The Future of Drone Warfare

Ben Lerner, the vice president for government relations at the Center for Security Policy, gave a very informative talk on drone proliferation at a recent Center gathering on Capitol Hill.  Those interested in security issues would be well-advised to heed some of the challenges Mr. Lerner discusses – and which are described below – as we move further into the 21st century, where drone warfare will become only more prevalent and important.  As Lerner points out, "you don't have to be one of the good guys to acquire drone technology. Hostile nation-states, as well as non-state actors such as terrorist organizations or drug cartels, are getting their hands on drones as well."

According to a Teal Group report that Lerner cites, more that $6 billion is spent each year on developing drone technology worldwide, a number that is expected to double over the next decade.  Almost 90 percent of this spending is expected to be on military applications.  The RAND Corporation notes that 70 nations already have acquired drones, while 50 countries are developing them.  Defense One noted predictions from some experts that "virtually every country on Earth will be able to build or acquire drones capable of firing missiles within the next ten years."

Analysis by IHS Inc. shows that the United States will likely remain the largest drone user for the foreseeable future.  Currently, the U.S. constitutes nearly half of the global drone market, with the U.S. Air Force at half the American demand.

Prior to 2015, the U.S. exported armed drones only to the United Kingdom, with some other NATO countries receiving unarmed drones.  Starting in February 2015, the Obama administration approved widespread drone exports with certain conditions.  Each case will be assessed separately, and foreign military sales regulations will apply.  Potential purchasers will need to commit to basic principles of use with respect to international law on military force and human rights, agree not to use them for unlawful domestic surveillance, and agree to potential end-use monitoring.  Under the non-binding Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), Lerner points out that the U.S. has "committed to approaching requests for our armed drones with a 'strong presumption of denial' – meaning if a country comes to us asking to buy our drones, if they have a range of more than 300 km and can carry more than 500 kg, we force that country to make a strong case for why they should have these drones."

Lerner's research further highlights a Frost & Sullivan study showing that Israel is the largest drone exporter, sending about half its exports to Europe, about one-third to the Asia-Pacific, and a little over 10 percent to South America.  Several European nations – such as the U.K. and France – are developing combat drones in collaborative networks to reduce their reliance on American and Israeli drones.  South Korea and developing nations such as Colombia and India are also working on their own military drone capacity.  Of course, China, Russia, Iran, and various non-state actors such as Hezb'allah and Hamas are also using and developing drone technology.

Among potential adversaries, China likely has the most advanced drone program.  While not yet equal to the U.S. program, Lerner refers to a Project 2049 Institute report indicating that the Chinese have an "extensive design, [research and development], and production infrastructure spread across state-run industries and universities." China's drone programs started in the 1950s using downed Soviet drones that were reverse-engineered, but the real thrust of China's program began in the late 1990s and has been augmented by recent Chinese hacking efforts into the U.S. defense establishment.

As one might expect, Russia's drone programs took a major hit after the fall of the USSR, but serious efforts – helped by $9 billion in funding – have been made since 2005 to restart the programs and catch up to the Americans.  From interviewing other experts, Lerner learned that the Russian program went "dark" a few years ago and was probably taken over by Russian Army intelligence.  Lerner also notes that the Russians are reportedly working on a drone base just 400 miles from Alaska in order to provide better reconnaissance capacity to the Russian fleet in the northern Pacific.

Iran's active drone program is working on long-range armed drones with potential capability to reach Israel.  Iran claims to have captured and reverse-engineered U.S. drones, but Lerner says these claims warrant suspicion because of Iran's long history of related propaganda.  In discussions with Lerner, Steve Zaloga from The Teal Group stated the following:

Short term, the US probably does have a fair amount of concern about Iranian UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] operation and use, and not because they are terribly sophisticated. I would describe it more as a nuisance than a serious threat, but the U.S. military is still concerned. Iranian UAVs will probably grow in complexity and sophistication, especially if Iran is able to tap into a significant exporter. So for example, if China decides to support Iran by permitting UAV sales, that could bring about a very, very big change.

Among the non-state actors, Hezb'allah is the largest drone threat.  The group reportedly has over 200 drones and has repeatedly violated Israeli airspace – including near Haifa and Dimona (where Israel is thought to house its nuclear weapons).  Hamas also has drones and brought them into Israeli airspace from Gaza last year.  Lerner points to a Lexington Institute article by Daniel Goure calling small drones "[t]he IEDs of the Next War":

The airframe [for a small drone] can be made from cheap materials. They can be powered by battery-driven electric motors found in gardening implements. They need no better guidance system than the GPS [global positioning system] that can be found in the average cell phone. But if you want command guidance you can get a small video camera almost anywhere and route the feed through that same cell phone connected to the local communications network. They can be built in a garage and launched from the driveway.

In terms of preventing drones from getting into the "wrong hands," Lerner says there are only two non-binding global arrangements: the MTCR and the Wassenaar Arrangement.  Neither China nor Iran is a member of either agreement.  While there are those who want to include drones explicitly in the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty, there is a broader push in certain circles to develop binding protocols for the production, use, and dissemination of drones.  Lerner summarizes the position of those advocating for such international rules or norms governing drones specifically as being along the lines of "our use of armed drones, particularly away from so-called 'hot battlefields', is creating a precedent where others will feel they can do what we do – or at least, frame what they do as being no different than what we do. So we need to get in front of this and take the lead on creating norms for acceptable use of drones."

But Lerner's position takes the opposite view.  He is deeply skeptical about the desirability of new "international norms" on the acceptable use of drones.  When interviewed for this article, he was of the opinion that:

Such new norms are 1) unnecessary, since we already have international law on the use of force that can cover drones; and 2) unlikely to be effective, because the parties whose drone use we are most concerned about (China, Russia, Iran, terrorist groups) are least likely to be affected by new norms on drone use, because they will either have no regard for such norms (especially the case with non-state actors) or they'll argue that their use of drones is consistent with the new norms, even if they're not, and will proceed ahead with whatever it is they want to do. In the meantime, such new norms – it seems to me – could be manipulated as another means by which to constrain U.S. use of drones, to the detriment of U.S. national security.

Lerner also says he "is not a fan of the UN Arms Trade Treaty generally (nor is my organization, Center for Security Policy) because it infringes on American sovereignty and constitutional rights, among other reasons."

One of the most interesting drone topics in discussions with Lerner are the points he makes regarding the cost of dealing with hostile drones.  Iron Dome missiles cost from $40,000 to $100,000 each.  On the other hand, the U.S. Navy is now deploying a Laser Weapon System (LAWS) in the Persian Gulf, and reports are coming in that the cost is as low as just $0.59 per shot.  These directed energy technologies are getting a lot of attention and support in the military because of the cost-exchange ratio concept, whereby it is relatively inexpensive for adversaries to build low-cost technologies such as drones but it is expensive for our side to bring these cheap weapons down with missiles.  Furthermore, there will always be limits on the number of defensive missiles available – especially in forward positions – but directed energy weapons can offer effectively unlimited defensive capacity provided a long-term power source is available.  Other anti-drone technologies include electronic warfare (e.g., communications disruption, hacking, etc.) and drone swarms of our own.

Overall, work done on the status of drone proliferation by organizations such as the Center for Security Policy highlights some critical challenges in what the organization's president – Frank Gaffney – often terms the "battle space in what we call the 'War for the Free World.'"

Ben Lerner, the vice president for government relations at the Center for Security Policy, gave a very informative talk on drone proliferation at a recent Center gathering on Capitol Hill.  Those interested in security issues would be well-advised to heed some of the challenges Mr. Lerner discusses – and which are described below – as we move further into the 21st century, where drone warfare will become only more prevalent and important.  As Lerner points out, "you don't have to be one of the good guys to acquire drone technology. Hostile nation-states, as well as non-state actors such as terrorist organizations or drug cartels, are getting their hands on drones as well."

According to a Teal Group report that Lerner cites, more that $6 billion is spent each year on developing drone technology worldwide, a number that is expected to double over the next decade.  Almost 90 percent of this spending is expected to be on military applications.  The RAND Corporation notes that 70 nations already have acquired drones, while 50 countries are developing them.  Defense One noted predictions from some experts that "virtually every country on Earth will be able to build or acquire drones capable of firing missiles within the next ten years."

Analysis by IHS Inc. shows that the United States will likely remain the largest drone user for the foreseeable future.  Currently, the U.S. constitutes nearly half of the global drone market, with the U.S. Air Force at half the American demand.

Prior to 2015, the U.S. exported armed drones only to the United Kingdom, with some other NATO countries receiving unarmed drones.  Starting in February 2015, the Obama administration approved widespread drone exports with certain conditions.  Each case will be assessed separately, and foreign military sales regulations will apply.  Potential purchasers will need to commit to basic principles of use with respect to international law on military force and human rights, agree not to use them for unlawful domestic surveillance, and agree to potential end-use monitoring.  Under the non-binding Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), Lerner points out that the U.S. has "committed to approaching requests for our armed drones with a 'strong presumption of denial' – meaning if a country comes to us asking to buy our drones, if they have a range of more than 300 km and can carry more than 500 kg, we force that country to make a strong case for why they should have these drones."

Lerner's research further highlights a Frost & Sullivan study showing that Israel is the largest drone exporter, sending about half its exports to Europe, about one-third to the Asia-Pacific, and a little over 10 percent to South America.  Several European nations – such as the U.K. and France – are developing combat drones in collaborative networks to reduce their reliance on American and Israeli drones.  South Korea and developing nations such as Colombia and India are also working on their own military drone capacity.  Of course, China, Russia, Iran, and various non-state actors such as Hezb'allah and Hamas are also using and developing drone technology.

Among potential adversaries, China likely has the most advanced drone program.  While not yet equal to the U.S. program, Lerner refers to a Project 2049 Institute report indicating that the Chinese have an "extensive design, [research and development], and production infrastructure spread across state-run industries and universities." China's drone programs started in the 1950s using downed Soviet drones that were reverse-engineered, but the real thrust of China's program began in the late 1990s and has been augmented by recent Chinese hacking efforts into the U.S. defense establishment.

As one might expect, Russia's drone programs took a major hit after the fall of the USSR, but serious efforts – helped by $9 billion in funding – have been made since 2005 to restart the programs and catch up to the Americans.  From interviewing other experts, Lerner learned that the Russian program went "dark" a few years ago and was probably taken over by Russian Army intelligence.  Lerner also notes that the Russians are reportedly working on a drone base just 400 miles from Alaska in order to provide better reconnaissance capacity to the Russian fleet in the northern Pacific.

Iran's active drone program is working on long-range armed drones with potential capability to reach Israel.  Iran claims to have captured and reverse-engineered U.S. drones, but Lerner says these claims warrant suspicion because of Iran's long history of related propaganda.  In discussions with Lerner, Steve Zaloga from The Teal Group stated the following:

Short term, the US probably does have a fair amount of concern about Iranian UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] operation and use, and not because they are terribly sophisticated. I would describe it more as a nuisance than a serious threat, but the U.S. military is still concerned. Iranian UAVs will probably grow in complexity and sophistication, especially if Iran is able to tap into a significant exporter. So for example, if China decides to support Iran by permitting UAV sales, that could bring about a very, very big change.

Among the non-state actors, Hezb'allah is the largest drone threat.  The group reportedly has over 200 drones and has repeatedly violated Israeli airspace – including near Haifa and Dimona (where Israel is thought to house its nuclear weapons).  Hamas also has drones and brought them into Israeli airspace from Gaza last year.  Lerner points to a Lexington Institute article by Daniel Goure calling small drones "[t]he IEDs of the Next War":

The airframe [for a small drone] can be made from cheap materials. They can be powered by battery-driven electric motors found in gardening implements. They need no better guidance system than the GPS [global positioning system] that can be found in the average cell phone. But if you want command guidance you can get a small video camera almost anywhere and route the feed through that same cell phone connected to the local communications network. They can be built in a garage and launched from the driveway.

In terms of preventing drones from getting into the "wrong hands," Lerner says there are only two non-binding global arrangements: the MTCR and the Wassenaar Arrangement.  Neither China nor Iran is a member of either agreement.  While there are those who want to include drones explicitly in the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty, there is a broader push in certain circles to develop binding protocols for the production, use, and dissemination of drones.  Lerner summarizes the position of those advocating for such international rules or norms governing drones specifically as being along the lines of "our use of armed drones, particularly away from so-called 'hot battlefields', is creating a precedent where others will feel they can do what we do – or at least, frame what they do as being no different than what we do. So we need to get in front of this and take the lead on creating norms for acceptable use of drones."

But Lerner's position takes the opposite view.  He is deeply skeptical about the desirability of new "international norms" on the acceptable use of drones.  When interviewed for this article, he was of the opinion that:

Such new norms are 1) unnecessary, since we already have international law on the use of force that can cover drones; and 2) unlikely to be effective, because the parties whose drone use we are most concerned about (China, Russia, Iran, terrorist groups) are least likely to be affected by new norms on drone use, because they will either have no regard for such norms (especially the case with non-state actors) or they'll argue that their use of drones is consistent with the new norms, even if they're not, and will proceed ahead with whatever it is they want to do. In the meantime, such new norms – it seems to me – could be manipulated as another means by which to constrain U.S. use of drones, to the detriment of U.S. national security.

Lerner also says he "is not a fan of the UN Arms Trade Treaty generally (nor is my organization, Center for Security Policy) because it infringes on American sovereignty and constitutional rights, among other reasons."

One of the most interesting drone topics in discussions with Lerner are the points he makes regarding the cost of dealing with hostile drones.  Iron Dome missiles cost from $40,000 to $100,000 each.  On the other hand, the U.S. Navy is now deploying a Laser Weapon System (LAWS) in the Persian Gulf, and reports are coming in that the cost is as low as just $0.59 per shot.  These directed energy technologies are getting a lot of attention and support in the military because of the cost-exchange ratio concept, whereby it is relatively inexpensive for adversaries to build low-cost technologies such as drones but it is expensive for our side to bring these cheap weapons down with missiles.  Furthermore, there will always be limits on the number of defensive missiles available – especially in forward positions – but directed energy weapons can offer effectively unlimited defensive capacity provided a long-term power source is available.  Other anti-drone technologies include electronic warfare (e.g., communications disruption, hacking, etc.) and drone swarms of our own.

Overall, work done on the status of drone proliferation by organizations such as the Center for Security Policy highlights some critical challenges in what the organization's president – Frank Gaffney – often terms the "battle space in what we call the 'War for the Free World.'"