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Drone Proliferation: Three Things to Know

Speaker: Sarah E. Kreps, Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
June 19, 2014

The number of countries pursuing armed drone technology is growing, a trend that may increase the likelihood that some governments may resort to lethal force, especially at flashpoints for conflict like the Middle East and East Asia. Sarah Kreps, CFR's Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow, offers three things to know about armed drone proliferation.

  • Unmanned Arms Race: Although only the United States, Israel, and the UK have used armed drones in combat, many other countries are acquiring this technology, explains Kreps. "In particular, China and Iran have touted their armed drone capabilities," she says, while several European, Middle Eastern and Asian countries are also developing, collaborating on, or purchasing drone systems similar to that of the United States.

  • Lower Conflict Threshold: The spread of drone technology, which does not place human pilots at risk, could lead some states to opt for lethal force more often. If other countries use drones similar to the way the United States has done in recent years, "we are likely to see states carrying out cross-border attacks less discriminately," says Kreps. This is highly likely in East Asia, the Middle East, the Caucasus, Africa and other flashpoints for conflict, she says.

  • Limiting Proliferation: The international transfer of armed drones is regulated by the Missile Technology Control Regime, forged in 1987. But the non-binding accord faces relevancy challenges, says Kreps, and many countries seeking armed drones are not members. In addition to adhering to the MTCR guidelines, Washington should reflect on the precedent it is setting and clarify its targeted killings policy for other countries to consider, she adds.

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