These 5 Facts Explain the Rise of the Drone

6 minute read

The October 15 release of the so-called Drone Papers, leaked reports that appear to document the U.S. use of drone aircraft for military purposes, has given the world its closest look yet at the inner workings of modern drone warfare. But as these five facts explain, the weaponization of drones is no longer just an American phenomenon:

1. U.S.

It’s easy to understand the appeal of drones for modern militaries. They cost less than manned fighter jets, they don’t risk the lives of military personnel and they intimidate enemy combatants with a demonstration of technological superiority. Problem is, they can be disturbingly imprecise when weaponized—the Drone Papers appear to show that for every intended target killed in a distant U.S. drone strike, another six people are killed. During a five-month period in Afghanistan, “nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets.”

Technology is supposed to minimize collateral damage, not increase it. The Drone Papers show that in Afghanistan, drone strikes were 10 times more likely to kill civilians than conventional aircraft. Nevertheless, the Pentagon remains committed to drones and has built up an arsenal of about 7,000; a decade ago it had less than 50.

In March 2015, the State Department issued new rules and regulations for drone sales abroad, stating that they will evaluate sales on a case-by-case basis and extend them only to “friendly nations.” But while the U.S. may take great pains to limit its own sale of drones, other countries won’t be nearly as careful.

(New York Magazine (a), New York Magazine (b), Huffington Post, Friends Committee on National Legislation)

2. China

Beijing is still playing catch-up to the U.S. when it comes to drone production; it won’t be for much longer. According to the U.S. Defense Department, China will build nearly 42,000 drones worth about $10.5 billion between 2014 and 2023. We can’t yet estimate how many of those will be armed. For China, drones are a growth industry with significant market potential. Forecast International, a private market research firm, expects state-owned Chinese defense company Aviation Industry Corporation of China to become the world’s #1 producer of drones by 2023.

For the U.S., the main concern is to whom Beijing will sell all those drones, especially the ones outfitted with weapons. Last year, China sold five armed drones to the Nigerian government to help fight Boko Haram. The U.S. is also keen to see Boko Haram defeated, though it has yet to trust Nigeria’s government with U.S.-made combat drones. China does not share the same concern. It’s the same story in Pakistan; Islamabad has long tried to purchase armed drones from Washington, but the U.S. has refused to export this sensitive technology. In September Pakistan launched an attack on Islamist militants using combat drones that resembled Chinese makes and models, according to weapons experts. Clearly, China will sell to customers that the U.S. won’t (yet) touch.

(The National Interest, The Diplomat, The Daily Beast, Financial Times)

3. Israel

But China isn’t even the world’s largest exporter of drones; that title belongs to Israel. Between 2010 and 2014, Israel exported 165 drones worldwide; America was second with 132. Between 1985 and 2014, Israeli drones made up nearly 61 percent of the global drone trade.

In fact, Israel has been using drones since its 1982 war with Lebanon, and has spent the last three decades refining the technology. In 2013, drones accounted for 10 percent of the country’s military exports, and the international business consultancy Frost and Sullivan estimates that its exports will grow between five and ten percent through 2020.

India announced less than a month ago that it has accelerated plans to buy 10 Heron TP drones from an Israeli firm for roughly $400 million. The deal makes sense for Israel; but the world should be concerned that now both India and Pakistan—the textbook definition of geopolitical rivals—possess combat drones. A nuclear exchange between these two remains far too frightening for either to contemplate seriously. Drone fights are another matter and could draw the two sides toward dangerous confrontation.

(The Guardian, Huffington Post, Haaretz, UPI, Reuters)

4. Iran

Israel isn’t the only country in the Middle East investing heavily in drones. Iran has been using them since the Iran-Iraq war in the late 1980’s. The U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office explains that “no aspect of Iran’s overt military program has seen as much development over the past decade as Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).” By 2014, Tehran had succeeded in developing more than a dozen different drone models. Exact Iranian drone figures are still hard to come by; however, there is general consensus that Iran’s drones lag far behind American and Israeli variants, especially when it comes to mounting them with weapons.

Still, Iran has done the best it can with a shoestring military budget of $30 billion, investing resources on “suicide drones” designed for kamikaze use. The lifting of nuclear sanctions will unlock more than $100 billion for Tehran, and given Iran’s interest in military outcomes around the Middle East, it’s a good bet that Tehran’s burgeoning drone program will be a significant beneficiary. For a country that has a troubling history of waging proxy wars across the region, the rise of drones gives it yet another tool with which to extend its reach.

(Jerusalem Post, Slate, New York Times, US News)

5. Non-State Actors

Iran is a well-known sponsor of Lebanon’s Hezbollah militants; military analysts believe it funnels between $60 and $200 million a year to the group. In 2013, it already had a fleet of nearly 200 Iranian-made drones. Now it appears that Iran is providing Hezbollah—and Hamas—with the technological know-how to build these drones themselves. Last year, Hamas announced that it had three different drone models in its possession capable of surveillance, launching missiles, and nose-diving into targets. It’s difficult to verify these claims; these groups have obvious incentives to exaggerate their military capabilities. What is undoubtedly true is that each day brings us closer to a world where terrorists groups will use drones to further inflame the already combustible Middle East.

And let’s not forget ISIS; the U.S. revealed last month that it had shot down three ISIS drones to date. While ISIS is still miles away from access to drones that can compete with far more sophisticated American models, it is worrisome that a terrorist group that takes in more than $1 million a day has embraced the strategic value of using drones to wage wars.

(Christian Science Monitor, Ynetnews, NBC News, The Weekly Standard, New York Times)


Ultimately, it’s still too early to say how the rise of weaponized drones will change 21st century warfare. But if history is any indication, countries and other actors will learn to adapt. Drones don’t make the world any safer or more dangerous; they just change the rules of the game.

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