The Democratization of Drone Warfare

Once a symbol of outright American military superiority, drones are on their way to becoming an ordinary weapon of war.

A new Iranian-made drone is seen during a ceremony in Tehran on May 9, 2013.
National Journal
Add to Briefcase
Kaveh Waddell
July 14, 2014, 6:55 a.m.

The awe­some power to at­tack from above, un­seen and out of harm’s way, was once the stuff of sci­ence fic­tion. It be­came real­ity in the early 2000s, when an Amer­ic­an fleet of omin­ously named Rap­tors, Pred­at­ors, and Reap­ers brought U.S. mil­it­ary su­peri­or­ity in­to the 21st cen­tury. But the U.S. isn’t the only kid on the block with mil­it­ar­ized drones any­more.

Amer­ic­an drones re­main leagues ahead of the com­pet­i­tion when it comes to stealth tech­no­logy and weaponry, but the rest of the world is catch­ing up. As con­ver­sa­tions about the mor­al­ity and leg­al­ity of drone war­fare rage on in the U.S., UAVs are edging to­ward the main­stream.

Drones — or the more-sterile “un­manned aer­i­al vehicles,” as the gov­ern­ment prefers that you call them — have been around, al­beit without weapons, for quite some time. The U.S. used re­mote-con­trolled air­craft in bomb­ing mis­sions dur­ing World War II and un­manned planes to take pho­tos over Vi­et­nam. In the 1990s, drones began to stream video feeds back to their con­trol­lers. But after an un­armed sur­veil­lance drone caught glimpse of Osama bin Laden in Afgh­anistan in 2000, the in­ev­it­able happened, and the first weapon­ized drone, a Pred­at­or, took flight over Kanda­har two years later.

In the 12 years since, only two coun­tries oth­er than the U.S. — Is­rael and the United King­dom — have launched drone-moun­ted mis­siles, but the tech­no­logy is quickly pro­lif­er­at­ing. “With­in the next 10 years, every coun­try will have these,” Noel Shar­key, a ro­bot­ics and ar­ti­fi­cial-in­tel­li­gence pro­fess­or at the Uni­versity of Shef­field, told De­fense One last year. As of 2011, more than 20 coun­tries in Europe, Asia, and Africa were de­vel­op­ing armed drones. Many more have drone sur­veil­lance pro­grams.

Amer­ic­an drones are already shar­ing the skies with non-al­lied UAVs in the Middle East, where they fly the most. Ir­a­ni­an Ab­ab­il drones — just one mod­el of an ex­tens­ive line of Ir­a­ni­an UAVs of vari­ous ca­pa­cit­ies — are patrolling the skies over Ir­aq along­side Amer­ic­an ones.

On Monday, Is­raeli forces shot down a drone that was launched from Ga­za. Hamas claimed re­spons­ib­il­ity for the drone, hint­ing at the pos­sib­il­ity of send­ing more. This wasn’t the first time Is­rael downed a UAV near its air­space: In April 2013, a drone launched from south­ern Le­ban­on, pos­sibly by Hezbol­lah, was in­ter­cep­ted by Is­raeli F16s.

Do­mest­ic op­pon­ents of drone war­fare are agit­at­ing for lim­it­a­tions on drone strikes and tar­geted killings. But as the tech­no­logy pro­lif­er­ates and UAVs be­come a stand­ard part of every coun­try’s ar­sen­al, it looks as if drones are here to stay.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.