It’s easy to forget based on the extensive use of drones in tribal Pakistan and Afghanistan that the United States isn’t the only country with missile-firing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The UK, Pakistan, Russia, Israel, China, and possible Iran all have them. South Africa and India have expressed their interest and according to a report by the RAND organization there are presently 23 nations who either already have armed drones or are developing them.
In 2015, the United States’ military plans to spend $2.4 billion on UAVs but that’s down from $5.7 billion in 2013.
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“Once countries like China start exporting these, they’re going to be everywhere really quickly. Within the next 10 years, every country will have these,” Noel Sharkey, a robotics and artificial intelligence professor from the University of Sheffield, told Defense One. “There’s nothing illegal about these unless you use them to attack other countries. Anything you can [legally] do with a fighter jet, you can do with a drone.”
That is being largely echoed with a few caveats.
“Any country that has weaponized any aircraft will be able to weaponize a UAV,” said Mary Cummings, Duke University professor and former Navy fighter pilot, in a note of cautious agreement. “While I agree that within 10 years weaponized drones could be part of the inventory of most countries, I think it is premature to say that they will…. Such endeavors are expensive [and] require larger UAVs with the payload and range capable of carrying the additional weight, which means they require substantial sophistication in terms of the ground control station.”
China recently announced its plans to start exporting its Predator drone knockoff the Wing Loong to Saudi Arabia. The United States certainly isn’t beyond selling its own drones and could become an area where the United States and China are competing for sales. “You could soon have U.S. and Chinese made drones striking in the same region,” said Peter Singer, Brookings fellow and author of Wired For War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.
He also pointed out that countries like France and Italy who publicly said that they would never buy drones are now doing just that.
Too late to stop the spread of drone tech
For U.S. legislatures and policy makers who would like to stem the flow of drones around the world will in all likelihood find that they are too late and that little can be done to ebb the tide of drones finding themselves in the arsenal of hundreds of nations.
“In the midst of this growing global interest, the United States has chosen to indefinitely put on hold sales of its most capable [unmanned aerial system] to many of its allies and partners, which has led these countries to seek other suppliers or to begin efforts to indigenously produce the systems,” wrote Sam Brannen, who analyzes drones as a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ International Security Program. “Continued indecision by the United States regarding export of this technology will not prevent the spread of these systems.”