From drones to the more conventional, recent weapon developments should alarm us all

From drones to the more conventional, recent weapon developments should alarm us all
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Lost amid the intense international focus on North Korea’s promise to halt its nuclear and missile tests and the deteriorating security situation in Syria have been several worrisome incidents involving the development and use of advanced and conventional weapons. This has included surprising revelations about the extent of Russia’s weapons programs and ominous new applications of existing weapons technology by non-state actors. 

In Russia, President Putin in early March revealed five new weapons that he claims his country already possesses. They included a nuclear-armed cruise missile, a powerful new ICBM, a hypersonic cruise missile, a nuclear-powered torpedo, and a new hypersonic glide vehicle.

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While many weapons experts question whether these systems actually exist or are simply aspirational, my experience in analyzing Russia’s weapons programs leads me to believe that we should take these claims seriously. Indeed, since 2014 the Russian military has fielded an impressive array of new battlefield hardware during its campaign in Syria, including highly accurate artillery, advanced communications platforms, and sophisticated air defense systems. So, Western military planners would be wise to attach at least some credibility to Putin’s claims.

The scale of Russia’s weapons programs is especially jarring given Russia’s relatively small and decreasing defense budget—about $42 billion this year. If true, and again I think we should assume at least some of Putin’s claims are, it suggests that Moscow is willing to prioritize research into advanced weapons even at a time when Russia’s annual economic growth is anemic (less than 2 percent) and more than 20 million Russians live below the official poverty rate of $180 per month. Therefore, even if Russia’s economy is struggling mightily, Putin still appears determined to field a first-rate military. 

Meanwhile, halfway across the world in Syria, two Russian bases in early January were reportedly attacked by a swarm of armed drones signaling a new stage in the use of this technology. The attacking drones were assembled using small engines (akin to one that would power a typical lawnmower), cheap plywood, small rockets, and basic guidance systems. There are reports, which Moscow disputes, that the drones damaged several Russian fighter aircraft on the ground during the attack. While non-state actors, including the Islamic State (IS), have used armed drones to attack advancing U.S. and coalition forces in recent months around Raqqa (as well as in Iraq during the advance on Mosul), this was the first swarm attack on hardened Russian military facilities. We should expect more of these attacks in the future. 

This particular incident, in my view, raises three troubling issues worthy of close consideration by U.S. policymakers.

First, recall that only a decade ago the U.S. was the only country operating armed drones over Syria. Today, several countries as well as non-state actors, including the IS and Hezbollah, are, and often to deadly effect.

Second, the technology used to assemble these armed drones is almost entirely available commercially, making it almost certain that armed drones will be a feature in future conflicts across the globe.

Third, despite Moscow’s claims that IS was — with outside assistance — responsible for the attack, it’s still unclear who actually conducted the operation. Just consider what this means in the future for the ability of hostile state and non-state actors to conduct plausibly deniable attacks against U.S. or Western military facilities or critical infrastructure.

And keep in mind, it’s not as if drone technology is standing still. For example, just look at videos from drone racing leagues where small drones fly at more than 150 mph and with incredible maneuverability, and then imagine where this technology may go — and how it could be applied to pernicious ends—in the coming years.

A final recent weapons development of concern involves the Houthis’ (a predominantly Shiite-led religious and political movement) stepped up missile activity in the Yemen conflict. In recent weeks, the Houthis have fired a series of missiles at Riyadh—producing the first civilian casualty there since the conflict began three years ago. The Houthis have also fired missiles and armed drones against populated areas, an oil tanker, and energy-related infrastructure along the Saudi border with Yemen.

The Houthis’ ability to fire missiles of increasing range and accuracy, coupled with their unprecedented use of drones, marks a potentially ominous turning point in the conflict, and is likely the product of increased Iranian military support — a charge that Tehran strongly disputes. In any event, the Houthis’ newfound military prowess has raised tensions in the conflict to a dangerous new level — witness the apparent chaos that ensued this weekend when an apparent toy drone flew over the Royal Palace in Riyadh — and it now, unfortunately, seems only a matter of time before a damaging missile strike occurs on a major Saudi city or against the country’s critical oil infrastructure.

So what do these three disparate developments in three separate countries have in common? They highlight the simple reality that even if not in the media spotlight, major states such as Russia (and certainly China) are accelerating their weapons development efforts, and non-state actors are increasingly acquiring access to dangerous new technologies. And this is all occurring at a time when the global arms trade market is booming and when international arms control regimes are as frayed as they have been in recent memory.

So, what can U.S. policymakers do to address this threat? Let me offer three suggestions.

First, I think it’s a good time to reinvigorate the State Department’s arms control efforts, particularly by beefing up the department’s personnel and resources assigned to this mission, all of which have atrophied of late.

Second, this would be a good time for deeper cooperation between the public and private sector on the development of emerging technologies, and particularly expanded cooperation in developing counter-drone technology.

Finally, as part of a renewed State Department arms control effort, it might be wise to engage America’s allies and other major arms producing nations, especially China and Russia, to establish tighter controls on the proliferation of a whole new series of armaments, including autonomous weapons. It’s clearly in none of the major powers interests to see this type of new and lethal technology spread to unstable areas and non-state actors, so this could be an area where the great powers interests align and progress might be made.

The last few months have clearly revealed several ominous trends when it comes to the development and proliferation of both advanced and conventional military weapons. And though there is certainly time for America and our allies to effectively tackle this challenge, time is fleeting and the creative work required to stay ahead of this gathering threat needs to begin in earnest soon.

Michael P. Dempsey is the national intelligence fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a fellowship sponsored by the U.S. government. He is the former acting director of national intelligence. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.