The Drone Invasion Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

Why sensationalizing drone proliferation is going to kill our ability to control them.

Photo: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images
Photo: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

A casual observer of recent reporting and analysis of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — most commonly referred to as drones — might assume that the world is already awash in drones of all shapes, sizes, and capabilities. Amazon’s contrived hint of drone-delivered packages only tantalized the public’s imagination back in December, and seemingly new uses for drones are found each day, from identifying rhinoceros poachers, to border control, to tracking whaling ships. But this apparent runaway train of drone proliferation (and its misreported uses) is actually stymieing efforts to promote or influence responsible armed-drone exports and their uses. Because if drones are already ubiquitous, then efforts to control their spread — whether through tight export controls or pressure on major producers to restrict their transfers, which Barack Obama’s administration is now contemplating in a long, contentious interagency review of U.S. drone exports — are unnecessary and even misguided.

The problem with this now commonly stated assumption — that the world is fully equipped with drones — is that while these news articles hyping a drones arms race are exciting, they are also misleading. Take, for example, a report on March 5 that North Korea has developed an armed drone that it could use to threaten the region. The problem is that the capability is little more than a kamikaze missile, a far cry from the American version that the drone is purportedly intended to resemble.

Contrary to these sensationalist accounts, the international market for armed drones — the most potentially threatening and destabilizing type — is quite small. Actually, it’s minuscule, projected to be about $8.35 billion by 2018, around which time the global defense market is expected to reach $1.88 trillion, which would mean that drone expenditures will make up less than 0.5 percent of the world’s defense spending. Even though global drone expenditures are expected to grow roughly a billion dollars a year (though they actually fell from $6.6 billion to $5.2 billion between 2012 and 2013), the business of UAVs will remain little more than a small focus of defense spending outside the United States for the next decade.

Part of the reason the public is so easily manipulated is that much of what is known about the development of armed drones is clouded in secrecy. Some countries, including the United States, maintain covert programs for obvious reasons like maintaining the strategic element of surprise, while others, such as Iran, boast of armed drones that have not been demonstrably used in order to garner national prestige. There are also government announcements of deadlines for developing them that appear to go unmet, as well as aspirational statements by drone manufacturers for orders that are never fulfilled.

Drone sales have indeed increased markedly over the past few years. A decade ago, analysts estimated that global spending on commercial and military drones would be $2 billion in 2005, and the amount projected over the next decade was estimated to be nearly $11 billion. In 2013, $5.2 billion was spent on drones — a 21 percent decrease from the previous year — with $89 billion projected for the next 10 years combined. Of that amount, only an estimated 11 percent, or $9.9 billion, is expected to be used to purchase armed drones. However, it is important to keep these numbers in perspective. According to IHS Jane’s, global defense spending in 2013 was $1.54 trillion.

The global market still belongs overwhelmingly to the United States and Israel, which were estimated in 2012 to comprise three-quarters of all drone sales. A November 2012 report estimated that U.S. defense firms Northrop Grumman and General Atomics accounted for 40 percent and 25 percent, respectively, of worldwide drone manufacturing. No other company had more than 3 percent of the market share. In 2013, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimated that Israel was responsible for 41 percent of drone exports between 2001 and 2011. However, China has reportedly sold two of its smaller armed drones to the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan, raising concerns about whether China would export its larger Predator-equivalent drone (the CH-4) to countries such as Iran.

According to the Teal Group, over the next decade 51 percent of global drone procurement and 65 percent of global research and development on drones will be solely American. This should not be surprising given that the United States has been the lead actor in the development and use of all drones and that the Pentagon’s budget is bigger than the next 10 largest defense budgets combined.

And though many militaries around the world are pursuing drones, the vast majority of armed drones in development will not resemble U.S. armed drones, such as the Predator and Reaper, which have the greatest potential to be used against perceived adversaries domestically or in neighboring territories. Most drones will be used for surveillance to capture full-motion video or collect signals intelligence. Of the 27,420 aerial drones that the Teal Group projects will be purchased in the next decade, just 3 percent are estimated to be either medium-altitude, long-endurance drones (like the weapons-capable Predator and Reaper) or unmanned combat aerial vehicles (armed drones). This is also true for the United States. According to a recent Pentagon report, the United States possesses some 11,000 aerial drones, of which fewer than 400 are capable of being weaponized.

That other countries have not followed the United States’ lead in acquiring armed drones may be surprising given what might seem to be the enviable position of using them to target adversaries while not incurring any meaningful risk. But while one can buy a rudimentary drone at Brookstone, producing an advanced armed drone is no small technological feat. The United States’ armed drones require sophisticated beyond-line-of-sight communications, access to satellite bandwidth, and systems engineering — from internal fire control to ground control stations — that are currently beyond the reach of most states. Even countries that have relatively advanced aerospace programs — Russia, France, and Italy — will struggle to develop and deploy this systematic architecture of capabilities and processes.

Moreover, in some countries domestic politics have impeded armed drone developments. Whereas the U.S. targeted killing program has faced few domestic constraints, drone politics look considerably different in other countries. In late February the European Parliament passed an unprecedented resolution, declaring: "Drone strikes outside a declared war by a state on the territory of another state without the consent of the latter or of the UN Security Council constitute a violation of international law and of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of that country."

In Germany, advocates of the armed drone program have encountered intense opposition from a public worried that the lethal capability could compromise the country’s defense-only security norms and increase the prospects for military interventions more generally. The German debate demonstrates how the prism through which both sides view armed drones is significantly influenced by their perception of the morality, legality, and necessity of U.S. drone strikes. Thus, while the Ministry of Defense declared for a half-decade that it planned to purchase 16 armed drones, the decision was postponed in November and is once against under review.

In an era when most defense budgets — outside the Asia-Pacific region — are static or in slight decline, costs will constrain armed drone developments and purchases. As the United States has learned, armed drones are not markedly cheaper than manned fighter aircraft, and in some situations they are actually more expensive. Human intelligence is costly and required in large numbers to analyze and disseminate the full-motion video and signals intelligence collected by drones. Before committing to redirect precious defense dollars, governments must identify the military missions for which armed drones are uniquely suited and that cannot reliably be achieved by the weapons systems currently in their arsenals. To date, the majority of governments worldwide simply have not rushed away from manned aircraft, rocket and artillery, or special operation forces — and toward armed drones.

The truth about drone proliferation matters because the Obama administration is in the final stages of a long, contentious interagency review of U.S. drone exports. If the White House’s strategy is based on the misperception of a world characterized by limitless drone proliferation, then a policy of markedly reduced barriers for U.S. drone exports is sensible, because states would ultimately acquire armed drones irrespective of U.S. policies. If, however, proliferation does have structural and normative impediments, then how the United States — as the largest manufacturer of armed drones — develops its export strategy could have an impact on the breadth and speed with which the technology diffuses. And then some of the caricatures of drone proliferation may end up being credible. The result could be that more states will be armed with the low-risk technology that arguably lowers the threshold for using force, with potentially destabilizing consequences for regional and international security.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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