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Drones unlikely to change balance of power between countries, scholar finds

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A U.S. MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft flies during a training mission in Nevada. CISAC scholar Matt Fuhrmann found that drones are unlikely to radically change power relationships between militarily well-established countries.
Photo credit: 
Isaac Brekken/Stringer/Getty Images

Drones are unlikely to radically change relationships between countries, according to a new study.

And while the U.S. will not always be an exclusive leader in this technology, the possibility exists that drones can actually help keep the peace in some situations, the researchers wrote.

One of the co-authors, political scientist Matt Fuhrmann, is a visiting associate professor at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.

In an email interview, Fuhrmann explained that drones are most useful for counterterrorism operations where the risk of them being shot down is very small. However, he noted, most situations in world politics are not like this.

“Current-generation drones are vulnerable to enemy air defenses, in part because they fly relatively slow. It is therefore difficult to employ this technology against another government, making drones mostly unhelpful for military deterrence or coercive diplomacy in an interstate context,” Fuhrmann said.

“Drones, then, are unlikely to dramatically transform interstate relations the way that technologies such as nuclear weapons did,” he added. 

Fuhrmann points out, however, that drone technology is changing quickly. “Technological advancements – for example, the development of swarming platforms, where a large number of drones fly together in formation – could make drones more transformative in the future.”

U.S. drone monopoly fading

Since November 2001, when the U.S. launched its first drone strike in Afghanistan, its drone strikes have grown in both geographic scope and number, extending to Pakistan in 2004 and Somalia in 2007, and increasing from about 50 total counterterrorism strikes from 2001 to 2008 to about 450 from 2009 to 2014.

Though the U.S. is the most prolific user of combat drones, other countries have used them as well – Iraq, Israel, Nigeria, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom. Almost a dozen countries, including China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, reportedly now possess armed drones, and many others – such as India – are racing to acquire them.

“To whatever extent a U.S. monopoly on cutting-edge drones existed, it is over,” wrote Fuhrmann and the others. Drones are a high priority in military investment for many states now and into the near future.

Few drones, Fuhrmann said, are as capable as the U.S. Reaper, which can remain in the air for many hours, has an operational range of more than 1,000 miles, and is linked to an advanced communications network.

“Countries such as Iraq are unlikely to successfully field Reaper-like drones in the near future, but that could change over time,” he said.

How should the U.S. respond to rising drone interest around the world? Fuhrmann said that an increase in drones is inevitable, but that does not mean that the technology will severely undermine American strategic interests.

“The global spread of militarily useful UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones) could affect U.S. national security, but in more limited ways than the alarmist view suggests – namely, by lowering barriers to the use of force domestically or in uncontested airspace,” they added.

While technological advancements will likely make some drones more deadly for combat use in regions of conflict, they will also enable drone usage in a much broader array of missions than counterterrorism strikes.

Domestic usage likely

Apart from interstate relationships, one concern is that states might internally use drones for domestic political reasons, Fuhrmann said.

“Drones give a leader more centralized control over the use of military force, making the technology attractive to leaders who distrust the military. Autocratic leaders, therefore, are drawn to drones because they may be useful for domestic control or, potentially, repression,” he said.

Fuhrman said that many of the states pursuing armed drones today are dictators.

“While we often assume that democracies crave drone technology, since it eliminates the possibility that the pilot would be killed if the aircraft is shot down, we should not forget that autocrats have their own unique reasons to seek this technology,” he said.

Norms and nations

The use of armed drones also raises important ethical dilemmas. What will become the “norms” or standards of behavior by states when using drones?

The U.S. can help shape such global norms for drone use if it opens up its own processes, Fuhrmann said.

“More transparency by the United States 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,” he and his co-authors stated.

Right now, the norms regarding drones are murky, Fuhrmann said.

“Are drones just like any other technology, like tanks, that is part of a modern military? When is it acceptable to carry out drone strikes? What happens when a drone is shot down? We do not yet have clear answers,” he said

In regard to technologies such as naval warships, nuclear weapons and chemical weapons, the international community has sought to clarify norms through international agreements about what is “appropriate,” Fuhrmann said.

“Doing something along these lines for drones through a treaty or an informal agreement might help identify clearer standards, and the United States could play a key role towards that end,” he said.

Keeping the peace

Fuhrmann said that while people think of drones as “destabilizing,” they may offer stabilizing benefits as well. Drones equipped with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities can provide states with valuable information about an adversary in real-time.

“These drones could therefore reduce uncertainty along contested borders or in other areas where they are less vulnerable to shoot-down,” he said. “Because uncertainty about an adversary’s intentions or military maneuvers can be a source of conflict, drones may promote peace to some degree.”

The title of the study was “Separating Fact from Fiction in the Debate over Drone Proliferation.” It was published in the journal International Security. Other co-authors include Michael C. Horowitz from the University of Pennsylvania and Sarah Kreps from Cornell University.

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MEDIA CONTACTS

Matthew Fuhrmann, Center for International Security and Cooperation: (650) 723-0337, mcfuhrmann@gmail.com

Clifton B. Parker, Center for International Security and Cooperation: (650) 725-6488, cbparker@stanford.edu