Q. Does the proliferation of drones present security risks?
The nature of the proliferation concern would depend on the type of drone in question. Advanced armed drones are likely to be destabilizing for regional and international security. As the UN Special Rapporteur for extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions noted, "drones make it not only physically easier to dispatch long-distance and targeted armed force, but the proliferation of drones may lower social barriers in society against the deployment of lethal force and result in attempts to weaken the relevant legal standards."20 The report goes on to say that because the use of drones does not introduce casualties on the side using them, they will be used more readily.
If drones do lower the threshold for using force, then the states that acquire them will be more willing to use or threaten force than they might otherwise. They might take more crossborder, interstate actions with fewer reservations, which would be particularly destabilizing in areas that are already prone to distrust, such as the East and South China Seas. Similarly, the CIA reports that there are more than 430 bilateral maritime boundaries that are not governed by formal agreements. These boundaries, where the rules governing them are ambiguous, would be more susceptible to the use of armed drones, since states could literally "test the waters" with less risk than would be incurred with a manned equivalent.
A good example of the possible future of drone tactics and their destabilizing effects is the spate of Russian air incursions into NATO airspace in the Baltic Sea region. The International Business Times has written that "while the Russian patrols are regarded for now as routine, officials are sounding alarm that NATO has already registered 400 similar intercepts and the year (then 2014) has yet to end. Needless to say, the incursion spikes are directly connected with Moscow's soured relationship with the west."21 If long-range drones are added to the mix, the number of incursions into NATO airspace could significantly escalate as the costs of incursion decrease for Russia.
Similarly, in 2015 tensions spiked around the India- Pakistani border after Pakistan's army shot down a drone that it claimed was spying, the allegation being that India was infiltrating Pakistani airspace near the Line of Control in Pakistan- occupied Kashmir.
The potentially destabilizing consequences could be more intense because of the unclear rules of engagement that attend the use of armed drones. Most states do not have clear operating procedures for drones entering their airspace. China, for example, is reported to have a policy of shooting down unannounced drones with surface-to-air missiles or jet fighters.22 Iran is thought to have brought down drones in two cases, one a US RQ-170 surveillance drone in 2011, and the other an
Israeli surveillance drone over the Natanz enrichment site in 2014. The former is thought to have been taken down by an Iranian cyberwarfare unit.23 The dilemma, as Panetta has put it, was this:
was this a deliberate act of war by Iran or the foolish work of a rogue pilot? Without knowing the answer to that question, we also faced a second: should we fly the routine mission again—it occurred every few days—or call it off? If we did fly, and the drone was shot down, we'd be in an explosive situation with Iran. If we didn't, we'd effectively be acquiescing to Iran's unwarranted attack. The last thing we needed was for Iran to conclude that it could shoot at us with impunity.24
As these examples suggest, even the use of unmanned surveillance aircraft raise a number of uncertainties about how states use force, and the calculus about how other states might respond when confronting drones. Some states, such as China and Iran, might be less reluctant to shoot down drones. Complicating matters, as Panetta suggests, are that rules of engagement for how the country operating the drone responds in turn are currently ambiguous. On one hand, those countries would not be in a legitimate position to retaliate given that they would be or were violating another country's airspace, but on the other hand, in areas where territorial boundaries are less clear, the absence of clear rules of engagement is problematic. The international relations scholar Robert Jervis shows how a number of examples about decision-making under conditions of uncertainty explain how "people draw inferences from ambiguous evidence and, in turn, help explain many seemingly incomprehensible policies. They show how, when, and why highly intelligent and conscientious statesmen misper- ceive their environments in specific ways and reach inappropriate decisions."25
Where rules are unclear and misperceptions may already reside, the prospect for escalation becomes a concern. Indeed, that neither the United States nor Israel would retaliate in response to their drones being shot down is not obvious; either state might have done so, leading to the potential for escalation. Even the expectation that the United States or Israel would not retaliate could have the paradoxical effect of encouraging more aggressive stances from Iran. In this regard, the ambiguity about rules of engagement for cyberconflict mirrors that for drones. What constitutes an act of aggression? And what are the appropriate responses to those acts of aggression? The technology has led these policies and may create openings for miscommunication and ultimately conflict.
Another concern that intensifies this dynamic is the uncertainty, as the 2013 report notes, "about which States are developing and acquiring armed drones."26 For states to be deterred from using force, they need to have as much information as possible about the force that would meet them in retaliation. States—and indeed nonstates—have been quite cagey about their capabilities, perhaps hoping that others will conclude that their own capabilities are more formidable than they actually are, essentially bluffing. This seems to have been the case with Hamas's drone in 2014, which proved hopeless against the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) air defenses. A number of countries tout their version of the American Predator—i ncluding China with its Pterodactyl and Turkey with the Anka. Turkish Aerospace Industries has remarked that "if you can't buy them, copy them," but how well-executed those copies are remains unclear.27
Beyond the context of changing how states engage in interstate conflict, the possession of armed drones might also change the way states use force at the intrastate level. For some of the same reasons that states find drones attractive in an interstate setting—primarily that they come at low risk and cost—t hey might be inclined to use them against perceived domestic enemies. Many of the countries that have or are pursuing armed drones, such as Russia, Pakistan, China, and Turkey, have opposition or insurgency movements that have challenged leaders' rule. Drones might provide attractive answers to these leaders, choosing to target insurgency or suspected terrorist networks with drones rather than ground forces or manned aircraft. Insurgents would most likely lack basic air defenses, and drones, with their precision and long loiter time, might be seen as being able to perform tasks that may otherwise be too risky.
In addition to the destabilization that could come from states acquiring armed drones, and the overall lack of solid intelligence on the lethality and strength of the fleet, comes the potential for destabilization from more specialized drones. Smaller, unarmed drones, if used together as a "swarm," could be reason for concern, as they can be used to overwhelm enemy air defenses. These might seem less advanced, but still they require significant engineering capabilities. Mechanical engineer Vijay Kumar characterized the problem: "these devices take hundreds of measurements each second, calculating their position in relation to each other, working cooperatively toward particular missions, and just as important, avoiding each other despite moving quickly and in tight formations."28 Flying this many drones in formation would require sophisticated hardware and software that would be out of reach for many countries but possible and quite harmful for those who can acquire it.
Another type of swarming threat would come from "dirty drones" that could be armed with chemical agents such as sarin. The US military appears to be concerned about this and is soliciting technologies that can defend against these drones. Detecting these drones would present challenges for sensor systems such as Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) that are typically oriented toward larger assets. The challenge for defense arises from being sensitive enough to detect micro-drones but not so sensitive that they detect everything that moves.
While there are a number of drone technologies that in and of themselves could present security risks, it is important to point out the potential security benefits that might arise from using drones. Surveillance and reconnaissance drones, in particular, may increase transparency in ways that could defuse tensions. Surveillance drones such as the Global Hawk, for example, might actually promote the kind of exchange of information and transparency that helps alleviate uncertainty on which the seeds of conflict might otherwise be sown. Drones are also being used in the service of homeland security to monitor borders and interdict drug producers and smugglers in countries ranging from Mexico to Bolivia to China. Indeed, since 2014, the Chinese government has been using drones in mountainous regions of the country to conduct antidrug reconnaissance missions, a use of drones that follows how countries in Latin America have been using drones for surveillance for the last several years. Whether they instead contribute to escalation in areas that are crisis-prone such as East Asia remains to be seen. As mentioned previously, the lack of clear rules of engagement could prove fateful if even an unarmed drone crosses into another country's airspace without explicit permission.