Drone warfare is one of the most important international security developments of the 21st century. The United States has carried out thousands of drone strikes, ranging from attacks on non-state actors such as al Qaeda to the operation last January that killed Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani. Turkey has used nationally armed drones against the Kurdistan Workers Party, Nigeria against Boko Haram, and Iraq against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates carried out deadly attacks in Libya and Yemen using drones. In the past few weeks alone, Azerbaijan has used armed drones, arguably to great effect, in the war with Armenia, especially against tanks and artillery.
Armed drones are proliferating rapidly, so drone warfare is likely to become even more prevalent in the years to come. Our research shows that 18 countries obtained armed drones from 2011 to 2019. In contrast, prior to 2011, only three countries had armed drones: the US, UK and Israel.
The rapid increase in drone deployment has coincided with the emergence of China as a major supplier. From 2011 to 2019, 11 of the 18 countries we tracked purchased armed drones from China. In contrast, during the same period, the United States exported armed drones to only one country: France. As armed drones spread and a new administration takes the reins in Washington, the United States will have to answer tough questions about whether, and to whom, it is willing to sell its sophisticated drone technology.
The old regime
The United States has the most advanced drones in the world and many interested buyers, but a voluntary export control regime created in 1987 severely limits its ability to sell armed drones. The Missile Technology Control regime was established during the Cold War to prevent the spread of missiles that could carry weapons of mass destruction. Under this regime, the United States is required, in most cases, to avoid exporting Category I systems – defined as those that can travel more than 300 kilometers and carry a payload of more than 500 kilograms.
The regime was supposed to regulate one-way missiles and not airplanes, but in 1987 drones were considered closer to the former than the latter because they were primarily designed for one-way missions to test missile accuracy or for very short range surveillance missions. . Modern drones are much more like airplanes as they can stay in the air for hours or days at a time and then return to base. Yet they currently remain under restrictions under the 1987 regime. Therefore, for much of the past decade, as China and others began exporting armed drones, the United States has been more slow to enter the market.
Winners and losers
US restraint has unwittingly but heavily affected the types of countries capable of acquiring armed drones. China claims that its exportable systems fall just below the Category I guidelines of the 1987 regime. In addition, although China says it follows these guidelines, it is not a formal member and therefore is more freedom to choose the markets for its drone exports. Few of them are in democracies. Of the 11 countries that purchased armed drones from China, such as Egypt and Uzbekistan, nine were undemocratic in the first year of acquisition. More generally, non-democracies were eight times more likely than democracies to acquire armed drones between 2011 and 2019, according to our research.
One of the reasons that non-democracies have become more likely to acquire armed drones during this period is that, compared to the United States, China places relatively fewer restrictions on how buyers use the weapons they import. Buyers therefore have the freedom to use the weapons as they see fit, even if this violates international law and human rights. As Xu Guangyu, a retired People’s Liberation Army major general, said, one of China’s main advantages in selling arms is that it “does not require status. and the internal policies of other governments ”. By comparison, the US drone export policy in 2015 – which clarified the conditions for exporting US drones given the 1987 guidelines and other conventional arms transfer policies – required recipients “Use these systems in accordance with international law, including international humanitarian and human rights law” and not to “use military AU[Vs] to conduct illegal surveillance or use illegal force against their national populations. Even France, a close American ally, needed permission from the US government to deploy armed MQ-9 Reaper drones at some point. The United States retains the influence necessary to cut off the supply of spare parts and ammunition to countries that do not play by their rules.
For these reasons, drones have proliferated in far greater numbers from China than from the United States, and the imbalance in this pattern has had consequences. US restrictions on drone exports have not stopped the weapons from spreading. On the contrary, they have left the democratic allies of the United States at a disadvantage compared to non-democracies when it comes to acquiring armed drones. China, meanwhile, has used drone exports to build defense relationships with countries around the world, including with American partners. For example, the United States has rejected requests for armed drones from Jordan, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. These countries bought Chinese armed drones instead.
The United States retaliates
In response to these unfavorable dynamics, the administration of US President Donald Trump decided in July 2020 to “reinterpret” the 1987 regime. Drones that travel at speeds below 800 kilometers per hour, such as the Predator and the Reaper from General Atomics, will now be categorized as Category II, making them easier to export. Since the policy change, the Trump administration notified Congress that it had approved the sale of armed drones to Taiwan and the United Arab Emirates, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, then Defense Secretary Mark Esper, pressured India to buy armed drones from the United States.
The American drive to export armed drones is likely to erode the advantage that non-democracies have had over democracies in the drone market. And the general rate of proliferation is likely to increase. Other potential suppliers, like Turkey, have also increased their sales in recent years and will contribute to a wider proliferation of drones. For example, Azerbaijan has used Turkish-made drones to conduct airstrikes in its war with Armenia.
Impact of new drones
While the frequency of drone attacks will likely increase in the near future as more countries – and non-state actors – acquire armed drones, the overall severity of the threat they pose remains relatively low, at least for the moment.
If detected, current generation drones are relatively easy to shoot down compared to manned aircraft because they are slower, less maneuverable, and generally unable to defend themselves. Iran, Syria and the Houthis have shot down American drones. Current generation drones therefore have limited utility in contested airspace and may not be so valuable in a conflict between sophisticated military powers. However, many armies are vulnerable to drone strikes, as Armenia has learned from Azerbaijani attacks on its Soviet-era air defense systems. Technology that allows drones to defend themselves or swarm and overwhelm enemy defenses could also make these weapons even more effective in the future.
Some research even suggests that the use of drones could help with stability in some cases. Experimental war games have shown that military decision-makers are more likely to favor aggressive military responses to the destruction of a manned aircraft than to that of an unmanned drone. For a concrete example, consider President Trump’s June 19 decision to forgo air strikes against Iran after he downed a $ 130 million RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance drone. To justify his decision, Trump tweeted that retaliation with airstrikes was “not proportionate to the downing of an unmanned drone”.
While the long-term impact of this military technology is not yet known, it is clear that the genie is out of the bottle and armed drones are proliferating rapidly. Big questions about the proliferation of drones therefore arise for a new Biden administration. President Joe Biden could reinstate Obama-era restrictions on US drone exports, again ceding the market to China. A Biden administration could, conversely, decide that there is no turning back, as drones become a more regular feature of warfare. Or it could chart a middle course, reestablishing a somewhat higher level of control for drone exports while making them more accessible to close allies, especially democracies.