On March 13, Pakistan announced the successful testing of its first indigenous armed drone. Pakistan’s armed drone capabilities will have implications that reach beyond its borders, with the possibility of Pakistan’s following some dangerous precedents set by the United States. Many militaries around the world are eager to buy armed drones, and Pakistan is likely to oblige some of them, increasing proliferation of the contentious weapon. As the world’s largest manufacturer and deployer of drone technology, the United States must move urgently to propose an international framework on the use and proliferation of armed drones and other unmanned weapons technology.
There is a vast global demand for armed drones, and understandably so: drones boast numerous strategic, technical and economic advantages over manned aircraft. Strategically, the most obvious benefit is the protection of military personnel, since drones are operated many miles away from the conflict zone. Unmanned drones allow surveillance of target locations for sustained lengths of time. The Predator and Reaper drones, for example, can hover over their target for over 14 hours, compared to four hours or less for F-16 fighter jets. Drones have the capacity to provide near-instantaneous responsiveness: a drone-fired missile travels faster than the speed of sound, hitting a target within seconds of being fired.
Economically, drones surpass all alternatives. A typical Predator drone costs $4.5 million whereas an F-35 costs $159 million, an F-22 costs $377 million, and a B-2 almost $2 billion. Training a drone operator in the United States costs a tenth of what it costs to train traditional combat pilots. It is then not surprising then that a 2009 U.S. Air Force report suggested that unmanned drones present “the wisest use of tax dollars.” This thinking is not limited to the United States: there is now not a single new manned combat aircraft under research and development in any major Western aerospace company. Over the next decade, global spending on drones is expected to double from $5.2 billion to $11.6 billion.
Clearly, there is a vast global demand, but supply is limited: only the United States, Israel, and China have been reported to sell armed drones. Until recently, U.S. sale of drone technology was governed by the 1987 Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a Cold War-era voluntary multilateral agreement between 34 states that aims to restrict ballistic missile proliferation. Under the MTCR, armed drones capable of delivering a payload of 500 kilograms at least 300 kilometers are classified as Category I items, for which “there will be a strong presumption to deny such transfers.” So far, the United States had abided by the Category I restrictions, making exceptions only for sales to the UK and possibly Italy. In February 2015, the Obama administration announced its “export policy for military unmanned aerial systems,” to be implemented in conjunction with the MTCR. The policy differs from normal international weapons sales in two ways: buyers agree to end-use monitoring by the United States, as well as a set of “proper use” principles set by the United States, promising to use the drones for national defense or other situations in which force is permitted by international law.
Israel, on the other hand, is not a member of the MTCR, and is reported to have sold 41 percent of the drones exported internationally between 2001 and 2011. China too, has reportedly sold armed drones to Nigeria and Saudi Arabia, and has shared technology with Pakistan.
Pakistan’s joining the ranks of the few states with armed drone capability has serious implications. Pakistani officials have been quoted as having been eager to demonstrate to friendly countries, especially Turkey and the Gulf states, that it can develop a technology that is revolutionizing warfare, and which is currently dominated by a handful of countries that do not readily share the capability. The foreign delegates, on their part, were reportedly “quite excited by what Pakistan has achieved.” It should be noted that Pakistani defense companies, many of them owned by the military, provide cheap alternatives to developing countries. For a cash-strapped country like Pakistan, unhindered by the MTCR, there are few incentives to deny sales of an extremely sought-after weapons technology.
This dynamic becomes problematic when one considers the policy void in which drones currently operate. The U.S. reliance on drone strikes to kill targets outside of theatres of war continues to be controversial. Consider the regional consequences if Pakistan were to follow U.S. precedents: Pakistan’s ongoing military operation against the Taliban in the tribal regions is causing some of the militants to flee to Afghanistan. Armed drone capability would allow Pakistan to target the militants on Afghan soil, without exposing its own soldiers to harm. Given the tumultuous history of the two neighbors, such a tactic has the potential to aggravate existing fault lines, and create regional upheaval. Yet, arguably, Pakistan would only be following a precedent set by the United States. And given that Pakistan has no shortage of buyers for the technology, similar dynamics could soon be observed outside of South Asia.
In light of this, it becomes urgent to seek international normative frameworks governing the use and proliferation of armed drones and other unmanned technology. As the lead user of drones, the United States bears the responsibility to push for the establishment of prudent global norms. The MTCR is insufficient; it is a voluntary regime interpreted by the 34 member states at their discretion. There has to be a move towards a comprehensive treaty, and the United States must lead the way. Time is running out: with a new seller on the market, it won’t be long before the implications of the precedents set by U.S. drone strikes catch-up with us.