of discussion, that the U.S. drone program is the best in the world. Yet according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the accident rate for the Reaper UCAV is 16.4 per 100,000 hours, while the accident rate for an F-16 (a manned ground-attack plane) is 4.1 per 100,000 hours; for a U-2 (a manned reconnaissance plane), the rate is 6.8 per 100,000 hours. As of 2010, the Air Force reported that 79 drones had been lost in accidents. That number is larger today: In late 2011, a U.S. RQ-170 drone became unresponsive to its controller’s commands and crashed in eastern Iran. In early 2011, a U.S. drone collided with a U.S. C-130 cargo plane, forcing the crew to make an emergency landing in Afghanistan. In 2009, when controllers lost control (ponder that phrase) of an armed Reaper as it cruised toward the edge of Afghan airspace, a manned fighter jet was dispatched to intercept and destroy the runaway drone.
The point is that as drones become more accessible, there will be consequences. If the best drones deployed by the best military on earth crash this often, imagine the accident rate for mediocre and substandard drones deployed by mediocre and substandard militaries. And then imagine the international incidents this could trigger between, say, India and Pakistan, North and South Korea, China and any number of its wary neighbors. Drones may usher in a new age of accidental wars.
Equally worrisome, the proliferation of drones could enable non-power-projecting nations—and non-nations, for that matter—to join the ranks of power-projecting nations. Given the lack of internal controls, lack of restraint and basic lack of fear of consequences that some regimes—and many non-state actors—exhibit, this would seem to open the door to a new family of threats.
Drones are a cheap alternative to long-range, long-endurance warplanes. A Predator drone, for instance, costs $4.5 million, while an F-35 costs $111 million, an F-22 $377 million. Yet despite their low cost, drones can pack a punch. And owing to their size and range, they can conceal their home address far more effectively than the typical, non-stealthy manned warplane. In this regard, it pays to recall that the possibility of drone attacks against the United States was cited to justify the war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. “UAVs outfitted with spray tanks constitute an ideal method for launching a terrorist attack using biological weapons,” then-Secretary of State Colin Powell argued at the UN Security Council. “The linkages over the past ten years between Iraq’s UAV program and biological and chemical warfare agents are of deep concern to us. Iraq could use these small UAVs . . . to deliver biological agents to its neighbors or if transported, to other countries, including the United States.”
The purpose here is not to re-litigate the decision to invade Iraq or to revive the debate over preventive war, but rather to highlight the threat represented by armed UAVs in the hands of hostile actors. The fact that intelligence about Iraq’s WMD program was wrong doesn’t mean Powell was wrong about the threat posed by WMD-armed drones.
Of course, neither WMD-armed drones nor cutting-edge UCAVs like the Predator or Reaper have fallen into un-deterrable hands—at least not yet. But if history is any guide, they will. Such is the nature of proliferation. CRS notes that Israel was so far ahead of the United States in military-drone development that “initial U.S. capabilities came from platforms acquired from Israel.” Today, Israel is sharing drone technologies with India, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Ecuador. One day, these countries will share what they know with others. And so on.
Consider the case of Venezuela. Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez has hired Iranian missile engineers to build him a fleet UAVs. Chavez’s drones are nowhere near the Predator class of drones, according to one Air Force general. As Wired’s Danger Room website notes, given the limited capabilities of Chavez’s drones, “It’s exceedingly unlikely that Venezuela and Iran will be able to team up and invade the United States with a fleet of robotic aircraft any time soon.” But given the rhetoric and actions of Caracas and Tehran, it’s fair to conclude that a) their goal is to have the ability to threaten the U.S. with standoff weapons like drones and b) they are closer to that goal today than before they launched their drone collaboration.
Even if we can slow or limit the proliferation of top-of-the-line UCAV technologies, the bantam-weight class of drones will soon be weaponized. The United States is testing light-weight, laser-guided bombs that can be slung onto small drones, which will enable an entire class of drones to graduate from intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to combat. As Wired puts it, “The U.S. fleet of killer drones would significantly increase.” So will the rest of the world’s UCAV fleet.
This Could Hurt
Finally, power-projecting nations are following America’s lead and developing their own drones to target their distant enemies by remote. In fact, some fifty countries have drone programs underway.
A 2011 survey found that the number of unmanned aerial systems in development or deployed worldwide jumped from 195 in 2005 to 680 in 2011. The Teal Group, an aerospace and defense consulting firm that tracks these sorts of things, recently estimated that “UAV spending will almost double over the next decade from current worldwide UAV expenditures of $6.6 billion annually to $11.4 billion, totaling just over $89 billion in the next ten years.” To be sure, the U.S. will account for the lion’s share of the drone spending binge—some 62 percent of drone spending over the coming decade—but that means other nodes of power will account for 38 percent of that $89-billion pie. And the rest of the world is certain to get a return on its investment.
Israel’s aptly-named Depth Command has used UCAVs to target and destroy arms convoys in Sudan, and Aviation Week reports that Israeli and/or Turkish drones have been spotted roaming the skies of Syria. (Both countries deploy long-range drones built by Israel.)
Moscow turned to Israel for a batch of UAVs in 2009. After watching the U.S. drone war from a distance—and Georgia’s use of drones up close—Russia’s Vladimir Putin recently declared, “We need a program for unmanned aircraft.” Although it appears that Putin is most interested in using drones to monitor what’s happening inside Russia, Moscow is earmarking $13 billion for drone development between now and 2020, including “automated strike aircraft,” according to Putin. A Russian-built UCAV should take to the skies in 2014, with the goal of having “strike drones” in service soon thereafter.
China has at least a dozen UAVs and UCAVs on the drawing board or in production. The Pentagon’s recent reports on Chinese military power detail a rapid evolution in drone technology, noting “acquisition and development of longer-range UAVs and UCAVs…for long-range reconnaissance and strike” (2011); acquisition of the Israeli HARPY drone system (2009); development of UCAVs to enable “a greater capacity for military preemption” (2007); and interest in “converting retired fighter aircraft into unmanned combat aerial vehicles” (2005). China recently began deploying UAVs on some warships and boasts that some of its drones fly faster than the Predator or Reaper.
At a 2011 air show, according to those in attendance, Beijing showcased one of its new jet-powered drones by playing a video demonstrating “the aircraft locating what appears to be a U.S. aircraft carrier group flying close to Taiwan. The drone is shown sending targeting information back to shore for a follow-up attack.” Underscoring the validity of worries about the proliferation of drones to less-than-responsible actors, a Chinese drone-industry official told The Washington Post: “The United States doesn’t export many attack drones, so we’re taking advantage of that hole in the market.” Pakistan is at the front of the line.
“We need to be careful about who gets this technology,” Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association told The Los Angeles Times. “It could come back to hurt us.”
Indeed it could. Even if the spread of UCAV technology doesn’t harm the United States in a direct way, it seems unlikely that opposing swarms of semiautonomous, pilotless warplanes roaming about the earth, striking at will, veering off course, crashing here and there, and sometimes simply failing to respond to their remote-control pilots will do much to promote a liberal global order. Indeed, it would be ironic if the promise of risk-free war presented by drones spawned a new era of danger for the United States and its allies.