The Spread of Military Drone Technology

Yesterday’s Washington Post had a well-researched front page story by William Wan and Peter Finn describing how dozens and dozens of countries are acquiring drones for military and other uses.  The article is careful not to call this an “arms race” in drone technology, which is one of the elements that makes this an astute piece of reporting.  It says:

More than 50 countries have purchased surveillance drones, and many have started in-country development programs for armed versions because no nation is exporting weaponized drones beyond a handful of sales between the United States and its closest allies …

Military planners worldwide see drones as relatively cheap weapons and highly effective reconnaissance tools. Hand-launched ones used by ground troops can cost in the tens of thousands of dollars. Near the top of the line, the Predator B, or MQ9-Reaper, manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, costs about $10.5 million. By comparison, a single F-22 fighter jet costs about $150 million.

Defense spending on drones has become the most dynamic sector of the world’s aerospace industry, according to a report by the Teal Group in Fairfax. The group’s 2011 market study estimated that in the coming decade global spending on drones will double, reaching $94 billion.

As I’ve discussed at VC before, this does not constitute an arms race, at least not in usual “competitive driver” sense of the term.  Countries are acquiring drones not so much because other countries are acquiring them, but because they are concluding that irrespective of how other countries behave, drones are a cheaper, more efficient, more useful alternative to manned aircraft.  There is an independent incentive to acquire drones, an incentive independent of competitive strategic pressures. Countries would do this in any case.

(Update:  A reader sent the cartoon at the link.)

I am quoted in the article about a different aspect of the universalization of drone technologies:

“This is the direction all aviation is going,” said Kenneth Anderson, a professor of law at American University who studies the legal questions surrounding the use of drones in warfare. “Everybody will wind up using this technology because it’s going to become the standard for many, many applications of what are now manned aircraft.”

Meaning, unmanned aircraft are going to transform large parts of aviation, not just military aviation.  Drone technology might have started out as a military R&D effort, but like many other originally military technologies, it will continue to spread into civil aviation.  It will do so for many of the same reasons it is spreading in military aviation – cheaper and more efficient, as the technologies of sensors and control improve.  When I was on vacation in California, I spoke as I did last year with Forest Service personnel, who talked about using surveillance drones as a vastly more useful and cheaper way to monitor for forest fires, for example.  Many of the applications are about surveillance of large territories.

No one should be surprised at this, as we gradually move to a more roboticized society and economy, as Ryan Calo notes in an excellent short article here – cars, trucks on highways, aviation in various ways, lots of things.  His article, and the longer SSRN article from which it is drawn, goes on to make a larger and astute point about the fundamental direction of US robotics; for my purpose here his description of the transformative nature of robotics is well taken:

There is a sense in which robots are already mainstream. Your car was probably built by a robot. If you have ever purchased shoes from, a robot likely fished them out of the warehouse. Robot assistance is more common than not in certain surgeries. Sales of iRobot’s robotic vacuum cleaner are in the millions.

Look closely at headlines and you’ll begin to see robots there as well. Robotic submarines helped asses the extent of the BP oil spoil. A robot defused the bomb in Time Square. We sent robot ground units and drones to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Robots helped rescue the trapped New Zealand miners. More telling still: In the wake of a mining accident in West Virginia, a journalist asked why we were still sending real people into dangerous mines in the first place.

It is for these reasons and more that I believe Bill Gates’ vision of “a robot in every home”; I can see where Honda comes up with the estimate that it will sell more robots than cars by 2020; and I can understand why the Computing Community Consortium would entitle their 2009 report (PDF) to Congress “A Roadmap for U.S. Robotics: From Internet to Robotics.”

Over time, the military applications of drone technology will be similar to what they are in aviation generally – military aviation is an important sector of aviation, but only a sector. Unmanned aerial vehicles will be much the same.  The real arms race in military uses of drones will come, not in the spread of drones worldwide, but instead in the counter-drone technologies – technologies designed to counter drones, and protections for drones as aircraft.  That raises a whole different set of issues, however.

Moreover, it is not sufficiently appreciated that the US military and CIA developed and deployed drones in part as a counterterrorism tactic, but also as a technological counter by the US to lawfare – violations of the laws of war by terrorists and insurgents on the other side more than happy to hide among civilian populations; drone technology in both its surveillance and weaponized versions is in considerable part an attempt by the US the find ways to overcome those behavioral counters to US conventional military superiority.

As I have remarked in the past, I think there are limits on how well that can work – the people on the other side can find new ways to violate the laws of war through their behavior faster than the US can come up with new technological means to counter those behavioral moves. Consider how long it took Gaddafi’s forces to figure out that they needed to abandon their tanks and blend with the civilians; that in turn meant that the short loiter times available to British and French manned attack aircraft were not as effective as they had been; this in turn led to urgent requests from NATO commanders to the US for drones, not merely surveillance drones but weaponized drones, because they could more effectively help sort out targets.  Having said that, however, it always bears repeating that the effectiveness of drones in reducing civilian harms is heavily dependent upon the extent to which drones are embedded in an intelligence web of on-the-ground intelligence gathering.  One of the important differences between the use of drones in AfPak and in Libya is that such intelligence gathering on the front, ground-end is in place in AfPak after many years of effort; the same cannot be said for Libya, and the quality of the targeting as well as civilian damage reflects that.

In other words, those who regard drone technologies as having started with the US having some grand vision of drone warfare as the original cause misunderstand how much it is itself a response and a counter.  In its current form, it escalated as a function of the US seeking (as the US so often does) a technological counter, a technological fix, to rapidly evolving behavioral (and, in this case, often illegal) tactics by the other side.  The development of drones in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism for the United States owes a great deal to what international law scholar Mark Osiel has accurately called the “end of reciprocity.”

(I’ve recently discussed drones and targeted killing in two recent articles up on SSRN.  One addresses the general question of whether there is a “legal geography” of armed conflict in the context of drones and targeted killing.  It is a short, policy and non-academic (ie, no footnotes and 8,000 words) essay that is part of  Hoover Institution volume on national security and law.  The other is a draft paper, undergoing revision now, on a question I will address later – the frequently heard claim that drones are bad because they make it “too easy” for a country to engage in uses of force because its troops are not at personal risk.  That claim shows up in some quotes in the Wan and Finn WaPo article; it raises a very different set of moral and legal issues, which I’ll leave for another post.  But my congratulations to Wan and Finn on a fine piece of reportage on an important national security issue.)