Drone Proliferation Ramps Up

Photo by Iwan Gabovitch | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Iwan Gabovitch | CC BY 2.0


And thick and fast they came at last,
And more and more and more—

— Lewis Carroll, “The Walrus and the Carpenter” (1871)

Over 75 states possess unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly called drones.  We know of fifteen states which possessed armed drones at the end of 2016.  They are the US, UK, China, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Myanmar, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, South Africa, and Turkey.

Deadly Toys

As you read this, ISIS drones are dropping bombs on the Iraqi city of Mosul.  ISIS has had surveillance drones at least since 2014.  On August 23, 2014, a video was posted to YouTube which showed aerial footage of a Syrian army base.  An on screen caption proclaimed “From the drone of the army of the Islamic State.”

Now ISIS has armed drones.  The New York Times reported that in October 2016 Kurdish forces in Iraq shot down an ISIS drone “the size of a model airplane.”  The drone exploded on examination, killing two Kurdish troops.  The Times said this was “believed to be one of the first times the Islamic State has successfully used a drone with explosives to kill troops on the battlefield.”

ISIS has brought a new weapon into the world:  the “flying IED” (improvised explosive device).  Blake Baiers, writing at RealClear Defense, comments that “ISIS is mimicking the U.S. military’s multi-billion dollar drone program by using off-the-shelf hobby drones and plastic explosives.”  The DJI Phantom, one of the commercial drones ISIS uses, is a small quadcopter available on Amazon.  These lightweight DIY drones (the DJI Phantom weighs just a little more than two pounds) can only carry a small explosive such as a hand grenade.  That’s enough to do a lot of damage.  One technique, discussed by T. X. Hammes at War on the Rocks, is called “bringing the detonator.”  Even with no more than a small explosive charge, flying a drone into “a fuel truck, an ammunition dump, or the wing of an aircraft can set off a much greater explosion.”  Hamas possesses a similar weaponized DIY drone.

Hezbollah has used armed drones in the Syrian conflict.  The Hezbollah drones—obtained from Iran—are reusable and drop cluster bombs:  apparently Chinese-made MZD-2 submunitions.  The “kamikaze” drones used by ISIS and Hamas can be used only once, like Hitler’s V-1 “buzz bomb.”  Since these drones can be put together for no more than a couple of thousand bucks it doesn’t matter that they can be used only once.  Bullets can’t be used more than once, either.

DIY drones are unlikely to change the course of the war in Iraq and Syria, although they may prolong it, adding to the war’s cost both in treasure and in human lives.  Of greater concern, is the potential improvised IED’s have to be used in terrorist attacks against civilians in the US, Europe, and elsewhere.  A drone can fly over a security barrier or police cordon which would stop a human suicide bomber.

Can We Control the Spread of Killer Drones?

Some writers have discussed the possibility of a sort of “Geneva Convention for drones” to provide standards for the use of drones in combat and to reduce proliferation.  Others, looking to the example provided by the 1997 Landmines Treaty which prohibited the use of anti-personnel mines, call for a treaty which will ban armed drones altogether.

Whether the goal is reduction or elimination, a binding international treaty is not yet even in the negotiating stage.  In the meantime, we have the “Joint Declaration for the Export and Subsequent Use of Armed Strike-Enabled Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).”  The one-page document was issued by the US State Department on October 28, 2016 and sets out five “principles” meant to regulate drone export:

+ Drones must be used consistently with international law, “including both the law of armed conflict and international human rights law.”

+ The human rights record of a potential transferee is to be taken into account in making the decision whether export will be permitted.

+ Export of drones must be made “in line with existing relevant international arms control and disarmament norms.”

+ Transfers of drones are to be publically recorded (an allusion to the UN Register of Conventional Arms) in order to ensure transparency. (This principle is watered down with an ocean of qualifications. Transparency measures, including recording of transfers, will be “voluntary” and will be pursued “with due regard to national security considerations.”)

+ States will continue to discuss measures to control drone proliferation. The principals to the Joint Declaration will hold their first meeting sometime this year.

The Joint Declaration extends to other nations the policy the US had previously adopted for itself.  In February 2015, the Obama Administration announced that it was easing restrictions on the sale of US-manufactured armed drones abroad.  Thus, the Joint Declaration attempts to fight the proliferation of killer drones by means of principles first adopted in order to facilitate US armed drone exports.  Does anyone else think this is a little incoherent?

Encouragingly, the February 2015 Obama policy did not open the floodgates to the export of armed US drones.  Before the Obama Administration promulgated its 2015 policy, only the United Kingdom, had been allowed to purchase armed drones from the US.  After adoption of the 2015 policy, the US has exported armed drone tech to only one other nation:  Italy.  Let’s hope the US maintains this level of self-restraint.

The Joint Declaration’s flaws are many.  For starters, does the US itself observe these principles?  The US drone assassination program overseas is too notorious to need relating here.  In addition, the US has long been arms dealer to the world.  The bombs which Saudi Arabia drops on Yemen were supplied by the US.  Nor does the Joint Declaration say anything about penalties for violations, how violations will be determined, or who decides whether a violation has occurred.

One deficiency dwarfs all others.  Over fifty nations, including the US, signed the Joint Declaration.  It’s nice that Luxembourg and the Seychelles signed on, but a bit troubling that the world’s two biggest exporters of military drones, Israel and China, did not.  Israel alone has accounted for 60% of the world market for drones since 1985 (data from 2015).  Any drone anti-proliferation regime without Israel and China is unlikely to succeed.

Enter Trump

Yes, but what about Donald Trump?  Trump has said little about drones.  We do know that Trump wants drones to patrol the Canadian and Mexican borders.  That’s pretty tame by Trump standards.  The excitement Trump watchers yearn for returned in December when the Chinese intercepted a US submersible drone in international waters.  Outraged over this indignity to our oversized bath toy, Trump tweeted that the Chinese had stolen the drone.  The Pentagon thought so, too, and it is hard to disagree.  A Chinese ship plucked the drone out of the South China Sea mere moments before it would have been retrieved by a US Naval research ship which was standing just yards off.  Later, Trump tweeted that the US should refuse to take the drone back and that the Chinese should “Keep it.”  (The Chinese returned the drone—and with a full tank of gas, too.)

Trump told the British Daily Mail that he would continue Obama’s drone strikes on terrorists.  Of course he will.  Trump has promised to “Bomb the shit out of ISIS.”  And their families.  Terrorists care about their families, Trump told “Fox and Friends” in December.  Kill their families and ISIS will turn from its evil ways.  Me, I would have thought this would create still more radicals, but what do I know.  In any event, whether the target be ISIS chieftain Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or al-Baghdadi’s grandma, many of those bombs will be dropped from drones.  Fascinating to relate, a voice of sanity comes from Trump’s pick for National Security Adviser, General Michael Flynn.  General Flynn has expressed the impeccably left-wing opinion that drone strikes do more harm than good.

On the other hand, bombing the shit out of terrorists conflicts with Trump’s declared preference for capturing, not killing high-level terrorists (and then waterboarding them, a tactic Trump enthusiastically endorses).

Those are Trump’s significant utterances (or tweets) on drone warfare.  I have not found any Trump statements on drone proliferation.  We do know Trump’s feelings about proliferation of nuclear weapons.  Given Trump’s nonchalance towards nuclear proliferation, proliferation of mere drones shouldn’t trouble him a bit.

With so little to go on, anyone is entitled to a guess what position the Trump Administration will take on US drone exports.  Here’s mine.  Two of the most prominent features of Trump’s Presidential campaign were Trump’s promise to revive American manufacturing and Trump’s animus toward China.  Trump threatens a trade war with China.  Trump’s Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson doesn’t stop there.  During his Senate confirmation hearing, Tillerson hinted at the possibility of an actual shooting war with China over the miserable Spratly Islands.

Trump can unite his two obsessions, China and American manufacturing, by increasing US exports of drones, including armed drones.  That could cut into China’s share of the world drone market while simultaneously giving a shot in the arm to US manufacturers, specifically those manufacturers euphemistically labelled “defense” contractors.

An exciting four years lie ahead.

Charles Pierson is a lawyer and a member of the Pittsburgh Anti-Drone Warfare Coalition. E-mail him at Chapierson@yahoo.com.