The United States will continue to lead in the development of armed drone technology, but China has taken the lead in drone exports and therefore has a bigger influence on the application of armed systems.
Only the United States and China have exported armed drones, but other countries are expected to join the lucrative market, causing a surge in globally available systems.
Because exporting states do not perceive a threat from armed drones, there is little willpower to establish a legal framework to curb their proliferation.
The presence of armed drones is a reality of the modern battlefield, but only a limited number of countries have the technological ability to produce them or the military capacity to operate them. The United States once held the edge in drone development and use, but as more countries gain access to the technology, armed drones have entered a new stage of proliferation. From the perspective of the United States and others, this proliferation is dangerous. Attempts to curb the spread of armed drones are becoming more difficult now that the United States is no longer their sole developer. China, in particular, has grown as a global exporter of unmanned combat systems, and other countries are planning to follow suit.
Though the use of unmanned aerial vehicles has spread across all sectors at an incredible pace, the military in particular was quick to embrace drone technology. Even less-developed militaries now typically have some capability, though limited, to deploy unmanned platforms for surveillance and reconnaissance. So, too, do non-state actors, including militant and terrorist groups, albeit using technologically restricted commercial drones. The deployment of dedicated combat drones carrying offensive weapons systems has progressed at a reduced rate, however. Besides the significant legal and ethical concerns that surround the use of lethal platforms, only two suppliers are known to exist: the United States and China. More countries, such as Russia, Israel, Turkey and South Korea, are likely close behind. The increased availability will give other countries more opportunities to acquire armed drones.
Many countries have sought access to armed drones, but only a few have found suppliers willing to sell them. Of those, even fewer have actually employed the vehicles in combat. The United States has so far exported armed drones to only the United Kingdom and Italy, and just last year more stringent requirements were placed on US exports to keep the technology out of the wrong hands.
Few limits on proliferation
At the same time, however, other countries have been making rapid progress in armed drone development programs, and exports from those countries would be beyond the control of the United States. China, building on its success in producing commercial drones, is known to have exported armed drones to Pakistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Of these buyers, only Iraq, Pakistan and Nigeria have documented the use of armed drones on the battlefield. Additionally, the Somali military disclosed that it purchased armed drones but did not specify the provider. US reluctance to export such systems means that the sale is likely to have originated in China, which corresponds with Beijing’s willingness to provide armed drones to countries with questionable human rights records or unstable political situations. Once the Russian military industrial complex begins to export armed drones, a development slowed by budgetary constraints, the proliferation of remote combat systems to such countries could increase.
The United States has been trying to establish a worldwide set of standards to regulate the spread of armed drones, similar to the way in which man-portable air-defense (MANPAD) systems were regulated. The unsophisticated nature of MANPADs and their relative ease of use, however, incentivizes states to limit their spread — in the hands of non-state actors, MANPADs could be used to target government and civilian aircraft. Yet the logistical requirements of operating unmanned aerial vehicles makes it unlikely that non-state groups could effectively use them. This removes one concern that might naturally limit their proliferation in a way analogous to MANPADs.
Efforts to establish multilateral agreements to limit armed drone sales have been weak at best. The United States and more than 40 other countries signed a declaration establishing five guiding principles for the export and use of armed drones, but signatories have been reluctant to ratify it. In addition, several countries with significant military industries, including Russia, China, France, Israel and Brazil, did not sign the declaration at all. It is worth noting that several of the signatory countries are currently developing their own armed drone capabilities and will likely try to reach the status of exporters at some stage.
Holding the advantage — for now
The policies of the United States, which remains the most advanced developer and operator of armed drone systems, have essentially limited Washington’s influence on the use of the technology by other countries. The vacuum left by US export restrictions has been rapidly filled by China. And as more countries gain export capabilities, they will likely follow Beijing’s lead. This puts those willing exporters in a position to have a bigger influence on the application of armed drone technology. In fact, the willingness of China and Russia not to limit sales of armed drones puts them in a much stronger position than the United States to dominate global exports in the field.
But even though the United States may not be able to establish itself as the main global provider of armed drone systems in terms of quantity, it still maintains the technological edge in the sector. The Chinese drone models currently being exported, the CH-3 and CH-4 systems, are based heavily on the designs of the US MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones. The technology that the US drones use, especially the software and control systems that integrate their avionics, sensors and weapon systems, provide an advantage over cruder Chinese systems. But Chinese development efforts are rapidly closing the gap. More advanced systems already have been developed for use by the Chinese military and could eventually start appearing on the export market as well.
Other advanced systems may also enter the global market once countries such as Israel and South Korea start exporting armed drone systems. But the maturity of its drone technology allows the United States to maintain a distinct advantage, ensuring its role as a provider to close allies and NATO members. Specifically, the United States leads in reducing radar detectability (thanks to the use of advanced materials), datalinks, artificial intelligence and autonomy. While countries in Europe have been developing their own drone technology — and eventually plan to produce armed variants — the performance edge of US-produced systems guarantees a place in the market, regardless of competition.
The lucrative business of exporting armed drones could lead to a proliferation of the technology that could make a country’s decision to take military action more likely. Having the ability to deploy effective unmanned platforms in a conflict reduces the casualty risk, thus weakening the barrier to initiating a military operation. As a result, widespread use of armed drones could draw more countries into more conflicts, and their indiscriminate use in battle could increase the risk of collateral damage. As a secondary effect, this damage could increase the risk of a population’s radicalization and recruitment for terrorism. So far, few countries have access to the technology, and even fewer have used the systems to carry out strikes. Once their proliferation becomes widespread, however, the effects of armed drones will become even more noticeable on the battlefield.