"One plan was to use an unmanned aerial vehicle to carry 20kg of TNT to bomb the area, but the plan was rejected because we were ordered to catch him alive." This is what Liu Yuejin, director of China's public security ministry's anti-drug bureau, described of the manhunt for Naw Kham, the ringleader of a large drug trafficking outfit based in the Golden Triangle, who was suspected of killing 13 Chinese sailors. Ultimately, they got him via a cross-border nighttime ambush, the Chinese version of the Abbottabad raid.
This case, however, is useful to think about when talking about the global market for unmanned aerial systems (aka "drones") and where it is headed, a topic that got new energy last week with a New York Times report on the confusion as to whether it was American or Pakistani drones that carried out a controversial airstrike.
Too often in policy and media circles, we discuss a supposed American monopoly on drones that is potentially ending. Or, as Time magazine entitled a story, "Drone Monopoly: Hope You Enjoyed It While It Lasted." The article goes on to say,"It is going to happen; the only question is when."
The answer is: several years ago.
Today, the United States is ahead in the field of military robotics, and, given that we spend the most money and make the most operational use of unmanned systems, we certainly should be. All told, there are over 8,000 unmanned aircraft in the U.S. military inventory and another 12,000 plus unmanned ground vehicles. A growing number are large and armed, including the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reapers that get so much attention in the press.
Depending on which source you want to cite, there are currently between 75 and 87 countries that have used unmanned aircraft in their militaries. Of these, at least 26 have larger systems, including Predator equivalents that are already armed or of a model that has been armed in the past, such as the Heron, made by IAI and used by the Israeli Defense Forces, as well as several countries via export. Only the United States, the United Kingdom, and Israel are known to have used armed drones operationally, but as the case of Naw Kham illustrates, the limit on why others have not is frequently political, not technological. They are either not at war or have chosen not to go that route yet. However, these political limits are changing. Witness China's open discussion of its plans in the People's Daily, or Germany's recent decision to acquire armed drones for deployments abroad, which follows Italy's, France's, etc.
In short, when we often talk about a supposed future of drone proliferation, we usually ignore the reality of the present. We already have a market that is global in both its customers, from Australia to Turkey, and in its manufacturers, from American firms like General Atomics and Lockheed to ASN Technology, one of the major makers in China, and ADE of India.
What really matters is not just the proliferation to an ever greater number of countries, but the proliferating makeup and uses of the technology itself. The first generation of unmanned systems was much like the manned systems they were replacing -- some models actually had cockpits that were just painted over. Now, we are seeing an expanding array of sizes, shapes, and forms, some inspired by nature.
Within this trend, the size issue is important to discussions of armed drones. It is not just that drones are becoming smaller, but they are also carrying smaller and smaller munitions. So, if you want, for example, to carry out a targeted killing, do you need to send a MQ-9 Reaper carrying a JDAM or a set of Hellfire missiles? Or would a guided missile the size of a rolled up magazine, or a tiny bomb the size of a beer can that is equipped with GPS (both already tested out at China Lake) fit the bill instead, especially if it comes with less collateral damage? And if that smaller weapon is all that you need, do you need a drone the size of an F-16 to carry it?
While the discussion of the proliferation of armed drones has focused on those countries that field large systems, we will soon have to address those that have smaller systems. And at a certain point, we have to ask how we define a drone and how we should regulate them. We are already in the world of the Switchblade, a surveillance drone that is carried in a tube the size of a shoebox and can fly 50 miles per hour, but if needed can also turn lethal and deliver a hand grenade-sized explosion. It is a drone, but also a miniature cruise missile. Does it count?