The Drone Invasion Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

Why sensationalizing drone proliferation is going to kill our ability to control them.

A casual observer of recent reporting and analysis of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) -- most commonly referred to as drones -- might assume that the world is already awash in drones of all shapes, sizes, and capabilities. Amazon's contrived hint of drone-delivered packages only tantalized the public's imagination back in December, and seemingly new uses for drones are found each day, from identifying rhinoceros poachers, to border control, to tracking whaling ships. But this apparent runaway train of drone proliferation (and its misreported uses) is actually stymieing efforts to promote or influence responsible armed-drone exports and their uses. Because if drones are already ubiquitous, then efforts to control their spread -- whether through tight export controls or pressure on major producers to restrict their transfers, which Barack Obama's administration is now contemplating in a long, contentious interagency review of U.S. drone exports -- are unnecessary and even misguided.

The problem with this now commonly stated assumption -- that the world is fully equipped with drones -- is that while these news articles hyping a drones arms race are exciting, they are also misleading. Take, for example, a report on March 5 that North Korea has developed an armed drone that it could use to threaten the region. The problem is that the capability is little more than a kamikaze missile, a far cry from the American version that the drone is purportedly intended to resemble.

Contrary to these sensationalist accounts, the international market for armed drones -- the most potentially threatening and destabilizing type -- is quite small. Actually, it's minuscule, projected to be about $8.35 billion by 2018, around which time the global defense market is expected to reach $1.88 trillion, which would mean that drone expenditures will make up less than 0.5 percent of the world's defense spending. Even though global drone expenditures are expected to grow roughly a billion dollars a year (though they actually fell from $6.6 billion to $5.2 billion between 2012 and 2013), the business of UAVs will remain little more than a small focus of defense spending outside the United States for the next decade.

Part of the reason the public is so easily manipulated is that much of what is known about the development of armed drones is clouded in secrecy. Some countries, including the United States, maintain covert programs for obvious reasons like maintaining the strategic element of surprise, while others, such as Iran, boast of armed drones that have not been demonstrably used in order to garner national prestige. There are also government announcements of deadlines for developing them that appear to go unmet, as well as aspirational statements by drone manufacturers for orders that are never fulfilled.

Drone sales have indeed increased markedly over the past few years. A decade ago, analysts estimated that global spending on commercial and military drones would be $2 billion in 2005, and the amount projected over the next decade was estimated to be nearly $11 billion. In 2013, $5.2 billion was spent on drones -- a 21 percent decrease from the previous year -- with $89 billion projected for the next 10 years combined. Of that amount, only an estimated 11 percent, or $9.9 billion, is expected to be used to purchase armed drones. However, it is important to keep these numbers in perspective. According to IHS Jane's, global defense spending in 2013 was $1.54 trillion.

The global market still belongs overwhelmingly to the United States and Israel, which were estimated in 2012 to comprise three-quarters of all drone sales. A November 2012 report estimated that U.S. defense firms Northrop Grumman and General Atomics accounted for 40 percent and 25 percent, respectively, of worldwide drone manufacturing. No other company had more than 3 percent of the market share. In 2013, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimated that Israel was responsible for 41 percent of drone exports between 2001 and 2011. However, China has reportedly sold two of its smaller armed drones to the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan, raising concerns about whether China would export its larger Predator-equivalent drone (the CH-4) to countries such as Iran.

According to the Teal Group, over the next decade 51 percent of global drone procurement and 65 percent of global research and development on drones will be solely American. This should not be surprising given that the United States has been the lead actor in the development and use of all drones and that the Pentagon's budget is bigger than the next 10 largest defense budgets combined.

And though many militaries around the world are pursuing drones, the vast majority of armed drones in development will not resemble U.S. armed drones, such as the Predator and Reaper, which have the greatest potential to be used against perceived adversaries domestically or in neighboring territories. Most drones will be used for surveillance to capture full-motion video or collect signals intelligence. Of the 27,420 aerial drones that the Teal Group projects will be purchased in the next decade, just 3 percent are estimated to be either medium-altitude, long-endurance drones (like the weapons-capable Predator and Reaper) or unmanned combat aerial vehicles (armed drones). This is also true for the United States. According to a recent Pentagon report, the United States possesses some 11,000 aerial drones, of which fewer than 400 are capable of being weaponized.

That other countries have not followed the United States' lead in acquiring armed drones may be surprising given what might seem to be the enviable position of using them to target adversaries while not incurring any meaningful risk. But while one can buy a rudimentary drone at Brookstone, producing an advanced armed drone is no small technological feat. The United States' armed drones require sophisticated beyond-line-of-sight communications, access to satellite bandwidth, and systems engineering -- from internal fire control to ground control stations -- that are currently beyond the reach of most states. Even countries that have relatively advanced aerospace programs -- Russia, France, and Italy -- will struggle to develop and deploy this systematic architecture of capabilities and processes.

Moreover, in some countries domestic politics have impeded armed drone developments. Whereas the U.S. targeted killing program has faced few domestic constraints, drone politics look considerably different in other countries. In late February the European Parliament passed an unprecedented resolution, declaring: "Drone strikes outside a declared war by a state on the territory of another state without the consent of the latter or of the UN Security Council constitute a violation of international law and of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of that country."

In Germany, advocates of the armed drone program have encountered intense opposition from a public worried that the lethal capability could compromise the country's defense-only security norms and increase the prospects for military interventions more generally. The German debate demonstrates how the prism through which both sides view armed drones is significantly influenced by their perception of the morality, legality, and necessity of U.S. drone strikes. Thus, while the Ministry of Defense declared for a half-decade that it planned to purchase 16 armed drones, the decision was postponed in November and is once against under review.

In an era when most defense budgets -- outside the Asia-Pacific region -- are static or in slight decline, costs will constrain armed drone developments and purchases. As the United States has learned, armed drones are not markedly cheaper than manned fighter aircraft, and in some situations they are actually more expensive. Human intelligence is costly and required in large numbers to analyze and disseminate the full-motion video and signals intelligence collected by drones. Before committing to redirect precious defense dollars, governments must identify the military missions for which armed drones are uniquely suited and that cannot reliably be achieved by the weapons systems currently in their arsenals. To date, the majority of governments worldwide simply have not rushed away from manned aircraft, rocket and artillery, or special operation forces -- and toward armed drones.

The truth about drone proliferation matters because the Obama administration is in the final stages of a long, contentious interagency review of U.S. drone exports. If the White House's strategy is based on the misperception of a world characterized by limitless drone proliferation, then a policy of markedly reduced barriers for U.S. drone exports is sensible, because states would ultimately acquire armed drones irrespective of U.S. policies. If, however, proliferation does have structural and normative impediments, then how the United States -- as the largest manufacturer of armed drones -- develops its export strategy could have an impact on the breadth and speed with which the technology diffuses. And then some of the caricatures of drone proliferation may end up being credible. The result could be that more states will be armed with the low-risk technology that arguably lowers the threshold for using force, with potentially destabilizing consequences for regional and international security.

Photo: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images


Exporting Climate Skepticism

Some of the most advanced countries in the world are increasingly rejecting climate change. But where did they get this idea? America, it seems.

The language in the climate wars has gone from academic and polite to downright venomous.

In England, Prince Charles has dubbed climate skeptics the "headless chicken brigade." (Perhaps he was recalling the grim fate of some chickens on his estate a few years back.) In Australia, Maurice Newman, a top business advisor to the prime minister who's in the skeptic camp, has decried "climate change madness" and proclaimed that "the scientific delusion, the religion behind the climate crusade, is crumbling." In the United States, a Time magazine writer accused Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer of "unfrozen Caveman lawyer naiveté" for questioning climate science. "The next step is book burning," Krauthammer fired back at critics.

This is good stuff for headline writers. But what's more interesting is that these debates are playing out all over the world -- more specifically, over much of the English-speaking world. Britain, Australia, and the United States are all grappling with politically powerful voices that question the scientific consensus that humans contribute significantly to climate change. "Is the BBC becoming the U.K. version of Fox News on global warming?" the Guardian recently asked, lamenting the "disproportionate air time" given to climate-skeptic talking heads.

Skepticism -- or, more potently, denialism -- matters because it stalls action. The United States has virtually abandoned the idea of cap and trade and turned to narrower power plant regulations. Australia, as another example, is backing away from its cap-and-trade and carbon-tax plans in favor of a fuzzier reverse-auction system in which companies will compete to sell emissions-abatement credits back to a government fund. And it leads into some other questions I've been mulling for a long time: Did the United States export climate skepticism to its best allies? And can we reel it back in?

The United States, where powerful industries are skilled at downplaying environmental risks, appears to have embraced the skeptic movement first, in the run-up to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Back then, as now, a network of conservative think tanks churned out skeptics to question global warming science in congressional testimony and in news articles, as recounted in this 2003 academic paper, "Defeating Kyoto." (The term "climate skepticism" is said to have arrived around 1995.) A rightward political shift was also at work as Republicans took control of Congress in 1994. The United States never ratified Kyoto, and the movement has remained entrenched ever since -- and spread around the world.

Skepticism, in at least some of its flavors, is obviously a good thing for science.  European researchers sometimes embrace the skeptic label, because that's what they're supposed to do -- question things. "In the absence of political polarization as it exists in the United States, European scientists are more ready to call themselves skeptics," Andreas Kraemer, the head of Ecologic Institute in Berlin, told me. Skepticism has refined our understanding of climate change in good ways over the past century, as scientists have better layered water vapor, volcanoes, and other factors onto their greenhouse-gas models. Climate is so complex that there are plenty of things we don't fully understand yet, as a February 2014 paper by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and Britain's Royal Society duly noted.

But a scientific consensus does exist that humans are courting catastrophe by changing and warming the climate. The National Academy and the Royal Society are only the latest in a long, long line to say that very clearly. 

So why, then, does the belief persist in some of the most advanced countries of the world that this is not the case? Climate skepticism is apparently on the rise in Britain, where a poll last year found that the proportion of people who doubt change is happening has more than quadrupled since 2005, to 19 percent. (Perhaps the recent flooding will change some minds back.) Likewise, a fifth of Australians do not believe climate change is happening.

The originator of all this appears to be the United States, where about 15 percent of respondents have told Gallup that global warming will never produce any effect. "Definitely there's a lot of common agreement that this kind of brand of [climate] contrarianism emanated from the United States," said Max Boykoff of the University of Colorado. But Bernd Sommer, a humanities scholar at the University of Flensburg in Germany, argues that a gradual diffusion has taken place. Serious climate skeptics, he said, are "part of an international knowledge community. This does not mean that they are formally or personally connected. However, they visit the same websites and blogs, refer to the same studies, data, and skeptics' arguments."

English-language connections and media polarization help spread the trend. James Painter, who heads a journalism fellowship program at Oxford University, surveyed newspapers in Brazil, China, France, India, the United States, and the United Kingdom in a 2011 paper and found that climate skepticism, in its various stripes, appears to be "a predominantly Anglo-Saxon phenomenon." Partly due to the "climate-gate" scandal, skeptic representation increased between the two three-month periods he surveyed, in 2007, and between 2009 and 2010. (Sommer, the German academic, also notes that the failure of the Copenhagen climate meeting, the economic crisis, and some long, frigid winters in Europe may have fanned skeptic flames.) In a separate study, Painter says that he also found that voices skeptical of climate change "were more present in more articles in Australia, U.S., and U.K. than France, Norway, and India."

Why? Inevitably, it's a number of factors. For one thing, British and American newspapers tend to quote politicians more extensively on climate matters than papers in other countries -- and politicians, to say the least, don't always stick to the science. (A contrast is France, where "some people argue that … there is a much stronger respect for science and scientists amongst the political class and the general population," said Painter.) The opinion pages of British and American papers give ample play to skeptics, and lobby groups are strong and well-financed. Joint transatlantic ownership of the media could play a role. And a shared language, of course, makes it easier to transmit skeptical bloggers' ideas.

But there's more to it. It's hard to pin down, but skepticism appears prevalent in some advanced extraction economies, or nations that value growth above the environment. It is true of the United States, with its get-the-feds-off-my-back Tea Party clamor. It's also true of Australia, where mining and natural resources have been key drivers of economic growth. Poland, which is hungry for coal and fracking, also has a vein of climate skepticism. Britain seems to fit this model, too, with its relative openness to fracking and ambivalence toward European regulations. Developing countries are different: They seem less skeptical of climate change, perhaps because they are eager to blame weather woes on the rich world. It's notable that in China, a major extraction economy, skepticism is relatively limited; the Chinese Academy of Sciences recently rebuked the Heartland Institute for thinking it was getting cozy with skeptics.

One of the best climate-change quotes of all time landed this month, from Andrew Mackenzie, chief executive of Australia's mining giant BHP Billiton. "You can't argue with a rock," he told an energy conference in Houston, in citing geologic evidence of climate change. But even if global leaders like Mackenzie come around, my prediction is that skepticism is going to be harder to dislodge in the United States than in the rest of the world. After all, it was made in the U.S.A.

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