There is growing dissent across the Middle East and beyond at what is perceived to be a total lack of transparency, ethics, and scrutiny over the U.S. government’s use of drones.
This concern was growing even before the U.S. expanded drone use into the Arabian Peninsula and Northern Africa. All of this consternation revolves around four fundamental questions that the United States has been reckless in ignoring on the global stage. Meanwhile, the answers based on previous American drone usage probably carry some severe repercussions for American foreign and military policies, let alone global peace and security:
Who is controlling the weapon system?
Does the system of control and oversight violate international law governing the use of force?
Are drone strikes proportionate acts that provide military effectiveness given the circumstances of the conflict they are being used in?
Does their use violate the sovereignty of other nations and allow the United States to disregard formal national boundaries?
Unfortunately, the overwhelming dominance of American drone capability allows these questions to remain largely unanswered or answered in contradictory ways. Analysts focused on short-term strategic advantage consider this purposeful avoidance brilliant, while analysis concerned with the long-term bigger picture worries that anytime interpretive space is allowed into drones’ ethical arena it is usually filled by a cacophony of conspiracy and hyperbole.
In an environment where drone technology is being openly sold on a massive scale across the global market and countless countries are striving to build and obtain their own drone fleets, it is deeply troubling that the general consensus around the world is that America uses drones in a manner that makes questionable targeting and covert killing commonplace. The lack of concern within American corridors of power seems predicated on lazy assurance that no real rivals would be willing to learn from and follow these ambiguities and obfuscations as precedent. The following evidence seems to indicate that might be the biggest mistaken assumption of all.
China and Pakistan
Most discussions of an immediate drone rival to the United States usually focus on China. China supposedly has over 900 different types of drones. The three most common Chinese UAVs, the Chengdu Xianlong and Pterodactyl 1 and the Sharp Sword, have startling similarities to the American Global Hawk, Reaper and Predator X-47B stealth drone respectively. This of course alludes to China’s success in economic espionage, where it is believed massive amounts of confidential technical and commercial applications have been stolen from America. This begs a question: why do so many experts believe in continued American technical domestic dominance when China shows how easy it is to bypass technical domestic innovation? Why develop it when you can just steal it?
Perhaps more disconcerting is the fact that China is an active participant in the sellers’ market, best epitomized by the Pakistan-China interaction. Few people realize Pakistan openly tried to gain drone technology from the United States, arguing that it would be able to continue the fight the U.S. had semi-legally begun on its territory against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. America politely but steadfastly refused this request. Frustrated, Pakistan turned to China. The Pakistan Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf said such deals with China would be both immensely beneficial to Pakistan and the world in general as it would offset America’s ‘undeclared technological apartheid.’
American analysts should not derisively dismiss such judgment. The U.S. refusal of Pakistan has been based on successive American presidential administrations feeling Pakistan was not ‘capable of handling such technology.’ As an olive branch the U.S. counter-offered a range of reconnaissance UAVs. In other words, it offered the very technology that American analysts openly deride as second-class and why other countries around the world will never catch up to the United States.
This is why the phrase ‘drone apartheid’ matters: Pakistan considered itself an ally to the U.S., fighting the same fight and challenging the same enemies, but was not trusted to have the same advanced weapons. How does Pakistan avoid feeling like the U.S. has purposely compromised its own security? Perhaps in a slightly ironic nod to the American tendency to talk out of both sides of its diplomatic mouth when it comes to drones, Prime Minister Sharif issued a statement after the China deal saying that Pakistan now had the capability to shoot down U.S. drones but would be a ‘responsible state.’ Fascinatingly, the greatest worry for America might be other states acquiring drones and adopting the same standards for its operational missions.
Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) actually succeeded in destroying a drone that it tracked flying over sensitive military installations and approaching the Dimona nuclear reactor in 2013. Israelis did not disclose whether or not this ‘enemy drone’ was successful in its mission but they were certain that it was not American, Chinese, or Russian. IDF claimed it to be an Iranian drone assembled in Lebanon and flown by Hezbollah. I have loosely called this the world’s first ‘Islamic Crescent drone’ and emphasized how it signaled a dangerous advance in the transnational proliferation of drone technology.
Iran has taken the lead in the region, claiming in 2013 to have developed both ‘Epic,’ a drone supposedly designed for both combat and reconnaissance, and ‘Throne,’ a long-range combat UAV with alleged stealth capabilities. While the general global reaction to these announcements has been skeptical, there are still important things to consider: it is relevant that Iran makes a point that its drones have the dual capability of both combat and surveillance/reconnaissance. The U.S. has pushed to keep these capabilities separate on the global market. Almost immediately upon these so-called Iranian ‘achievements’ both Egypt and Saudi Arabia became far more interested in acquiring drones for their militaries and developing their own programs. So the cascade effect is already happening in the drone market.
On that same level Turkey has openly pursued tactical UAVs for its own internal problem with the Kurdish Workers Party. The Turkish Army believed it was letting a prominent strategic advantage slip by if it did not acquire drones capable of helping in border security, urban warfare, and other operational missions innate to the fight against insurgent Kurds. The position is in essence a policy switch away from Israel, which had long been supplying its own Heron-1 medium-altitude, long-endurance UAVs to Turkey. So the Turkey-Israel connection shows an increasing sophistication in the drone acquisition market, where states now become more demanding and explicit about their own national security needs.
Singapore joined the list of Israeli drone acquirers in 2012. Unlike other countries, Singapore emphasized how the acquisition was just the first step in its long-term plans. Ultimately, success in the drone era according to Singapore depended not just on the existence of technology but on the development and training of talented personnel to operate it. Thus, it is yet another chink in the American armor that presupposes an easy continued dominance for its own drone fleet. Confidence in the superiority of American training is likely well-founded, but there is a difference between superiority and inaccessibility. Meaning, if drone technology can be stolen or purchased, so too can drone training techniques. It is not difficult to imagine a day where drone armies are operated by personnel that are relatively equal in terms of U.S. talent.
Indeed, Singapore seems to be a leading example for the greater region, as Asia Pacific has the biggest potential to be one of the largest UAV markets in the world. In addition to China and Singapore, India, South Korea, North Korea, Malaysia, and Australia are all active participants in the drone market, each one aiming to develop its own fleet. Thus, the complex reality of today’s drone era is getting ignored by American analysts: the United States does not worry about India, Australia, or South Korea becoming proficient in drone technology, but the same really cannot be said for North Korea, Malaysia, or China.
The countries in question are aggressively pursuing not just acquisition but domestic industrial production. In addition, these activities are being matched by a strategic military prioritization aimed at developing skilled personnel. More importantly, complex interdependence and the linked nature of conflict in the modern era mean this drone activity does not take place in a vacuum: all of these developments create reactive effects onto the global stage that are detrimental to peace. American comfort with drones so far has been predicated on a belief in maintaining superiority over three things: emerging rivals, domestic production, and commercial activity. The United States has de facto tried to create a ‘drone apartheid’ that it not only controls but also expects global acquiescence, even though most of the world does not support the idea that America is the most responsible, transparent, and ethical user of drones. Perhaps most importantly, just like with South Africa, this apartheid also seems destined to fall. When it does, America might be advised to worry about chickens coming home to roost.