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The world once tried to ban armed drones, but now everyone has them

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In early July, United Nations investigator Agnes Callamard warned that the proliferation of armed drones poses a threat to international peace. Her comments came during an investigation into the U.S. killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Iraq in January. The commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s Quds Force, he was killed with a drone. 

Today drones are widely used on battlefields from Armenia to Libya, and from Somalia to Syria. Criticism of the use of armed drones, which used to focus entirely on the U.S., has been forced into a more complex discussion as more countries deploy them and the chances of banning them decrease. This means we need a new discussion about the role of drones in war. 

Callamard is the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions and she noted that more than 100 countries have drones — a dozen use armed drones. The Drone Databook of Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone noted last year that 10 countries have used drones in strikes and 30 are acquiring armed drones. This is a huge change from just a decade ago, when most countries except the United States were not capable of conducting drone strikes.

What changed? Armed drones once were seen as having revolutionized airpower, providing militaries a more precise way to hunt enemies without putting soldiers in harm’s way. This unmanned weapon system meshed well with the U.S. global war on terror after 9/11. Yet criticism cautioned there appeared to be no accountability for civilians who were harmed when strikes proliferated in places such as Pakistan. The 2014 documentary, “Drone,” sought to showcase the potential harm of these weapons, controlled from far away by operators who may suffer trauma afterward. The nongovernmental organization, Drone Wars UK, sought an international ban on use of armed drones. 

At Pakistan’s request in 2014, the U.N. urged states to ensure that armed drone use complied with international law. The U.N. wanted more accountability and transparency. Since then, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has voiced concern about “killer robots” and autonomous weapons that use artificial intelligence. However, despite fear of such weapons and the ethics of this new realm of war, the rest of the world hasn’t decided to forego the technology — instead, they want their own armed drones. 

The U.S. keeps its armed drones, the Reaper and Predator, mostly to itself, exporting them only in certain circumstances. The Trump administration has sought to change policy related to the Missile Technology Control Regime treaty to allow for more exports of armed drones.

The U.S. likely wants to sell more armed drones because competitors such as China and NATO allies such as Turkey are exporting armed drones. China has sold drones to U.S. allies, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Jordan. Turkey has offered its Bayraktar drones to Ukraine and Azerbaijan. Israel has sold what are called “loitering munitions,” or “kamikaze drones” to several countries. The recent sales have rewritten the rules of drone warfare; Turkey, for example, has used armed drones widely in Syria and Libya, and Chinese drones have been used in Libya.

This proliferation means the U.S. no longer is the sole drone power, and the wider use of drones has upended critics who singled out the U.S. for its actions. With China increasingly playing a major role internationally, putting forth the idea for international law to stop drone sales or ban their use sounds like fiction.  

This may be a good thing. Moving beyond the idea that we will have a world without armed drones leads to a reasonable discussion about drones. There is nothing dramatically different about armed drones from traditional warplanes such as F-16s dropping precision-guided bombs. Since no one is banning F-16s or cruise missiles, why ban drones that drop the same type of munitions?

Our future likely will use more drones in battles. Because countries are less reticent to lose a drone than a human pilot, they may use drones for more dangerous missions and become more aggressive. That appears to be happening in Libya, Syria and the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict. On the other hand, the fact that fewer pilots are being shot down may reduce the chance for conflicts escalating as these “killer robots” duel in the skies with each other.  

In either scenario, the narrative that armed drones are controversial has largely moved on and becomes less relevant as more countries build these weapons. 

Seth J. Frantzman is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. A former assistant professor of American Studies at Al-Quds University, he covers the Middle East for The Jerusalem Post and is a Ginsburg/Milstein writing fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of “After ISIS: How Defeating the Caliphate Changed the Middle East Forever.” His new book, “Drone Wars,” will be published in 2021. Follow him on Twitter @sfrantzman.

Tags Aerial warfare China Drone Drone strike Iran Pakistan

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