An expert's point of view on a current event.

Trump Is Playing Iran’s Game of Drones

Contrary to popular belief, drones aren’t further destabilizing global conflicts—they’re creating a way for leaders to de-escalate crises.

Iranian demonstrators carry a portrait of Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and an effigy of U.S. President Donald Trump at a rally in Tehran on May 10.
Iranian demonstrators carry a portrait of Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and an effigy of U.S. President Donald Trump at a rally in Tehran on May 10. Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

Iran’s attack on a remotely piloted U.S. Navy MQ-4C drone operating over the Strait of Hormuz adds another flash point to an already tense relationship between Tehran and Washington, but it need not trigger escalation.

Indeed, Iran may have downed the drone precisely because it viewed the action as a means of signaling its displeasure with the United States—without the risk of escalation associated with attacking a manned asset. The decision on whether to escalate the crisis now lies in the hands of U.S. President Donald Trump and his national security team.

In ongoing research, I find that remotely operated systems—like drones—can help limit escalation during interstate crises. On one hand, states might be more likely to shoot down drones than manned platforms. Doing so allows a state to appear tough without endangering the lives of a rival state’s personnel. Attacking drones, for instance, can signal displeasure with an adversary’s policies or military actions, complicate a rival’s surveillance operations, or showcase military prowess to domestic and international audiences—all without taking a human life.

Although Iran chose to attack an unmanned drone (rather than ignoring it or attacking a manned platform), its decision to target a high-altitude, jet-powered MQ-4C Triton using a surface-to-air missile is significant. First, Iran’s use of overt physical force to down the drone suggests that Tehran intended to send a clearer strategic signal than it did in 2011, when it electronically hacked an RQ-170 drone and subsequently captured it. Second, the Triton is significantly more expensive than medium-altitude, propeller-driven platforms like the MQ-9 Reaper. There are also far fewer Tritons than Reapers in the Pentagon’s arsenal. Choosing to shoot down a high-demand, low-density asset rather than a more ubiquitous and cheaper Reaper could mean that Tehran hoped to send a stronger signal of its displeasure with recent U.S. actions and policies in the region.

In 2011, and on other occasions, Iran has attacked U.S. drones—such as when its jets fired on a U.S. Air Force Predator in 2012 or when its special forces launched a missile at an MQ-9 drone in the Gulf of Oman last week—the United States has refrained from retaliating in a direct or visible manner. This American restraint makes sense. Relative to an attack on a traditionally manned asset, the loss of a drone to hostile action is less likely to trigger the sort of reactions among government officials and the general public that can lend themselves to escalatory acts of retaliation. Without the loss of lives, decision-makers may not believe that significant military action is needed to prevent subsequent attacks. They may also not experience the type of emotional reactions attached to the loss of life that can trigger acts of revenge. As a result, decision-makers may simply ignore attacks on drones or find ways to de-escalate after these attacks.

I find support for this logic in a series of experiments that I embedded in war games simulated with individuals with military experience. These national security practitioners perceived attacks on drones as less important to retaliate against as compared with attacks on manned assets. Given that only machines—and not lives—are lost, participants avoided retaliating when drones were shot down. Indeed, many explicitly suggested that the downing of a drone did not justify military escalation.

In contrast, war-game participants frequently launched retaliatory airstrikes against the offending state when manned aircraft were downed. As one military officer explained, “Once you put the body into it, it changes the interaction between states. … The risk of escalation with manned assets is higher.”

Trump has also latched onto this logic. While taking questions from reporters on Thursday, Trump stated it would have made a “big, big difference” if Iran had shot down a fighter jet with a pilot in it instead of a drone.

If history serves as a guide, Washington should avoid a direct retaliation for the downing of its drone. The United States, for instance, ignored China’s attacks on drones during the Cold War and took months to acknowledge Syria’s downing of an Air Force Predator in 2015. The fact that no American lives were lost in these incidents allowed the government to display a muted response. In neither case did the United States launch military retaliation. But Thursday’s shootdown occurred amid a swirl of anti-Iran rhetoric among elements of the Trump national security establishment.

The loss of a machine rather than American pilots, however, should allow the White House to retaliate with words and nonmilitary actions instead of bombs and missiles. Indeed, Trump’s distinction between drones and manned assets hints that he may limit retaliation and prevent further escalation. Trump has also already suggested that the shootdown might not have been intentional but a “mistake” by someone “stupid.” This is precisely the sort of off-ramp that allows leaders to de-escalate attacks on drones that is not available after manned platforms are downed.

While it is far from decided how this incident pans out, Thursday’s developments highlight important implications for future crises. Drones are an increasingly common fixture in modern military operations in geopolitical hotspots across East Asia, South Asia, and the Baltics. Crises involving drones will become more common. And despite the fact that at least 90 countries operate unarmed drones, international regulations like the Law of Armed Conflict and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea make no distinction between inhabited and remotely operated systems.

As the operational deployment of drones increases, decision-makers may benefit from reevaluating the tactics, norms, and international laws that govern their use. Although drones and manned platforms are equivalent under international law, governments seem to view these systems differently. Indeed, the relatively restrained reaction to drone losses thus far suggests that there is an emerging norm in which the downing of a remotely operated asset should not trigger an aggressive military response.

But the emergence of a norm is no guarantee against escalation. The international order would benefit from more formal agreements and guidelines—similar to the Cold War-era U.S.-Soviet Incidents at Sea Agreement—that offer procedures for deconfliction and de-escalation in the event of crises. These agreements, coupled with doctrines and rules of engagement that distinguish drones from manned assets, may help guide decisions during future crises and help prevent potentially destabilizing escalatory spirals.

How the Trump administration responds to the shootdown will set an international precedent.

Erik Lin-Greenberg is a fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation an incoming Assistant Professor at American University’s School of International Service.