Drone proliferation: What we have to fear

President Obama admitted last year that drones have become a "cure-all" for terrorism, a risk-free way to eliminate suspected terrorists in places such as Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. The potential virtues of drones have not gone unnoticed by other countries. Serious questions about drone proliferation and the United States' role must be answered, and soon.

While the United Kingdom and Israel are the only countries besides the U.S. to have used armed drones in combat, other countries appear to have acquired armed drones. In particular, China and Iran have touted their armed drone capabilities. Russia, South Korea, India, Turkey, and Taiwan claim that they are indigenously developing sophisticated armed drone capabilities. Switzerland and several European Union member states — including France, Italy, Spain, Greece and Sweden — have collaborated on a technology demonstrator called the Neuron, which would be a stealth armed drone, and the EU has expressed an interest in developing a medium-altitude, long-endurance version of armed drones similar to the U.S. Predator or Reaper, used in counterterrorism strikes. Other countries, such as Pakistan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have indicated an interest in purchasing them.

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If these countries are acquiring drones, why should we care? Are armed drones so different from an armed F-16? Both can be used for lethal force.

But drones are different.

They can persist over a target for up to 14 hours without being refueled. Manned aircraft have fuel and crew-rest limitations that limit their range and loiter time. More importantly, unmanned aircraft do not place human pilots at risk of being killed or captured in hostile environments, making drones the "weapons of choice" for killing suspected terrorists.

The consequence of technology that is risk-free and has operational value-added is that the United States has arguably used force in ways and places that it would not have otherwise. Since 2002, the U.S. has conducted 473 non-battlefield targeted killings, of which 98 percent were carried out by drones. Since September 2011, despite claims that the U.S. has a "strong preference" for capture rather than kill, the United States has only undertaken three known capture attempts compared to the 187 drone strikes that have killed about 925 people, 95 of whom were civilians.

If other countries use armed drones in similar ways, we are likely to see states carrying out cross-border attacks less discriminately. This is especially likely in places such as East Asia, as well as other flashpoints for conflict such as the Middle East, the Caucasus and Africa. We might also expect to see governments use armed drones to suppress domestic unrest. States such as Turkey, Russia, Pakistan and China have all experienced significant opposition movements and armed drones could prove attractive in eliminating these domestic "terrorist groups."

In short, the proliferation of armed drones could lower the threshold for conflict, and thereby increase its frequency in both inter- and intra-state contexts.

Currently, the transfer of armed drones is regulated by the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), which is intended to regulate nuclear-capable missiles and related technologies, including armed drones. However, the MTCR is a nonbinding international association that the 34 member states implement at their discretion. Many countries that are producing or interested in armed drones are not members of the MTCR, including Iran, Israel, China, India and Pakistan, offering the MTCR even more challenges in remaining relevant.

The MTCR has arbitrary thresholds in terms of its export restrictions, proscribing the transfer of Category I systems that can deliver more than a 500-kilogram (1,100 pounds) payload and have a range of more than 300 kilometers (186 miles). However, technology is ever lighter, and companies are developing exportable systems that fall below those thresholds while remaining quite lethal.

Thus, it is important but not sufficient for major producers of armed drones like the U.S. to adhere to the MTCR's export guidelines. The U.S. should also consider the way its own practices are setting precedents for how other countries think about the appropriate use of armed drones. The U.S. must address its lack of clarity about targeted killing policies, such as whether human-rights law or self-defense law applies, and which terrorist groups and "associated forces" can be targeted lawfully.

As the main — and quite visible actor — using armed drones in combat, the United States is uniquely positioned to take a leading role in shaping the international norms that guide how armed drones are used in the future.

Kreps is an assistant professor of government at Cornell University and a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is the author (with Micah Zenko) of a recent Council on Foreign Relations report, "Limiting Armed Drone Proliferation," and co-author of the book Drone Warfare. Follow her on Twitter @sekreps.

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