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
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.

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