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The Drone Invasion Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

Authors: Micah Zenko, Senior Fellow, and Sarah E. Kreps
March 10, 2014


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.

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