A Drone Arms Race Coming Soon
At the Zhuhai air show in southeastern China last November, Chinese companies startled some Americans by unveiling 25 different models of remotely controlled aircraft and showing video animation of a missile-armed drone taking out an armored vehicle and attacking a United States aircraft carrier. It was stark evidence that the United States’ near monopoly on armed drones was coming to an end, with far-reaching consequences for American security, international law and the future of warfare.
Eventually, the United States will face a military adversary or terrorist group armed with drones, military analysts say. John Villasenor, professor of electrical engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles, notes that the Army had just announced a $5 million contract for a backpack-size drone called a Switchblade that can carry an explosive payload into a target; such a weapon will not long be beyond the capabilities of a terrorist network.
The Bush administration, and even more aggressively the Obama administration, embraced an extraordinary principle: that the United States can send this robotic weapon over borders to kill perceived enemies, even American citizens, who are viewed as a threat.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, military drones have become a routine part of the arsenal. In Pakistan, according to American officials, strikes from Predators and Reapers operated by the C.I.A. have killed more than 2,000 militants; the number of civilian casualties is hotly debated. In Yemen last month, an American citizen was, for the first time, the intended target of a drone strike, as Anwar al-Awlaki, the Qaeda propagandist and plotter, was killed along with a second American, Samir Khan.
If China, for instance, sends killer drones into Kazakhstan to hunt minority Uighur Muslims it accuses of plotting terrorism, what will the United States say? What if India uses remotely controlled craft to hit terrorism suspects in Kashmir, or Russia sends drones after militants in the Caucasus? American officials who protest will likely find their own example thrown back at them.
To date, only the United States, Israel (against Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza) and Britain (in Afghanistan) are known to have used drones for strikes. But American defense analysts count more than 50 countries that have built or bought unmanned aerial vehicles, or U.A.V.’s, and the number is rising every month. Most are designed for surveillance, but as the United States has found, adding missiles or bombs is hardly a technical challenge.
Israel and China are aggressively developing and marketing drones, and Russia, Iran, India, Pakistan and several other countries are not far behind.
[Excerpt of NYTimes article by Scott Shane]