In 2001, the United States launched its first drone strike in Afghanistan. It was the signaling of a new type of counterterrorism strike. From that date, the strikes grew nominally and geographically. Between 2001 and 2008, there were about 50 strikes. Between 2009 and 2014, about 450 strikes. Recently, the U.S. has utilized drone strikes in Syria. Between August 2014 and May 2015, armed drones carried out 875 of 3,800 airstrikes.
While unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have a rich military history, the proliferation of drones is now coming to the forefront of policymakers, researchers, and scientists. As both the commercial and military sectors of this technology grow, so too do the concerns and speculation surrounding it.
In a new paper titled “The Consequences of Drone Proliferation: Separating Fact from Fiction,” three researchers argue that while current-generation drones introduce unique war capabilities, they are unlikely to have a great impact on interstate warfare.
“With limited weapons capabilities, the ability to operate only at relatively slow speeds, and no ability to defend themselves against ground-based or airborne threats, there are significant limits on the types of operations where drones are useful,” the researchers wrote.
Besides the U.S., countries that have used drones in combat include Israel, Nigeria, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom. Over a dozen additional states—including Iran, Iraq, China, and Saudi Arabia—reportedly possess armed drones. “By the end of 2014, 27 countries possessed ‘advanced’ drones, defined as UAVs that can stay in the air for at least 20 hours, operate at an altitude of at least 16,000 ft, and have a maximum takeoff weight of at least 1,320 lbs,” according to the researchers.
However, these drones are unlikely to affect interstate relations, the researchers claimed.
“Contrary to the conventional wisdom, moreover, drones might actually enhance security in disputed border regions by providing states with greater ability to monitor contested regions persistently at lower cost, leading to reassurance that potential adversaries are not attempting to change the status quo through force,” the researchers wrote. “The limited significance of current-generation drones in interstate contexts beyond monitoring stems from a key technological limitation: UAVs currently in operation are vulnerable to air defense systems, meaning that they are much less likely to be effective when operating in hostile airspace.”
But future UAVs are more than likely to surpass the capabilities of current iterations. China is reportedly developing a stealth drone named the Sharp Sword. At the same time, the U.S. Navy is developing a stealth drone based on its experimental X-47B drone.
But “trends in the development of military robotics in general suggest that drones are merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the integration of military robotics in militaries around the world,” according to the researchers.
Anticipating the further advancement of drone technology, the authors commented that the U.S. has the potential to play an important role in shaping global standards for drone use.
More transparency from the U.S. “concerning its decision-making process for drone strikes could give it more credibility in seeking to convince other countries to use their newly acquired drone capabilities in ways that comply with international law,” the researchers wrote.