The Drones Race

Officials should start thinking about how to control the spread of unmanned aircraft.

The global drones race is upon us. Today, more than 50 countries use unmanned aerial vehicles for surveillance. Armed with high-resolution cameras and electronic sensors, these remote-controlled planes are quickly becoming the preferred method for intelligence collection on the battlefield and at home.

Only a handful of countries have armed drones, and the United States is by far the world's leader when it comes to the navigational sophistication of these aircraft, the weapons systems they carry and the size of its fleet.

But that gap is narrowing. A front-page story in The Washington Post recently reported that at China's biggest air show this year, "crowds swarmed around a model of an armed, jet-propelled drone and marveled at the accompanying display of its purported martial prowess." A video animation showed the drone launching an unchallenged attack on what looked like a U.S. aircraft carrier group floating off the shores of Taiwan. Message from China to the United States: Anything you can build, we can build better.

That's probably an exaggeration, of course. And one should expect a lot of public chest-thumping from the Chinese since much of what they know about unmanned aerial technology they probably stole from U.S. manufacturers. Their drones are likely to remain technically inferior to ours for years to come.

But that should offer little comfort to the Pentagon and the intelligence community. The fact is, a country doesn't need the sleekest, most advanced drone to carry a surveillance camera or to fire a missile. Drones pose a low barrier to entry for countries, or nonstate groups, that want to practice a new kind of remote warfare, one in which human beings make different strategic calculations because they are never in any danger. Drones make war cheaper and of less consequence. And as drones become more autonomous-able to take off and land on their own, and fly to their targets without constant minding from a "pilot"-they will make the conduct of warfare a less human exercise.

The United States recognizes the dangers of global drone proliferation, which is why the government exercises export controls on U.S. drone manufacturers.

But those controls can't stop other countries from selling their advanced drones to governments that we'd prefer didn't have them. And since so many countries already have figured out how to rig up a drone with a camera, it won't be long until they add a missile. The global drones race, and particularly China's highly publicized push into this area, will put pressure on the United States to arm its allies in the region. On a recent trip to Japan, this was a recurring theme I encountered even in casual conversation with strangers. The Post reported that in the wake of a territorial dispute with China last fall, the Japanese sent military officials to the United States to study the operations of high-altitude surveillance drones.

The momentum in the United States on "drone policy," such as it is, is a tactical one-building remote-controlled aircraft that can fly higher, longer and with less chance of detection. There is no comparable attention devoted to thinking through the strategic security challenges, and also the moral ones, that will come from the drones race. There is no appetite for a drones counterproliferation treaty because the United States doesn't want to relinquish its lead in military and intelligence. But as that lead becomes less of a security buffer against countries like China, policymakers will have to seriously consider an international agreement that limits the spread of drones and what countries are allowed to do with them.

Shane Harris is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, and a former staff writer at Government Executive.

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