The World Needs New Rules for Armed Drones

New data shows how armed drones are proliferating around the world and why international standards to govern them are overdue.

Before 9/11, the United States had only a tiny number of experimental drones that were never used in combat. The 9/11 attacks and the wars they engendered changed this. Today there are more than 7,000 American drones, some 200 of which are armed and which have killed thousands of people.

But the virtual monopoly on drones that the U.S. once enjoyed is long gone. According to data collected by New America, there are 85 countries that have some sort of drone capability, both armed and unarmed.

So far only three countries have used armed drones in conflict, the United States, Israel, and the United Kingdom. But other countries are arming drones and it’s only a matter of time before one of these countries will deploy them in combat.

Now, the United States is even going to start allowing the sale of American armed drones to foreign countries. On Feb. 17, the State Department announced the new policy that would allow certain, friendly governments to make purchases of armed drones from the United States if they agreed to a series of commitments, such as only using the drones when there’s a lawful basis to do so.

The State Department said that the United States has a “responsibility to ensure that sales, transfers and subsequent use of all U.S.-origin UAS [unmanned aerial systems or drones] are responsible and consistent with U.S. national security and foreign policy interests…as well as with U.S. values and international standards.”

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An example of other countries contemplating the use of drones in ways that could be inconsistent with U.S. values and international standards already exists, it came in 2013 when a state-run newspaper reported that the Chinese government had mulled the possibility of using armed drones to kill Naw Kham, a drug lord based in neighboring Myanmar who had murdered a group of Chinese sailors.

In the end, China decided to capture the drug lord instead of killing him in a drone strike, but it showed that the Chinese have this capacity and may be willing to use it, including in countries outside of China.

Why are these countries all getting into the armed drone business? Drones are far cheaper than buying or manufacturing fighter jets and training fighter pilots. 

Other countries are also arming drones — and have been for a couple of years now. In 2013, a Russian government website showed photographs of armed drones that were supposedly scheduled to begin test flights in 2014 (although, later the manufacturer moved the prototype release date back to 2018).

A year earlier the Iranians plausibly claimed they were building a new long-range drone that can fly 2,000 kilometers (about 1,250 miles), which puts Israel in range.

India has also started an armed drone program.

Why are these countries all getting into the armed drone business? Drones are far cheaper than buying or manufacturing fighter jets and training fighter pilots. U.S. Reaper drones cost $12 million each, while the F-22 fighter costs around ten times that amount.

This helps account for why a Virginia-based defense consulting firm, the Teal Group, estimated in 2013 that the global market for drones will almost double in the next decade, from $6.6 billion annually to $11.4 billion a year. And a 2011 study found that there were around 680 active drone development programs run by governments, companies and research institutes around the world, compared with only 195 six years earlier.

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According to New America’s research, 78 countries have drones with only surveillance capabilities.

Israel is the world’s largest exporter of drones and drone technology. New America found that Israel has sold drones and drone technology to 38 countries, ranging from Angola to Chile, Serbia, Thailand and the United States.

Armed drones aren’t limited to use by nation states only. Hezbollah, the militant Shiite group based in Lebanon, reportedly used drones to bomb a building used by al-Qaeda in Syria in September.

A month earlier, the Islamic State, or ISIS, uploaded a video to YouTube that showed surveillance footage of a Syrian Army military base that was shot by a drone.

Of the 85 countries with drones, 62 of them produce the drones domestically, meaning only 23 nations are wholly dependent on importing drone technology. That number will most likely change drastically in the coming years as the technology becomes more cost efficient and easier to make.

With all these changes and the proliferation of drones continuing at a steady pace, the idea of the United States asking countries to abide by “U.S. national security and foreign policy interests” in their “subsequent use of all U.S.-origin” drones is not a long-term solution to shape a rapidly changing environment.

Instead, international standards need to be put in place for drone use that governs both state and non-state actors and would govern the use, sale and transfer of these valuable weapons. While the Missile Technology Control Regime, or MTCR, seeks to place limits on weapons such as drones — including ballistic missiles, cruise missiles — by placing export controls on its member states, it’s only been joined by 34 countries and it’s limitations are optional, not binding under international law. Countries like Iran, North Korea and Pakistan, who are not member states, continue to deploy and sell weapons that the MTCR is trying to limit.

The United States has sold or given weapons to countries in the past, only to have those arms fall into enemy combatants’ hands. The Islamic State is the most timely example of this; they’ve managed to not only intercept U.S. arms drops meant for Kurdish fighters, but also taking Iraqi military bases and equipment that was provided for them by the United States, including U.S.-donated M113s, an armored personnel carrier, and an M1 Abrams tank.

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