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Q. Will there be a drones “arms race”?

A report by the Teal Group predicts an increase in worldwide spending on drone procurement and research and development (R&D) from $6.6 billion in 2013 to $11.4 billion in 2022.9 Currently, US spending on R&D accounts for more than half of the worldwide spending on these ventures. The Teal Group report predicts that the United States' drone budget will increase only slightly by 2022 compared to the rise in other countries' expenditures.

Despite the increased interest in drones, the outcome may not be the arms race that some observers have predicted. In 2011, for example, the New York Times headline blared: "Coming Soon—The Drone Arms Race"; the piece opened with the line: "what was a science-fiction scenario not much more than a decade ago has become today's news."10 Today's news though meant that US strikes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and other countries have left other countries rushing to catch up. As one defense analyst observed, "virtually every country on earth will be able to build or acquire drones capable of firing missiles within the next ten years. Armed aerial drones will be used for targeted killings, terrorism and the government suppression of civil unrest. What's worse, say experts, is that it's too late for the United States to do anything about it."11 Such prognostications ignore several natural obstacles that stand in the way of the ubiquitous proliferation of advanced armed drones.

First, while some observers have suggested that stopping "the spread of drone technology will prove impossible [because they] are highly capable weapons that are easy to produce," another perspective suggests the spread of the more lethal, capacious technology will not necessarily be so easily diffused.12 These two perspectives could be compatible on some level. Indeed, anyone can go online and buy a rudimentary drone, so these could easily and quickly diffuse, and smaller- scale tactical drones have proliferated quickly as the previous sections suggest. These drones can create disruptions, but do not pose the same lethality as the type of drones that are of concern in terms of proliferation, such as the Predator or Reaper that are long-range and capable of high impact lethal strikes.

On the contrary, the technology required for advanced armed drones may be out of reach except to the most advanced militaries. Developing an advanced armed drone such as a Reaper requires complex engineering to fully develop the complex web of aircraft design, precise missile systems, operating systems, and stealth that makes for effective drones. Even fairly sophisticated militaries have struggled to produce the type of advanced armed drone that the United States has used in combat. Russia, for example, has had its efforts to acquire more advanced drones thwarted by technical challenges. In one case in January 2010, an armed drone prototype of the Stork drone crashed and burned as it attempted takeoff, effectively ending the program. Russia is thought to be about 20 or more years behind the United States, with the prospect of a combat drone that can replace its Cold War-era Tupolev bombers not scheduled to be ready for combat until at least 2040.13

Several European countries, such as France and Italy, which have expressed an interest in armed drones, have not been able to produce the technology through their development efforts. This has limited them to employing unarmed versions of the United States' Reaper. A consortium of Airbus, Dassault, and Alenia Aermacchi has been looking to develop a medium- altitude, long-endurance drone by 2020. The group has struggled to meet common requirements across countries, making the target date less and less feasible. The partnership between France and the United Kingdom to develop a Future Combat Air System is in the development stage but will not test demonstrators until the 2020s with a system fielded in the 2030s.14

A second obstacle standing in the way of an inexorable march toward a world of armed drones is that while the domestic populace in a country such as the United States favors armed drone strikes as a way to minimize risk to their own troops, the situation in other countries can look quite different. Leaders advocating the acquisition of armed drones have experienced intense opposition, with the public leery of violating the defensive security posture that is ingrained in Europe's post-World War II identity. In Germany, for example, the prospect of armed drones has produced an animated debate about the ethics and strategic implications of using armed drones, with those on the left arguing that armed drones would lower "the political threshold for using force," causing Germany to use force in "increasingly remote regions of the earth," and therefore should not be part of Germany's arsenal.15 Signaling similar reservations about the use of armed drones, in February 2014, the European Parliament passed a declaration seemingly oriented toward the United States but presumably applying to its own defense posture, saying that "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."16 That European leaders are not enamored with drone strikes suggests that the permissive domestic politics environment of the United States may not be replicated elsewhere.

A third factor that might impede the diffusion of advanced armed drones is that they might not be seen as producing a high enough payoff when taking into account the costs and benefits. While their unit costs have come down in the United States, many countries would find the costs of investing in unmanned technology within their own defense sector to be prohibitive. Indeed, the European experience with the unmanned Euro Hawk, which was cancelled in 2013 because of high costs, may be instructive. Having spent about $750 million in the project, the countries involved cut their losses when it became clear that the unmanned aircraft did not have the required "sense and avoid systems" that avoid collisions in the European Union, or lightning and icing protection required by NATO. Not only does the prospect of new development systems come with high costs—some of which become known only over the course of development—the benefits are not entirely clear. To be sure, having an armed drone reduces the human costs of war to the state using the technology, but from a purely operational perspective, countries might be satisfied with having an armed equivalent (e.g., an F-16) or a cruise missile that does not incur the same investment costs.

A fourth reason why the diffusion of armed drones may not take the form of an arms race is that countries unable to produce armed drones indigenously cannot simply go to an international arms bazaar and purchase them. Indeed, while the international institutional mechanisms under the MTCR are not perfect, they do impact the availability of supply, decreasing access to armed drones. Thus, early prognostications about nuclear proliferation—which proved wildly pessimistic because nonproliferation initiatives ended up reducing the supply of materials needed to stockpile nuclear weapons—might serve as an appropriate guidepost for armed drone proliferation. In 1960 presidential candidate John F. Kennedy had predicted that there would be 20-25 nuclear countries by the end of the decade. In the third presidential debate he claimed: "there are indications because of new inventions, that 10, 15, or 20 nations will have a nuclear capacity, including Red China, by the end of the Presidential office in 1964. This is extremely serious... I think the fate not only of our own civilization, but I think the fate of world and the future of the human race, is involved in preventing a nuclear war."17 Yet with the growing nonproliferation movement, pressures increased to limit the horizontal proliferation of nuclear weapons so that by the end of the decade there were only five countries in possession of nuclear weapons. In other words, nuclear technology was also thought to be diffusing quickly and yet efforts to stem proliferation through limiting the supply were successful. The historical analogy could prove apt in the case of advanced armed drones, whose availability may be curtailed by international institutions such as the MTCR and which are not easily produced by most states themselves.

Understanding whether technology will diffuse quickly on its own is important since proposals to control the spread of armed drones hinge on the idea that the spread of drones is not inexorable. If drone proliferation becomes easy and rampant, then trying to influence responsible drone exports would be not only futile but even counterproductive. In this scenario, the drone industry would be correct to say that if the United States does not supply or export drones, other states will, and the United States will lose out on market share.18 Indeed, this is very much what happened to the satellite industry in the 1990s when Congress chose to restrict the export of satellites once it began considering them as a potential military tool. The US share of the satellite market dropped from 73% to 30% and the technology became ubiquitous when Europe branded its satellites as unconstrained by the type of regulations that had been put in place in the United States.19 As this discussion suggests, there are reasons to believe that advanced armed drone technology will not be ubiquitous, in which case efforts to stem proliferation can be fruitful at least in terms of the supply side of the technology.

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