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Limiting Armed Drone Proliferation

Authors: , Senior Fellow, and Sarah E. Kreps

Limiting Armed Drone Proliferation - micah-zenko-and-sarah-kreps-council-special-report-on-limiting-armed-drone-proliferation
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Publisher Council on Foreign Relations Press

Release Date June 2014

52 pages
ISBN 978-0-87609-588-1
Council Special Report No. 69


The Obama administration should pursue a strategy that places clear limits on its own sale and use of armed drones lest these weapons proliferate and their use becomes widespread. These are the central findings of a new report by CFR Douglas Dillon Fellow Micah Zenko and Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow Sarah Kreps, published by the Center for Preventive Action (CPA).

Although only five countries have developed armed drones—the United States, Britain, Israel, China, and Iran—several other countries have announced their own programs. "India reports that it will soon equip its drones with precision-guided munitions and hopes to mass-produce combat drones to conduct targeted strikes in cross-border attacks on suspected terrorists.Rebuffed by requests to procure U.S. armed drones, Pakistan said it will develop them indigenously or with China's help to target the Taliban in its tribal areas." The report also notes that "Turkey has about twenty-four types of drones in use or development, four of which have been identified as combat drones," while Switzerland, France, Italy, Spain, Greece, and Sweden "have collaborated on the Neuron, a stealth armed drone that made its first demonstration flight in December 2012."

Zenko and Kreps lay out several reasons why armed drones are unique in their ability to destabilize relations and intensify conflict. Unmanned aircraft reduce the threshold for authorizing military action by eliminating pilot casualty, potentially increasing the frequency of force deployment. Because there is no onboard pilot, drones are less responsive to warnings that could defuse or prevent a clash. Furthermore, countries may fire on a manned fighter plane, mistaking it for an armed drone, which could increase the likelihood of conflict.

In addition, the proliferation of unmanned aircraft carries an increased risk of lethality because "drones are, in many ways, the perfect vehicle for delivering biological and chemical agents."

The authors write that the Obama administration faces two broad policy decisions: first, to determine the criteria and principles that would guide exports of drones; and second, to cultivate a set of norms and practices to govern their use.

"As the lead user of drones, the United States has the unique opportunity to determine which countries acquire these systems and hold them accountable for how they use those drones," Zenko and Kreps assert. U.S. drone exports should require commitment to the following principles: Peacefully resolving all outstanding border or maritime disputes; peacefully brokering domestic political disputes; protecting civilians from harm caused by other weapons platforms; and protecting human rights.

A set of norms to govern the use of drones would require increased transparency on U.S. drone strike practices and targeting decisions. "A guiding principle for how the United States describes and clarifies its drone operations should be based on type and specificity of information it wants to see used by other armed drone states."

The report outlines other policy recommendations for the Obama administration, including:

  • Tasking the intelligence community to publish an unclassified survey of the current and future trends of unmanned military technologies—including ground, sea, and autonomous systems—as they do for ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction.
  • Commissioning an unclassified study by a federally funded research institution to assess how unmanned aerial systems have been employed in destabilizing settings and identify the most likely potential future missions of drones that run counter to U.S. interests.
  • Directing administration officials to testify—for the first time—before Senate and House Foreign Relations Committees hearings on the principles and criteria that should guide armed and unarmed drone exports.
  • Appointing a high-level panel of outside experts to review U.S. government policies on targeting decisions and their transparency and potential effect on emerging proliferators, and propose reforms based on the President's Review Group on Intelligence and Communication Technologies.

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More About This Publication


US opens up international market for armed drones: Consequences unknown

In a 2014 Foreign Affairs article, Sarah Kreps and Micah Zenko suggested that while drones do not possess the transformative power of nuclear weaWelcome to the Red Cell: The CIA unit that asks the awkward questionspons, the moral hazard around their use meant they could still be highly destabilising to international order. Specifically, the authors wrote, armed drones could increase the possibility of 'military conflicts in disputed areas where the slightest provocation could lead to strife'.

Obama administration to allow sales of armed drones to allies

Micah Zenko, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the new guidelines fill a gap in U.S. policy, given the growing global reliance on drones for military, surveillance and law enforcement purposes. “The important thing to know with armed drones is that based on America’s record, they lower the threshold for when countries use armed force,” Zenko said. “And when you have that lower threshold, it can change the calculus of countries.”

The Unblinking Stare

In a research paper published this summer, Micah Zenko and Sarah Kreps, two scholars at the Council on Foreign Relations, argued that the very precision of drone technology raises the prospect for “moral hazard.” The reduction in risks may tempt governments to order drones into action more frequently than they would conventional bombers or missiles. In other words, drones may spare more innocents but they may also create more war.

Scholars' Convocation, "Limiting Armed Drone Proliferation"

Scholars’ Convocation, “Limiting Armed Drone Proliferation,” by Micah Zenko, the Douglas Dillon Fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations and vice chair of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Terrorism.

Russia's Coming Combat Drones

In a report released this month, the Council on Foreign Relations' Micah Zenko and Sarah Kreps argue: "Russia, China, Iran, South Korea, and Taiwan, for example, have begun to develop increasingly sophisticated indigenous drone capabilities. Other countries, including Pakistan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), have publicized their intent to purchase them."

US Must Regulate Sale And Use Of Armed Drones, Says Report

In a new report called "Limiting Armed Drone Proliferation," published by the Council on Foreign Relations, Micah Zenko and Sarah Kreps argue that the time has arrived for the U.S. to set regulatory limits on the use of drones. Because drones do not have pilots, they write, the threshold for launching war is lower -- and the planes cannot avoid sudden danger as easily.

Droning On

No wonder other countries are eager to develop their own drone programs. According to a new report from the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), four other countries already possess military drones: Britain, Israel, China, and Iran. Others are moving forward with programs, including India and Pakistan. And a stealth drone called Neuron is being jointly developed by Switzerland, France, Italy, Spain, Greece, and Sweden.

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Serious questions about drone proliferation and the United States' role must be answered," writes Sarah Kreps. She discusses a recent report...