The Global Swarm

Drones are not only spreading to other countries, they're becoming smaller and smarter.

Airman Gustavo Castillo/DVIDS
Airman Gustavo Castillo/DVIDS

"One plan was to use an unmanned aerial vehicle to carry 20kg of TNT to bomb the area, but the plan was rejected because we were ordered to catch him alive." This is what Liu Yuejin, director of China’s public security ministry’s anti-drug bureau, described of the manhunt for Naw Kham, the ringleader of a large drug trafficking outfit based in the Golden Triangle, who was suspected of killing 13 Chinese sailors. Ultimately, they got him via a cross-border nighttime ambush, the Chinese version of the Abbottabad raid.

This case, however, is useful to think about when talking about the global market for unmanned aerial systems (aka "drones") and where it is headed, a topic that got new energy last week with a New York Times report on the confusion as to whether it was American or Pakistani drones that carried out a controversial airstrike.

Too often in policy and media circles, we discuss a supposed American monopoly on drones that is potentially ending. Or, as Time magazine entitled a story, "Drone Monopoly: Hope You Enjoyed It While It Lasted." The article goes on to say,"It is going to happen; the only question is when."

The answer is: several years ago.

Today, the United States is ahead in the field of military robotics, and, given that we spend the most money and make the most operational use of unmanned systems, we certainly should be. All told, there are over 8,000 unmanned aircraft in the U.S. military inventory and another 12,000 plus unmanned ground vehicles. A growing number are large and armed, including the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reapers that get so much attention in the press.

Depending on which source you want to cite, there are currently between 75 and 87 countries that have used unmanned aircraft in their militaries. Of these, at least 26 have larger systems, including Predator equivalents that are already armed or of a model that has been armed in the past, such as the Heron, made by IAI and used by the Israeli Defense Forces, as well as several countries via export. Only the United States, the United Kingdom, and Israel are known to have used armed drones operationally, but as the case of Naw Kham illustrates, the limit on why others have not is frequently political, not technological. They are either not at war or have chosen not to go that route yet. However, these political limits are changing. Witness China’s open discussion of its plans in the People’s Daily, or Germany’s recent decision to acquire armed drones for deployments abroad, which follows Italy’s, France’s, etc.

In short, when we often talk about a supposed future of drone proliferation, we usually ignore the reality of the present. We already have a market that is global in both its customers, from Australia to Turkey, and in its manufacturers, from American firms like General Atomics and Lockheed to ASN Technology, one of the major makers in China, and ADE of India.

What really matters is not just the proliferation to an ever greater number of countries, but the proliferating makeup and uses of the technology itself. The first generation of unmanned systems was much like the manned systems they were replacing — some models actually had cockpits that were just painted over. Now, we are seeing an expanding array of sizes, shapes, and forms, some inspired by nature.

Within this trend, the size issue is important to discussions of armed drones. It is not just that drones are becoming smaller, but they are also carrying smaller and smaller munitions. So, if you want, for example, to carry out a targeted killing, do you need to send a MQ-9 Reaper carrying a JDAM or a set of Hellfire missiles? Or would a guided missile the size of a rolled up magazine, or a tiny bomb the size of a beer can that is equipped with GPS (both already tested out at China Lake) fit the bill instead, especially if it comes with less collateral damage? And if that smaller weapon is all that you need, do you need a drone the size of an F-16 to carry it?

While the discussion of the proliferation of armed drones has focused on those countries that field large systems, we will soon have to address those that have smaller systems. And at a certain point, we have to ask how we define a drone and how we should regulate them. We are already in the world of the Switchblade, a surveillance drone that is carried in a tube the size of a shoebox and can fly 50 miles per hour, but if needed can also turn lethal and deliver a hand grenade-sized explosion. It is a drone, but also a miniature cruise missile. Does it count?

Another trend that will matter is the growing intelligence and autonomy of armed drones.

Consider Northrop Grumman’s X-47 UCAS, a jet-powered, stealthy plane testing out in Maryland right now; or the Taranis, being tested in Australia by BAE; or the Blue Shark, rumored to be in development by the Chinese firm AVIC. In some ways, these unmanned combat planes represent traditional advances in weapons tech: They are designed to fly faster and further than our current generation of strike drones, and to better evade enemy defenses. But these planes are also very different than their predecessors: They are smarter and more autonomous. They are designed to take off and land on their own, fly mission sets on their own, refuel in the air on their own, and penetrate enemy air defenses on their own. The Taranis even has modules designed to allow it to select its own targets.

This greater intelligence has an important following effect: The user base and functions are expanding, which further lowers the barriers to entry and changes the quality and type of the proliferation further. The early versions of unmanned systems were like the early computers, you had to go through deep training just to make them do basic tasks. Now, just as experts once needed to learn Basic to use computers and now toddlers can use iPads, so too are advances in drone technology making them more accessible.

This will be important not just to states, but also non-state groups that are harder to regulate and deter. Indeed, Hezbollah may not have an air force academy, but it didn’t need one to figure out how to operate unmanned aerial systems against Israel. Similarly, for the Call of Duty video game (full disclosure: I consulted on it), Activision built a version of an armed quadcopter controlled by tablet computer that is better than most any tactical drone the U.S. military currently has.

This market expansion will further shift in a few years, when the ease of use meets lowered civilian political barriers. While drones are mostly restricted from civilian and commercial roles now, there is an ongoing process to integrate unmanned aerial systems into the civilian parts of the national and global airspace system. Presently, the Congress has recently set a deadline of 2015 for American airspace to open up to wider civilian and commercial use of drones, and the same trends are in play in a multitude of other nations from Britain to Brazil.

The scale of this market is estimated to be in the tens of billions in its first years, but it is frankly too early to know where it will end up. The part that matters for proliferation concerns is that as unmanned systems begin to be used in roles that range from policing to journalism to agriculture and air freight delivery, the market will reshape itself, much as what happened with computers. An area that was once viewed as military will become more and more civilianized. And here is where another parallel with computers will hold; applying old arms export-control regimes will become more and more difficult.

Those worried about drone proliferation must face facts. We are no longer in a world where only the United States has the technology, and we are not moving toward a future in which the technology is used only in the same way we use it now.

This means, in turn, that the frequent counter arguments to proliferation concerns have to catch up. Yes, only the United States has a global basing and strike architecture (for now), but that is also irrelevant to most of the issues the proliferation presents. No, Turkey cannot strike Mexico with its unmanned aircraft, but it really doesn’t want to. It can, however, reach into Northern Iraq and then cite U.S. precedent in Pakistan that would make for a sticky diplomatic situation. No, Hezbollah can’t fly its drones outside the Middle East. It has, however, demonstrated enhanced reach in the region with its own unmanned version of a mini-air force that has spooked Israel. Yes, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula would find it difficult to gain and operate a Predator, but a terrorist has already planned to fly a drone into the Pentagon (he got the drone, but fortunately got caught by the FBI before he got the explosives), while hobbyists have already shown the ability to cross oceans with their drones. No, China can’t yet extend its power across regions, into say Somalia, like the United States can. But it is creating the infrastructure — from the drones, to the global satellite navigation system it has built in Beidu, to its "string of pearls" strategy in the Middle East — that will eventually allow it to do so.

Addressing the challenges posed by drone proliferation is not impossible. But it will be if we continue to only conceptualize the technology and the market as they were five years ago. If we want to face their risks and begin to create global standards, we better start recognizing their status today, or even more importantly, the directions we are headed in the very near future.

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