In late 2011, China’s Ministry of Public Security began an international manhunt for a Burmese drug kingpin named Naw Kham, whose gang was accused of hijacking two Chinese cargo ships and killing 13 Chinese sailors.
The ministry tracked Kham to a remote mountainous region in northeastern Myanmar and considered how to deal with him. Among the options on the table was a drone strike. As Liu Yuejin, the head of the ministry’s counternarcotics bureau, told Global Times in February: “One plan was to use an unmanned aircraft to carry 20 kilograms of TNT to bomb the area, but the plan was rejected, because the order was to catch him alive.” Kham was captured within six months of the hijackings, then tried, convicted and executed by lethal injection.
China’s public acknowledgement of the plan was unprecedented, and it raised an awkward question for the United States, which in recent years has made drones a centerpiece of its emerging national security doctrine for the robot era. The United States has asserted the right to use lethal force anywhere—“from Boston to the FATA,” as a senior Pentagon official put it during a Senate hearing in May—against terrorist organizations, some of which the U.S. government will not name, and outside the bounds of what the majority of the world believes is lawful targeting. But what happens when other countries start launching killer drone strikes? What will the United States do then?
We don’t have long to wait. Drones are quickly becoming a tool in just about every country’s toolbox. So far, only three countries are known to have conducted drone strikes outside their borders: The United States (more than 450 times across seven countries), the United Kingdom (300-plus strikes in Afghanistan using U.S.-provided Reapers) and Israel (reportedly in the Palestinian Territories and Egypt). But drones are spreading quickly. The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates that the number of nations with drone systems grew from 41 in 2004 to 76 in 2012. In that time, global drone spending has more than doubled, from $2 billion in 2004 to some $5 billion today.
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. 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.”
Armed drones have certain advantages over all other weapons: They can hover over a target for a long time or attack almost instantaneously, and they present no risk to pilots. For the United States, these factors have lowered the threshold for authorizing force, with civilian officials choosing lethal strikes more often and against a broader array of targets. President Obama has reached for the weapons repeatedly, authorizing more than 400 strikes in his five years in office—approximately eight times as many as President George W. Bush did. The drone has been a game-changer for American national security planners, and it is inevitably going global.
To be sure, few other states will soon be able to conduct intercontinental drone strikes, which require bases in nearby countries where they can be launched, flyover rights, reliable access to satellite information and human intelligence networks on the ground to help identify targets. 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 White House claims that it has addressed Americans’ growing discomfort with the drone war; Obama announced in May that drone strikes would be limited to “continuing and imminent” threats, and that the Pentagon would gradually assume responsibility from the CIA for lethal strikes. Neither the president nor his deputies, however, have ever publicly grappled with the effect U.S. operations could have on other countries’ drone use—never mind addressing questions about the scope of U.S. targeting, which body of international law applies or what the United States does when civilians are inevitably harmed. And yet it was none other than CIA Director John Brennan, a lead architect of Obama’s drone war, who once noted: “If we want other nations to use these technologies responsibly, we must use them responsibly.”
When Chinese officials authorize their first drone strike against a drug kingpin in Myanmar or against Japanese citizens occupying a disputed East China Sea island, what will the White House say then?
Micah Zenko is fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.