Game of Drones

AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File

The recent release of White House memos outlining the legal justifications the Obama administration believes it has to use drone strikes— against both foreign nationals and American citizens—reminds us that while the American public was otherwise occupied, a revolution in warfare was beginning. This revolution has some ways to go—we're not quite at the point where our next war is going to be fought by nothing but robots on land, sea, and air. But drones become more important not just to our military but to militaries all over the world with each passing year.

Unmanned aerial vehicles, and their use in war, have a history nearly as long as aviation itself. During a siege of Venice in 1849, Austria launched balloons carrying explosives over the city—the first recorded use of aerial bombing. In 1863, a New York inventor named Charles Perley patented an unmanned aerial bombing balloon for use in the Civil War (it proved less than reliable, so it had no effect on the war's outcome). The United States tested unmanned vehicles during World War I, but the war ended before any could be deployed. During World War II, Germany used the V-1, an unmanned plane that would fly to its target and detonate a bomb (or, as often happened, crash along the way), and in response the U.S. Navy retrofitted planes to be flown by remote control to target V-1 launch sites. Israel, the only country that currently rivals the United States in its use of military drones, has been building its own since the 1970s.

The current wave of drone acquisition and use isn't so much a new development as a long tradition, accelerated.

A German V-1 flying bomb from World War II


One of the privileges of global military hegemony is that we take it as our right to fly unmanned aircraft into other countries, see what's happening on the ground, and if we choose, launch a strike. If another country did that in our territory—let's say if China located a dissident expatriate it considered an enemy of the state living in Hawaii, and took him out with a missile launched from a drone—we'd consider it an unconscionable violation of our sovereignty and an act of war.

While it's unlikely that any country will be launching drone strikes onto U.S. territory any time soon, the time when only the United States sends an unmanned aircraft over a border to execute "kinetic" operations may not last much longer. As Peter Bergen and Jennifer Rowland of the New America Foundation wrote, "Just as the U.S. government justifies its drone strikes with the argument that it is at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates, one could imagine that India in the not too distant future might launch such attacks against suspected terrorists in Kashmir, or China might strike Uighur separatists in western China, or Iran might attack Baluchi nationalists along its border with Pakistan."

And we're helping along the proliferation that could make it more likely. The United States is far and away the world's leading arms merchant, supplying both developed and developing countries with all manner of weaponry, and we're selling drones abroad as well. Last year the Defense Department released policy guidelines listing 66 countries that would be eligible to buy drones from U.S. manufacturers. As yet, the government has allowed armed drones to be sold only to a few close allies, with the rest being allowed to buy surveillance drones.

Those that can't get the drones they want from us buy them from elsewhere (Israel is a big seller) or develop them themselves. According to a 2012 report from the Government Accountability Office, there are now 75 countries that possess unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), from large powers like the U.S. and China all the way down to places like Angola and Latvia. But that covers all kinds of UAVs; the International Institute for Strategic Studies has identified 11 countries—the United States, France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, India, Iran, and Israel—that have armed military drones. 

Other than the United States, no country is moving as aggressively to build and deploy drones as China, which is busily constructing drone bases and unveiling one new drone model after another, many of which appear to be clones of UAVs developed for the U.S. military. Although the Chinese are eager to boast of their progress, they keep the details secret, so we have no way of knowing how many drones they have, what their capabilities are, or even if the models they've shown to the world at airshows can fly.


Before the war in Afghanistan began, Pentagon spending on unmanned aerial vehicles was modest, amounting to a few hundred million dollars a year, pocket change in a budget that runs into the hundreds of billions. But America's new protracted conflicts against dispersed enemies, combined with advancements in drone technology, made drones an increasingly attractive option for the military, and spending rose precipitously to its current level of just under $4 billion a year (that number covers only procurement, the cost of buying new drones; it doesn't count maintenance and operating costs). That's still a relatively small amount of money, but one of the chief attractions of drones is that they cost much less to purchase than many other kinds of equipment (those figures also don't include the CIA's drone program, which is separate and secret). The most expensive drone will run the Pentagon around $30 million; compare that to the $377 million production cost we paid for each F-22 fighter jet.

The biggest defense contractors—Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, Northrup Grumman—are now all in the drone business, as are lots of smaller companies. The drones the U.S. military uses range from the massive Global Hawk with its 130-foot wingspan all the way down to small radio-controlled surveillance craft carried by individual soldiers that resemble children's toys more than military tools. British soldiers in Afghanistan are now using the Black Hornet Nano, a 4-inch long drone that looks like a toy helicopter but is equipped with a camera and can stay aloft for half an hour relaying video back to its operator.

At the beginning of last year, the armed forces had 7,500 drone aircraft, meaning that one out of every three flying machines in the military was a drone (though the majority are the small, hand-launched kind). The Pentagon is considering scaling back on procurement, on the theory that it has about enough drones for the near future. But that doesn't mean they're becoming less important; quite the contrary. The military has even created a medal you can win for piloting a drone; it will rank above the Bronze Star, despite the fact that you can earn it without any risk to life or limb.

At the moment, drones can't do everything human-piloted aircraft can do—for instance, they aren't maneuverable and quick enough to engage in dogfights—but if the technology continues to advance, it isn't hard to envision a day when human pilots sitting in the cockpits of planes have all but disappeared from the military.


If President Obama was hoping that the use of drone strikes would enable him to carry out missions targeting suspected terrorists without any of the potential public disapproval that can accompany manned missions, he seems to have been right. According to a recent poll from the Pew Research Center, majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and independents all support drone strikes against suspected terrorists. Other polls have found support reaching as high as 70 percent.

Not too surprisingly, people in other countries are less enthusiastic about U.S. drones conducting bombing raids abroad. When the Pew Global Attitudes Project asked people in 20 countries whether they approved of U.S. drone strikes, the only country where a majority said yes was the United States itself. Even among some of our allies and despite generally positive feelings about Barack Obama, there is widespread condemnation of American drone policy around the world.


Now that drones have become a key part of American military operations, defense contractors are moving to make them fancier, sexier, and more complicated—and naturally, more expensive—than ever before. Witness the Triton, a massive surveillance drone under development, or the sleek Northrup Grumman X47-B, which is designed to take off from and land on aircraft carriers.

Courtesy of Northrup Grumman

At the same time, other drones are also getting smaller and cheaper, putting them within the range of municipal governments, large public institutions, and even corporations and individuals. Dozens of local public entities, from universities to sheriff's departments, have applied to the Federal Aviation Administration for licenses to fly drones in their areas. Realtors have used drones to photograph houses for sale. It isn't hard to imagine a war between rival drug cartels being waged with armed drones dropping bombs on cartel leaders' mansions. So will we one day see fleets of the little spider drones from Minority Report skittering around buildings in search of criminal suspects, performing retinal scans on frightened civilians? We well might—there's now an entire field of inquiry called swarm robotics. And it would be surprising if the law enforcement agencies whose concern for civil liberties has been somewhat limited didn't deploy every jazzy new tool they can get their hands on.

But for now, the debate—or what passes for one—on drones concerns what happens far from our shores. The American people don't know much about what our military's drone war involves, and don't seem too concerned about it. But even those who wage that war don't know all they should. As Dexter Filkins of The New Yorker recently wrote, "Indeed, if there is one overriding factor in America's secret wars—especially in its drone campaign—it's that the United States is operating in an information black hole. Our ignorance is not total, but our information is nowhere near adequate. When an employee of the C.I.A. fires a missile from an unmanned drone into a compound along the Afghan-Pakistani border, he almost certainly doesn't know for sure whom he's shooting at. Most drone strikes in Pakistan, as an American official explained to me during my visit there in 2011, are what are known as 'signature strikes.' That is, the C.I.A. is shooting at a target that matches a pattern of behavior that they've deemed suspicious. Often, they get it right and they kill the bad guys. Sometimes, they get it wrong."

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