Drone warfare: a global danger

The United States and its allies are pioneering the use of armed-drones. But other states, including their strategic rivals, are catching up.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
26 September 2013

The increased use of armed drones by the United States and its most important allies is reflected in an important new report on Britain's drone operations in Afghanistan by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ). In an extension of its effort to track the human casualties of the United States drone campaign in Pakistan, the report notes that Britain's use of the Reaper armed-drone was 22% of the total for 2008-11, with around 300 missile-strikes undertaken (see NATO Watch, 24 September 2013).

The BIJ focuses, in its “Naming the Dead” project, on assessing the human costs of drone attacks by all the states involved in this form of warfare. Its latest publication lists the names of 550 people, of which 295 are said to be civilians (ninety-five of them children). The bureau's work makes a timely contribution to the debate over armed-drones - even more because a neglected factor in the discussion is that the US and UK's greater reliance on drones is reshaping their role in warfare and accelerating their proliferation across the world (see "Drone wars: the Afghan model", 14 February 2013).

The proliferation game

Until recently, the only major producers and exporters of armed-drones were the United States and Israel. These were joined by Britain as the three states making extensive and repeated use of these weapons in combat. This is changing rapidly, as powerfully demonstrated in research published by the civil-society intelligence group Open Briefing.

Open Briefing, in its study of Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles, uses public domain sources to analyse UCAV developments in Israel and five other countries: China, India, Iran, Russia and Turkey. The study - in turn commissioned by the Network for Social Change's Remote Control Project - selects Israel for attention because so little has appeared in the open literature about its extensive drone programme, whereas the US developments are both well-known and controversial.

A remarkable element of the Israeli programme is its extensive export activities; taking all drones (armed and unarmed) into account, Israel has around 40% of the world export market, with a value from 2006-13 estimated at $4.6 billion. But there is also a strong domestic market, for Israel's own armed forces are also relying increasingly on drones, not least the long-range Heron TP. This reflects a strategic reduction of ground forces and an increase in air-power capacity (both aircraft and UCAVs) for long-range operations. There are unconfirmed reports that Israel has used long-range armed-drones to target Hizbollah supply-lines in Sudan, and it will certainly use UCAVs such as the Heron in the event of a conflict with Iran.

Here, though, is where proliferation kicks in. Iran itself has a major drone research and development programme (Open Briefing identifies seventeen drones, including six armed variants, in use or on track). Iran's air force is essentially a “legacy” one, much of it dating from before the 1979 revolution; but its drone programme is largely indigenous, an achievement Iran is rather proud of.

Turkey is the major player in the middle east, with twenty-four different drones in use or under development (including four armed-drones). Turkey has a substantial homegrown aerospace industry, and its interest in armed-drones is indicative of a trend likely to be followed by other countries. 

India is at a relatively early stage in the armed-drone field, although its forces have deployed unarmed drones for over a decade. Five of these types have been imported from Israel as have two armed-drones, but it is intent on domestic production. The new head of India's Defence Research and Development Organisation, Avinash Chander, said in August 2013 that the DRDO is planning to test-fire precision-guided munitions from UCAVs “within a couple of months”.

India's motivation owes something to China's rapid move into the armed-drone business. Open Briefing has identified forty-six drones of all types in use or being planned, including eleven armed-drones. This links with China's aim to deploy its own global positioning system, based on the Beidou-2 satellite system, by 2020. Such a homemade GPS, coupled with long-range armed-drones, will provide China with formidable export potential.

Open Briefing's report also looks at Russia, so far a relatively weak performer (it has even imported drones from Israel). But it too is now changing, with fifty-five drones of all kinds in use or under development, including six armed variants.

The long-term outlook

Overall, what emerges from the research is a rapidly growing interest in armed-drones (see "Drone wars", 22 April 2009), The export market is currently dominated by the United States and Israel, but new players - especially the Chinese - are likely to become significant. Moreover, this area of weapons development has considerable implications for international security. The United States's operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere are grounded on a belief that it has the right to undertake targeted assassinations for its own security. If that is true for Washington, it is difficult to argue that it does not hold for other states as well.

On such a basis, if Russia were to claim that it was being threatened by paramilitary groups operating in Georgia or another neighbouring state, if China saw threats from Myanmar or Vietnam, or if Turkey became concerned about Kurdish separatists coming from Iraq or Iran - then what counter-argument would be available to the United States or any of its allies?

Armed-drones are proliferating; there is no arms-control process anywhere in sight; “case law” is evolving rapidly to justify their use. For states that have tired of putting thousands of boots on the ground and are looking for other ways of maintaining “remote control”, this class of weapons may now seem very attractive. But on all evidence, the long-term implications have simply not been thought through.

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