05.04.2014 Author: Matthew Crosston

US: The Drone Tipping Point


American drone utilization is predicated upon the exclusive and exceptional ability of the United States to dictate terms to all other countries and to assume that such technical dictatorship will continue on in perpetuity, thereby eliminating the need to be concerned about the lack of uniformity, transparency, and logical consistency in international norms and ethical standards. A cursory investigation reveals just how presumptuous this position may be: 2013 seemed to be a stellar year for drone achievement around the world. In fact, ten years from now we may all look back on 2013 and consider it to be the drone ‘tipping point.’

Italy launched its own drone in 2013. Nicknamed the Hammerhead, it can carry a variety of payloads and seems to be mostly destined at the moment for maritime patrol, given Italian domestic security concerns with its massive coastline. The possibility of expanding capability and capacity remains likely as the respective CEOs of this joint venture boasted about opportunities in 2015 that could gain them primary position in the international surveillance and security industry.

Late in 2013, after years of preparation and strategic planning, the chief of Pakistan’s military formally announced the successful launch of Pakistan’s first domestically produced UAVs. The drones, called Burraq and Shahpar, are at present unarmed and to be used only for surveillance according to military officials. Both Pakistani and Western analysts have confirmed how much the development of the drones represents a milestone for the country’s military and science community.

China is not new to the drone technology market. It has operated its own drones for many years. 2013, however, established a new level in the evolution of foreign drone technology when China unveiled the Lijian, claiming it to be the first successfully flown ‘stealth drone’ not originating from the United States. The fact that this Chinese drone has remarkably similar design contours to the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel and the Northrop Grumman X-47B raises questions about the ability of the American military-industrial complex to keep secret technology secret. Unlike other countries pursuing their own drone technology, China offers no denial that this drone in particular is meant to be an unmanned ground attack aircraft, fully weaponized and employable at great distances.

The Cape Town-based company KND Naval Design, participating in the Dubai air show for the first time in 2013, earned a $30 million order for its newly produced UAVs. It also signed a letter of intent with a Russian company for a similar deal worth an additional $20 million. Discussions are serious enough between KND and Russia that there are expectations it may establish a second production facility in Russian territory. South Africa is actually one of the leading industrial states pushing the technical boundaries of UAV performance, believing flights of over 4000 miles and heights of nearly 45,000 feet will become regular standards for the leading companies. It is important to note that at the present time the United States prides itself as being the only country capable of developing drones with such technical prowess. South Africa also seems to be paving the way for creating a legitimate transnational industrial market that will de facto proliferate drone technology to countries presently absent such capability. In other words, states will not have to depend on producing their own home-grown industries in order to be viable in the drone age.

Israel Defense Forces actually succeeded in destroying a drone that it tracked flying over sensitive military installations and was approaching the Dimona nuclear reactor in 2013. The drone was unarmed but was operated by agents elsewhere and attempting to relay images back to a home base. Israelis have not disclosed whether or not that enemy objective was successful but they were certain that the drone was not American, Chinese, or Russian. IDF claimed it to be an Iranian drone that was assembled in Lebanon and flown by Hezbollah. In other words, 2013 revealed to the world the first possible ‘Islamic Crescent’ drone.

In response to this proliferation of not only drone technology but drone capability, American officials have slowly and subtly altered their overall position. This is what the author finds akin to drone ‘Wonka Vision:’ the United States sees what it wants to see and hopes no one else bothers to notice what it is purposely ignoring. To wit: the US doesn’t want other states to have drone technology, until they do. Then it’s not about the technology but about the truly global technical strike capabilities. The US doesn’t want others to have truly global technical strike capabilities, until they do. Then it’s not about such strike capacity, but about the intelligence and data-collection techniques. The US doesn’t want others to have highly sophisticated and adept intelligence and data-collection techniques, until they do. Then it’s not about such information-collection talent, but about the fact that no one wants to use it to strike the United States. And this is where drone ‘Wonka Vision’ falls apart: given the way the United States has developed weaponized drone technology, made legal discussions about norms and ethics opaque and aribtrary, and employed drone attacks in some cases outside the standard conventional rules of engagement and laws of war, the belief that no country – as it develops increasingly sophisticated and fully weaponized drone tech for itself – would ever have a desire or consideration to use it against America or American interests/targets is founded upon, quite frankly, nothing. This is not so much diplomatic idealism as it is political fantasy.

Unfortunately, the military and intelligence communities of the United States, while being the clear leader in this field technically and operationally, cannot occupy the seat of moral leadership as discussions about the development of universalized, transparent, and standard ethical norms on drone usage are investigated. The policies of America’s early drone dominance have undermined its ability to dictate terms. Hopefully, this only means America will have to follow the lead of other countries looking to take a more transparent ethical stand over drones as they develop their own technical capabilities with newly-created UAV fleets. Otherwise, it may mean the United States will have to cope in the near future with its own technological chickens coming home to ethically roost.

Dr. Matthew Crosston is Professor of Political Science and Director of the International Security and Intelligence Studies program at Bellevue University, exclusively  for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.