Beyond the United States, drones are proliferating even as they are becoming increasingly sophisticated, lethal, stealthy, resilient, and autonomous. At least a dozen other states and nonstate actors could possess armed drones within the next ten years and leverage the technology in unforeseen and harmful ways. It is the stated position of the Obama administration that its strategy toward drones will be emulated by other states and nonstate actors. In an interview, President Obama revealed, “I think creating a legal structure, processes, with oversight checks on how we use unmanned weapons is going to be a challenge for me and for my successors for some time to come—partly because technology may evolve fairly rapidly for other countries as well.
To be sure, there are many qualifications in the CFR monograph about the technical limitations to state and non-state actors developing the system architecture needed to deploy systems and carry out attacks against American interests. However, they are obviated by Zenko’s own useful point that the complete system architecture possessed by the US isn’t necessary to carry out local objectives — not all powers want to project drones as far and as hard as the US does. And the many qualifications within the monograph seem at odds with the larger point — proliferation is, unless we act now, on the immediate horizon. The contradictions in the monograph are not completely problematic, but should be noted here first before moving on.
The CFR monograph seems to cast the drone as one half F-35 and one half AK-47. Difficult to employ, costly, and support-intensive — yet also irresistible enough to necessitate American action due to the problems of proliferation enabling states to act with “impunity.” The monograph -as well as some other writings - resolves this contradiction by arguing that local powers can have something in between the AK and the F-35:
Based on current trends, it is unlikely that most states will have, within ten years, the complete system architecture required to carry out distant drone strikes that would be harmful to U.S. national interests. However, those candidates able to obtain this technology will most likely be states with the financial resources to purchase or the industrial base to manufacture tactical short-range armed drones with limited firepower that lack the precision of U.S. laser-guided munitions; the intelligence collection and military command-and-control capabilities needed to deploy drones via line-of-sight communications; and cross- border adversaries who currently face attacks or the threat of attacks by manned aircraft, such as Israel into Lebanon, Egypt, or Syria; Russia into Georgia or Azerbaijan; Turkey into Iraq; and Saudi Arabia into Yemen. When compared to distant U.S. drone strikes, these contingencies do not require system-wide infrastructure and host-state support.
Zenko’s article in Politico also makes this point fairly nicely:
Where combat missions are concerned, most emerging drone powers will be limited to launching attacks in nearby countries. (Think Saudi Arabia in Yemen; Rwanda and Uganda in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; Russia in Georgia; or Pakistan in Afghanistan.)
But one truism about new technologies is that almost everywhere they are deployed, people find other uses for them. Countries might start to send drones to wage drug wars or fight pirates off the coast of Somalia. And we can be sure drones will be deployed in ways we cannot yet imagine.
Proliferation expert Dennis Gormley has warned that Americans view armed drones as incredibly precise, with low yields and limited consequences. But what happens the next time an embattled dictator like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad decides to use chemical weapons and finds that, as Gormley argues, drones are actually ideal delivery systems for weapons of mass destruction? The United States is going to demand a new policy—and quickly.
The CFR monograph also contains material describing the drone threat from non-state actors, but dismisses it as insignificant. Hence the chief argument being made concerns states — and a wide range of states from great powers like China to tinpot dictatorships like Assad’s Syria. This doesn’t resolve the larger problem of larger-scale proliferation/arms-races of deadly capabilities being both difficult, structurally limited, and still nonetheless on the horizon as a challenge for American security. But it does make somewhat of a cohesive case for the larger questions of international order and blowback that Zenko warns of.
There is a larger problem embedded in this critique that I’d also like to take some time to discuss. First, Zenko’s 2014 piece argues that the perception that the world is currently awash in drones is wrongheaded and the product of scaremongering and limited information. It is the future that is the primary problem — a future still capable of being molded and shaped. This is an sound argument — the future does matter. Yet in some of his past pieces, Zenko argues as if the future is right around the corner. It is difficult to read passages that raise Syrian hypotheticals or other states conducting counter-pirate or counter-drug operations without thinking that we are at the beginning of the drone proliferation/arms race that Zenko is warning of. So one could be forgiven if they had the mistaken impression about a drone-filled world that 2014 Zenko seeks to combat.
Indeed in one of the linked pieces Zenko says “we don’t have long to wait.” This is a dystopian drone world that we are “creating.” Indeed, had the Chinese actually executed the Burma strike that Zenko argues that they contemplated, would that not be the beginning of the improvised drone problems that he foresees? For what it’s worth, it seems from open sources that it could have happened. Time and space begin to collapse, particularly in the description of the threat horizon that pre-2014 Zenko discusses.
But Zenko in 2014 has raised more impediments to drone employment by precisely the same class of actors he writes about as likely near-term dangers in his pre-2014 pieces. These 2014 impediments include the difficulties of producing advanced drone technology, and declining defense budgets, as well as domestic political backlash. Note that there is no argument in 2014 (as per earlier pieces) that many of these “structural and normative impediments” can be bypassed with a sufficient amount of clever tinkering, limited objectives, and other hacks and cracks.
Instead, Zenko argues that the “truth” of proliferation is important, and that shining truth is that drones are pretty hard to use and may not be all that useful or desirable in the first place:
As the United States has learned, armed drones are not markedly cheaper than manned fighter aircraft, and in some situations they are actually more expensive. Human intelligence is costly and required in large numbers to analyze and disseminate the full-motion video and signals intelligence collected by drones. Before committing to redirect precious defense dollars, governments must identify the military missions for which armed drones are uniquely suited and that cannot reliably be achieved by the weapons systems currently in their arsenals. To date, the majority of governments worldwide simply have not rushed away from manned aircraft, rocket and artillery, or special operation forces — and toward armed drones.
Trying to square this with near-term visions of a drone-enabled Assad, a Chinese drone power blowing up drug lords in Burma, and counter-pirate and counter-drug foreign droning is difficult. Perhaps most puzzling is Zenko’s kicker: the real drone problem is export controls:
[T]he Obama administration is in the final stages of a long, contentious interagency review of U.S. drone exports. If the White House’s strategy is based on the misperception of a world characterized by limitless drone proliferation, then a policy of markedly reduced barriers for U.S. drone exports is sensible, because states would ultimately acquire armed drones irrespective of U.S. policies. If, however, proliferation does have structural and normative impediments, then how the United States — as the largest manufacturer of armed drones — develops its export strategy could have an impact on the breadth and speed with which the technology diffuses. And then some of the caricatures of drone proliferation may end up being credible. The result could be that more states will be armed with the low-risk technology that arguably lowers the threshold for using force, with potentially destabilizing consequences for regional and international security.
If it’s really just export controls that are the gateway to the “caricature” future that Zenko fears, then the US arguably could drone terrorists away without considering any of his previous precedent-based arguments as long as it keeps a tight grip on exports. Why not just drone the terrorists with a light conscience, if states can’t or won’t make killer robots anyway and the only way they could get them is if we allow it? Indeed, as later detailed, Zenko argues that even advanced industrialized states are having problems with the make and deployment of drones. If drones are so inefficient, difficult to make, and future use of them is so tentative that the only guaranteed pathway to drone dystopia is Uncle Sam giving the world drones, then the drone problem must be vastly different than we have imagined it.
As I’ve hinted before, Zenko’s arguments about drones have always been about the shadow of the future — and future risk at that. Hence while inconsistencies and ambiguities in his writing about when that future takes place may plausibly give rise to false perceptions of a world that is currently or on the verge of being flooded with killer robots, this doesn’t necessarily show the problem with the “shadow of the future” argument in abstract. I will have to explain a bit more about how the “shadow of the future” argument breaks down between 2013 and 2014 Zenko pieces.
The shadow of the future problem comes from the inconsistencies between the 2014 characterization of future drone dystopia and the 2011-2013 characterizations. That problem in specific comes from squaring past arguments about why we should be concerned with drone proliferation and arms races with present ones.
Some past arguments:
(1) A state might, in the near future, use drones in a way that violates international humanitarian norms or raises the risk of conflict in the world.
(2) We don’t know what kinds of hacks, tinkering, and innovations states and other actors will improvise to make drones work their way.
(3) Somehow, a larger more long-term future of drone proliferation/arms races is coming even if 1-2 are near-term risks.
While as I’ve noted before the many technical qualifications in the CFR monograph pose problems for (3), they don’t necessarily impact arguments (1-2). In 2011-2013 versions, Zenko can defend (1) as an immediate or at least near-term problem (hence the China example or Assad hypothetical) and use the more vague and generalized fear of proliferation to argue for (2-3). Again, there is a problem squaring technical qualifications with (2-3) but it is not insurmountable.
However, in 2014 Zenko’s characterization of the risk has radically changed — “the drone invasion has been greatly exaggerated.” Instead of present or emerging drone threats that pose dangers of violent escalation in state dyads or regions, we instead have “misleading” articles about rogue state drone capabilities that are in reality militarily insignificant. And while militaries are ”pursuing” drones, as Zenko notes earlier these drones seem to be quite militarily pointless and even undesirable. The shadow of the future has also changed to one in which it is not necessarily US legal precedent combined with diffusion that is the real path to drone hell, but the threat of the US supplying other actors with drone capabilities that they are either incapable or unwilling to generate themselves.
In sum total, Zenko’s 2014 article makes a strong case that there isn’t a drone arms race threat or proliferation threat on the horizon. Budgets are tight. The technology is too difficult to understand or produce. There are too many domestic political impediments. Zenko clearly states that other countries “have not followed the United States’ lead” in their particular drone strategies. Zenko even notes that the current enemy du jour, Russia, is “struggling” to master the necessary technology despite having a “relatively advanced aerospace program” — just like similarly advanced NATO allies France and Italy similarly struggle! Only the United States’ hypothetical supply of drones to other states leads us to drone apocalypse.
So in this 2014 article we have simultaneously moved away from specific near term threat scenarios implied by (1) — states getting drones and using them for ill will in regionally destabilizing ways — as well as more generalized “we don’t know what will happen”-esque precautionary arguments implied by (2-3).to a wholly different world. It’s a more ambivalent, contingent world in which drones actually are neither attractive nor necessarily efficient nor cost-effective for states to make, and where even advanced states that produce manned F-35 competitors (Russia) struggle to make the drones the way Washington does. In fact, Zenko is arguing that these countries aren’t up to the task of producing an “advanced armed drone” to begin with. In such a world, only the United States handing out drones like hotcakes can make “caricatures” of drone proliferation reality.
Zenko’s work has both simultaneously promoted those caricatures and dismissed them. To be fair, his 2011-2013 writings on drones have plenty of caveats. But those caveats seem to have suddenly grown radically stronger in the span of only a year. One cannot go from a risk future that consists of known unknown near-term risks, unknown unknown near-term risks, and combinations of both categories for long-term risks to one in which the best state candidates for production of the purportedly dyad and region-destabilizing drones struggle at the task of engaging in dronery. And one cannot especially go from a risk future in which US behavior and justifications are the problem to one in which US export strategy is the problem. One is about copying what we say and do with tech that they will develop if present trends hold, the other is about America giving them the tech.
Yet this is more or less what Zenko has done. It isn’t a black and white inconsistency in which 2011-2013 says that the sky is blue and 2014 says that it’s black. Rather, it’s a matter of the likelihood of proliferation and the characterization of proliferation and similar risks shifting over time in ways that bear only faint resemblances to each other. Either drone proliferation/arms races are likely if all things are held equal or they are not likely unless the US goes out of its way to enable them through exports.
And again, the 2014 post is also silent about the less demanding drones that other states do have and the less demanding drones that 2011-2013 writings warned that they could and even would have in the near future — drones used to potentially blow up pirates, drug traffickers, deploy weapons of mass destruction, or trigger destabilizing regional problems or dyadic rivalries. At the end, this hell is still a possible future — but only if the US enables drone exports in a thoughtless way.
But another contradiction with 2011-2013 Zenko arises from this argument. Forget US drone exports — what about the 2011-2013 Zenko argument that (as Zenko’s Politico piece details) countries can and will find a way? In fact, Zenko seems to make a strong case that whether or not the US chooses to export is actually irrelevant:
The United States has agreed to sell such lethal drones only to its closest allies, but countries are finding other means of acquiring them. “The United States doesn’t export many attack drones,” a representative of a Chinese aircraft manufacturer said in 2011, “so we’re taking advantage of that hole in the market.” Other countries are building their own drones. Take Iran, for example, whose defense minister in May announced that the country’s newly unveiled Hemaseh (or “Epic”) drone is “simultaneously capable of surveillance, reconnaissance, and missile and rocket attacks.”
This argument is consistent with the CFR monograph’s points because it prefaces it with the following:
Most drones that other states develop or acquire will be unarmed—even in the U.S. arsenal, less than 5 percent of the drones can drop bombs—but perhaps a dozen other states could possess armed drones within the next 10 years.
But these states that will get (and Zenko often notes, copy US justifications to use dangerously) armed drones without the vaunted US exports. And again the qualifications emerge — less than 5% of the drones can drop bombs, most drones that other states develop will be unarmed - etc etc. As I’ve previously noted the qualifications are not dealkillers, but they certainly complicate even the older arguments.
It’s possible that Zenko, if reading this post, may respond to this by arguing that his 2014 piece focuses more specifically on one factor that is most likely to stimulate the processes he has already warned of — that factor being US drone exports. But this still creates an inconsistency due to the way that Zenko has seemingly raised the level of “structural and normative” impediment to drone proliferation/arms races in a way that has not been evident in the 2011-2013 analysis. 2011-2013 Zenko stressed the possibility of emulation of US drone architectures and the negative effects this would have. 2014 Zenko stresses the difficulties and undesirability of emulation and the fact that the US enabling the actors to emulate through direct transfer is the most significant problem.
The point of this isn’t to say that Zenko is a hypocrite or to play a “gotcha” game. Pundits put out such a sheer amount of work that any one of the many writers on foreign policy, national security, and strategy could be similarly attacked via a Google-informed deep dive through their back issues. Including myself — and later on in this blog I point out an instance where I actually cited Zenko to make a Zenko-ish argument. None of us are consistent enough to withstand such a exhaustive comparison, and with time we change our minds, see new data, and rethink our perspective on the issues.