Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

A dangerous new world of drones

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security analyst, and Jennifer Rowland, Special to CNN
October 8, 2012 -- Updated 0913 GMT (1713 HKT)
A U.S. Air Force MQ-1 Predator UAV assigned to the California Air National Guard's 163rd Reconnaissance Wing flies near the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, California, on January 7, 2012. A U.S. Air Force MQ-1 Predator UAV assigned to the California Air National Guard's 163rd Reconnaissance Wing flies near the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, California, on January 7, 2012.
HIDE CAPTION
Military drones
Military drones
Military drones
Military drones
Military drones
Military drones
Military drones
Military drones
Military drones
Military drones
Military drones
Military drones
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Peter Bergen: American monopoly on drones is long gone; 70 nations have them
  • He says drones will change warfare and lead to a new arms race
  • China, Iran, Israel, European nations are among those with drones, he says
  • Bergen: U.S. use of drones is setting a precedent without enough discussion of the legal issues

Editor's note: Peter Bergen, CNN's national security analyst, is director of the national security studies program at the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank that seeks innovative solutions across the ideological spectrum, and the author of the new book "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad." Jennifer Rowland is a program associate at the New America Foundation

Washington (CNN) -- A decade ago, the United States had a virtual monopoly on drones.

Not anymore. According to data compiled by the New America Foundation, more than 70 countries now own some type of drone, though just a small number of those nations possess armed drone aircraft.

The explosion in drone technology promises to change the way nations conduct war and threatens to begin a new arms race as governments scramble to counterbalance their adversaries.

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

Late last month, China announced that it would use surveillance drones to monitor a group of uninhabited islands in the South China Sea that are controlled by Japan but claimed by China and Taiwan.

In August 2010, Iran unveiled what it claimed was its first armed drone. And on Tuesday, the country's military chief, Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, disclosed details of a new long-range drone that he said can fly 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles), which puts Tel Aviv easily in range.

Israel looks to Lebanon after drone shot down

But without an international framework governing the use of drone attacks, the United States is setting a dangerous precedent for other nations with its aggressive and secretive drone programs in Pakistan and Yemen, which are aimed at suspected members of al Qaeda and their allies.

There has been virtually no substantive public discussion about drone attacks among policymakers at the international level.
Peter Bergen, Jennifer Rowland

Just as the U.S. government justifies its drone strikes with the argument that it is at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates, one could imagine that India in the not too distant future might launch such attacks against suspected terrorists in Kashmir, or China might strike Uighur separatists in western China, or Iran might attack Baluchi nationalists along its border with Pakistan.

This moment may almost be here. China took the United States by surprise in November 2010 at the Zhuhai Air Show, where it unveiled 25 drone models, some of which were outfitted with the capability to fire missiles.

It remains unclear just how many of China's drones are operational and how many of them are still in development, but China is intent on catching up with the United States' rapidly expanding drone arsenal.

Drones in Action
Obama reflects on drone warfare use
'Drones completely counterproductive'
Barack Obama's 'lethal presidency'

When President George W. Bush declared a "War on Terror" 11 years ago, the Pentagon had fewer than 50 drones.

Now, it has around 7,500.

Study: Drone strikes kill, maim and traumatize too many civilians

As Bush embarked on that war, the United States had never used armed drones in combat. The first U.S. armed drone attack, which appears to be the first such strike ever, took place in mid-November 2001 and killed the military commander of al Qaeda, Mohammed Atef, in Afghanistan.

Since then, the CIA has used drones equipped with bombs and missiles hundreds of times to target suspected militants in Pakistan and Yemen.

CNN Radio: Drone debate -- who can you trust?

Only the United States, United Kingdom and Israel are known to have launched drone strikes against their adversaries, although other members of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, such as Australia, have "borrowed" drones from Israel for use in the war there.

Drone technology is proliferating rapidly. A 2011 study estimated that there were around 680 active drone development programs run by governments, companies and research institutes around the world, compared with just 195 in 2005.

In 2010, U.S.-based General Atomics received export licenses to sell unarmed versions of the Predator drone to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. And in March, the U.S. government agreed to arm Italy's six Reaper drones but rejected a request from Turkey to purchase armed Predator drones.

An official in Turkey's Defense Ministry said in July that Turkey planned to arm its own domestically produced drone, the Anka.

Israel is the world's largest exporter of drones and drone technology, and the state-owned Israeli Aerospace Industries has sold to countries as varied as Nigeria, Russia and Mexico.

Building drones, particularly armed drones, takes sophisticated technology and specific weaponry, but governments are increasingly willing to invest the necessary time and money to either buy or develop them, as armed drones are increasingly seen as an integral part of modern warfare.

Sweden, Greece, Switzerland, Spain, Italy and France are working on a joint project through state-owned aeronautical companies and are in the final stages of developing an advanced armed drone prototype called the Dassault nEURon, from which the France plans to derive armed drones for its air force.

And Pakistani authorities have long tried to persuade the United States to give them armed Predator drones, while India owns an armed Israeli drone designed to detect and destroy enemy radar, though it does not yet have drones capable of striking other targets.

The Teal Group, a defense consulting firm in Virginia, estimated in June that the global market for the research, development and procurement of armed drones will just about double in the next decade, from $6.6 billion to $11.4 billion.

News: Drones expected to hunt for suspects in Libya attack

States are not alone in their quest for drones. Insurgent groups, too, are moving to acquire this technology. Last year, Libyan opposition forces trying to overthrow the dictator Moammar Gadhafi bought a sophisticated surveillance drone from a Canadian company for which they paid in the low six figures.

You can even buy your own tiny drone on Amazon for $250. (And for an extra $3.99, you can get next-day shipping.)

As drone technology becomes more widely accessible, it is only a matter of time before well-financed drug cartels acquire them. And you can imagine a day in the not too distant future where armed drones are used to settle personal vendettas.

Given the relatively low costs of drones -- already far cheaper than the costs of a fighter jet and of training a fighter jet pilot -- armed drones will play a key role in future conflicts.

Opinion: When are drone killings illegal?

While the drone industry thrives and more companies, research institutes and nations jump on board the drone bandwagon, the United States is setting a powerful international norm about the use of armed drones, which it uses for pre-emptive attacks against presumed terrorists in Pakistan and Yemen. It is these kinds of drone strikes that are controversial; the use of drones in a conventional war is not much different than a manned aircraft that drops bombs or fires missiles.

According to figures compiled by the New America Foundation, drone attacks aimed at suspected militants are estimated to have killed between 1,900 and 3,200 people in Pakistan over the past eight years.

While there has been considerable discussion of the legality of such strikes in a number of U.S. law schools, there has been almost no substantive public discussion about drone attacks among policymakers at the international level.

The time has come for some kind of international convention on the legal framework surrounding the uses of such weapons, which promise to shape the warfare of the future as much as tanks and bombers did during the 20th century.

(Fatima Mustafa and Farhad Peikar contributed to the research for this article.)

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1340 GMT (2140 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2153 GMT (0553 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2305 GMT (0705 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT