National Security

The Global Swarm

Drones are not only spreading to other countries, they're becoming smaller and smarter.

"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?

Another trend that will matter is the growing intelligence and autonomy of armed drones.

Consider Northrop Grumman's X-47 UCAS, a jet-powered, stealthy plane testing out in Maryland right now; or the Taranis, being tested in Australia by BAE; or the Blue Shark, rumored to be in development by the Chinese firm AVIC. In some ways, these unmanned combat planes represent traditional advances in weapons tech: They are designed to fly faster and further than our current generation of strike drones, and to better evade enemy defenses. But these planes are also very different than their predecessors: They are smarter and more autonomous. They are designed to take off and land on their own, fly mission sets on their own, refuel in the air on their own, and penetrate enemy air defenses on their own. The Taranis even has modules designed to allow it to select its own targets.

This greater intelligence has an important following effect: The user base and functions are expanding, which further lowers the barriers to entry and changes the quality and type of the proliferation further. The early versions of unmanned systems were like the early computers, you had to go through deep training just to make them do basic tasks. Now, just as experts once needed to learn Basic to use computers and now toddlers can use iPads, so too are advances in drone technology making them more accessible.

This will be important not just to states, but also non-state groups that are harder to regulate and deter. Indeed, Hezbollah may not have an air force academy, but it didn't need one to figure out how to operate unmanned aerial systems against Israel. Similarly, for the Call of Duty video game (full disclosure: I consulted on it), Activision built a version of an armed quadcopter controlled by tablet computer that is better than most any tactical drone the U.S. military currently has.

This market expansion will further shift in a few years, when the ease of use meets lowered civilian political barriers. While drones are mostly restricted from civilian and commercial roles now, there is an ongoing process to integrate unmanned aerial systems into the civilian parts of the national and global airspace system. Presently, the Congress has recently set a deadline of 2015 for American airspace to open up to wider civilian and commercial use of drones, and the same trends are in play in a multitude of other nations from Britain to Brazil.

The scale of this market is estimated to be in the tens of billions in its first years, but it is frankly too early to know where it will end up. The part that matters for proliferation concerns is that as unmanned systems begin to be used in roles that range from policing to journalism to agriculture and air freight delivery, the market will reshape itself, much as what happened with computers. An area that was once viewed as military will become more and more civilianized. And here is where another parallel with computers will hold; applying old arms export-control regimes will become more and more difficult.

Those worried about drone proliferation must face facts. We are no longer in a world where only the United States has the technology, and we are not moving toward a future in which the technology is used only in the same way we use it now.

This means, in turn, that the frequent counter arguments to proliferation concerns have to catch up. Yes, only the United States has a global basing and strike architecture (for now), but that is also irrelevant to most of the issues the proliferation presents. No, Turkey cannot strike Mexico with its unmanned aircraft, but it really doesn't want to. It can, however, reach into Northern Iraq and then cite U.S. precedent in Pakistan that would make for a sticky diplomatic situation. No, Hezbollah can't fly its drones outside the Middle East. It has, however, demonstrated enhanced reach in the region with its own unmanned version of a mini-air force that has spooked Israel. Yes, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula would find it difficult to gain and operate a Predator, but a terrorist has already planned to fly a drone into the Pentagon (he got the drone, but fortunately got caught by the FBI before he got the explosives), while hobbyists have already shown the ability to cross oceans with their drones. No, China can't yet extend its power across regions, into say Somalia, like the United States can. But it is creating the infrastructure -- from the drones, to the global satellite navigation system it has built in Beidu, to its "string of pearls" strategy in the Middle East -- that will eventually allow it to do so.

Addressing the challenges posed by drone proliferation is not impossible. But it will be if we continue to only conceptualize the technology and the market as they were five years ago. If we want to face their risks and begin to create global standards, we better start recognizing their status today, or even more importantly, the directions we are headed in the very near future.

Airman Gustavo Castillo/DVIDS


The Empire Makes Nice

Is it time for a Venezuela reset?

Four years ago, when the first Obama administration was still hopeful about the prospects of resetting relationships with U.S. adversaries in the world, Venezuela was high on the list. "Eight years of isolation has resulted in the kinds of outreach that, I think, both you and I find troubling," then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Senate in 2009. "Our belief is, if it hasn't worked, why keep it going? Let's see what else might be possible." Things haven't turned out quite as planned, but following the death of Hugo Chávez, the United States may get a new opportunity to improve one of its most frustrating relationships, and find out if a new way of operating might indeed be possible.

Some progress has been made, of course. The Obama administration learned some important lessons from the George W. Bush years. It wisely avoided becoming embroiled in rhetorical tit-for-tats -- a game Chávez played with relish and of which he was the undisputed master. In 2006, for instance, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld likened Chávez to Adolf Hitler. The Venezuelan president responded in kind at a rally in Caracas, "The imperialist, genocidal, fascist attitude of the U.S. president has no limits. I think Hitler would be like a suckling baby next to George W Bush."

The Obama White House also seemed to accept the fact that, for all his faults and the problems he posed for the United States, Chávez was Venezuela's legitimately elected president. Had there been another attempt to oust him, Obama officials would, one hopes, not have expressed undisguised glee, as the Bush White House did during the brief putsch of 2002.

Seven years after that failed coup attempt, and three months into his presidency, Obama shook hands and bantered a bit with Chávez at a hemispheric summit in Trinidad and Tobago. (Chávez, ever the showman, gave Obama a copy of a book by leftist historian Eduardo Galeano, a gift presumably aimed at enlightening the incoming president about the evils of U.S. imperialism.) True, Obama has eschewed Bush's military adventurism, which touched a deep nerve in Latin America. But a more restrained U.S. foreign policy and a commitment to "engage" with the region as "partners" did little to persuade Chávez that Washington had changed its tutelary ways. "Obama, to me, until now, has been a great disappointment." Chavez told CNN in 2010, comparing the U.S. president to a highly rated baseball pitching prospect who "end up being wild."

Today, three months into Obama's second term, Washington will have to deal with a Venezuela -- a country with the world's largest oil reserves that accounts for roughly 10 percent of U.S. imports today -- without Chávez. No one can match the riveting theater Chávez reliably provided -- his trademark, strident rhetoric and audacious, provocative moves on the regional and global stages, so often targeted at Washington. Still, after 14 years of distancing and mutual suspicions, the U.S.-Venezuela relationship is sure to be very difficult.

Though uncertainty abounds in the country that Chávez so thoroughly dominated for so long, the most likely scenario is that acting President Nicolás Maduro, Chávez's designated successor, will win the election scheduled for April 14. He will benefit from an emotional boost from Chavez's death and a demoralized opposition that that was thrown off balance by major defeats in presidential and gubernatorial elections in late 2012. Maduro will preside over a government made up of diverse factions that, absent Chávez's charisma and political shrewdness, will have a hard time staying together -- particularly as the country's already serious economic conditions worsen.

The Obama administration should take two critical facts about Venezuela's post-Chávez political reality into account. First, since Maduro is not Chávez, he will have little choice but to govern in a different fashion than his predecessor. Lacking comparable magnetism and resources, Maduro will likely be somewhat more accommodating to those Chávez treated with utter intransigence, such as the private sector, foreign investors, and the opposition. Maduro, acting out of self-interest, will need, and look for, political oxygen.

The second is simply the risk of turbulence in Venezuela, especially after the upcoming electoral cycle. To be sure, analysts' occasional predictions about political violence during the Chávez years were (happily) not borne out. And given the extent of rancor and polarization in the society, it is striking how little political violence there has been (common crime, on the other hand, has skyrocketed). Still, the security situation is far from settled -- a militia force of 125,000 answered directly to Chávez -- and it would be a mistake to rule out chaotic and perilous scenarios that should be of great concern to the entire hemisphere.

What does this mean for Washington? Assuming that Maduro succeeds Chávez, the Obama administration should be amenable to taking steps toward establishing a better relationship with Caracas. Since the relationship today is practically nonexistent, that would not require a big leap.

It might simply entail opening up channels of communication and seeking to establish an ambassadorial presence in both capitals which -- absurdly, given the strong commercial relationship between the two countries -- have not existed since 2010. Beyond that, depending on how Venezuela's economic situation unfolds, it might be worth exploring some degree of cooperation and support in energy. Under Chávez, Venezuela's state oil company PDVSA has suffered from declining production and investment and heavy politicization. Maduro may not want to change that right away -- he will need to show that he is a loyal Chávista. But if the country's fiscal pressures prove untenable, he may have few options, and the United States should be open to helping out. Collaboration on counternarcotics and law enforcement would also be desirable but for the time being are probably non-starters politically, given the depth of mutual mistrust (not to mention that seven Venezuelan officials are on a Treasury Department blacklist for their alleged involvement in drugs and arms dealing).

To its credit, the State Department reached out to Maduro several months ago, and following Chávez's death the Obama administration has expressed an interest in improving the tense bilateral relationship. Its entreaty was surely not helped by Maduro's broadside against the United States, just hours before he announced that Chávez had died -- a move right out of Hugo's playbook.

Maduro not only expelled two military attaches from the U.S. Embassy but also intimated that Washington might have been responsible in some way for Chávez's death. Absent a shred of evidence, Maduro's words were outrageous, but aimed at proving to the base that he was a worthy heir to Chávez before the election.

But it's far too early for the United States to give up hope on Maduro. Despite his reckless words in recent days, his ideologically hard-line views, and close relationship with Cuban leaders, Maduro's style contrasts sharply with Chávez's. Chávez was a military man, a former paratrooper who attempted a coup in 1992. Maduro was not only foreign minister and head of the National Assembly, but earlier in his career was a union official who negotiated deals. He will be tough rhetorically, but some give-and-take behind the scenes seems feasible -- a balancing act Washington will have to understand and deal with. Maduro will likely also confront more dire economic circumstances than Chávez ever did. Politically, he will not be able to afford to reject communication and some accommodation with the private sector.

In fact, Maduro has been instrumental in the Venezuelan government's constructive role in current peace talks in Havana between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). His support to what is arguably Washington's closest South American ally in an effort to bring to an end the only remaining armed conflict in the hemisphere can be construed as an example of his pragmatism.

A peace accord between the Colombian government and the FARC (which uses Venezuelan territory as a sanctuary and was supported by Chávez) would reduce a key source of instability in the wider region. To anticipate potential turmoil in Venezuela in the coming period, Washington should be consulting regularly and at the highest levels with South American allies, especially Colombia and Brazil, who have the most at stake should the security situation deteriorate.

Although many commentators have drawn attention to Cuba's role in the Venezuelan transition, and have particularly highlighted Cuba's huge dependence on Venezuelan oil and money, Brazil will probably end up being just as influential as the situation unfolds. South America's undisputed superpower -- whose leverage on Venezuela stems from key exports, especially food, and political backing -- is chiefly interested in maintaining social peace within its own neighborhood.

In keeping with Brazil's own governance and political evolution in recent years, Brasilia will aim to keep the situation in Venezuela under control and to encourage moderation, gradualism, and communication on both sides. It does not want trouble on its borders. Venezuela's recent entry into the Brazil-led MERCOSUR trade group will makes this issue of even greater concern for President Dilma Rousseff's government. In this respect, there is ample coincidence of interests between Washington and Brasília.

Absent Chávez, Venezuela will continue to be tricky in the second Obama administration. The administration will need to arrive at a more accurate on-the-ground reading of what is happening in the country. It will need to engage in quiet, steady, high-level diplomacy with key allies in the region not only to closely monitor the security situation and guard against dire scenarios but to press for free and fair elections and adherence to the rule of law.

None of this will be easy, and recent history is not encouraging. But Chávez is gone, and although for now some measure of continuity in Venezuela is most likely, conditions of scarcity -- in charisma, money, and political astuteness -- will soon be acutely felt. It is important not to forget that Chávez was able to do what he did for 14 years for a simple reason -- because he could.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images