Armed unmanned and high-tech drones or remotely piloted aircraft are becoming a ubiquitous battlefield presence. We are in the middle of an underground drone arms race and larger drones like the MQ-9 reaper as well as medium-sized drones such as the Turkish TB2 and the Chinese CAIG wing Loong II have become a must-have item for militaries worldwide. At the moment, over 100 states worldwide are using military drones and the number is increasing steeply in Nagorno-Karabakh. The U.S’s global war on terror armed drones has been active across the globe, capable of flying thousands of feet high and raining down destruction with 100% accuracy.
Types of Drones and Their Emergence
It’s not a nascent technology, the U.S remotely piloted a B-17 as part of a test program during world-war II and drones were used to spy on other countries during the cold war. The SR-71 even had a rocket-powered drone that it could deploy in flight to take photos to be retrieved later.
Drones date back much longer to early flight but unlike them, the origin of modern drones traces back to the 80s. The convergence of satellite technology, composites and computer miniaturization allowed for the rise of drones like the general atomics MQ-1 predator general atomics. This includes GA aeronautical systems, inc., which is one of the leading producers of unmanned systems in the world. They currently produce the MQ-9 reaper as well as the naval version of the sea guardian among other unmanned systems in the 2000s. The predator was armed with missiles which quietly started a new arms race. It could stay overhead for long periods and it could be controlled by a ground station in another country. The drone became the face of U.S conflicts in the middle east and moral and legal questions about drones rose in 2001 from the targeted killing campaigns that the US operates to this day.
The MQ-9 reaper made its first flight and eventually became the dominant armed drone that the U.S fielded; the reaper has a payload of 3,850 pounds which compares to the predator’s 450 pounds. This means it can carry far more missiles or bombs than the predator among other advantages but what will eventually replace the hundreds of reaper drones has yet to be revealed. One current general atomics aeronautical project is the Avenger which the U.S military has not adopted for the frontline service. The advanced drone is designed to be stealthy and survivable against modern air defences which could make it a window into what the drone of the future will look like and that replaces the MQ-9. The MQ-9 requires a ground station satellite link and maintenance for its high-tech hardware and software. The MQ-9’s ballooning price point of around US$ 32 million has dissuaded some prospective buyers. Allies like Australia have shown interest in buying the MQ-9B and the U.S state department cleared a US$ 1.6 billion deal in late April for 12 sky guardians and all associated equipment.
Drone swarms are dozens or hundreds of drones operating in unison that can overwhelm defences and the loitering munitions like the harop are blurring the line between a cruise missile and drone. These loitering munitions or kamikaze drones are primarily at this point produced by Israel. Both are systems that loiter in the air for a while, search for a target and then dive into the target and explode with it.
Nations around the world have taken notice of the investment poured into the advancement of drone technology. The U.S is pouring into larger drones and has made efforts to buy these game-changing drones themselves. They’ve done it to maintain airspace dominance. However, the demand for more affordable drones hasn’t subsided leading to other nations filling the needs of the market.
Why is the Demand for Armed Drones Surging?
For a decade or so the U.S and Israel had a monopoly over more sophisticated armed drone systems and neither of them was keen on exporting. Israel was one of the earliest adopters of drone technology and also one of the first exporters. However, these exported drones are generally unarmed making them less useful against military targets. Several other nations started to develop their domestic armed drones, most notably China and turkey.
China’s Chengdu aircraft industry group has produced the wing loong series of drones. The wing long 2 costs around US$ 1 to 2 million and has made a popular addition to militaries in Africa and the Middle east. Russia is likely to try to eventually export its homegrown Orion Drone and Turkey has made a strong push in recent decades to build an aerospace industry and has produced one of the most infamous medium-sized drones. The bayraktar defence produced TV2 which is controlled by the line of sight. It has made an impact in Nagorno-Karabakh and Libya along with several other nations including Ukraine which signed a US$ 69 million contract for armed TV2 in 2019.
Some armed drones have been regulated as missiles under international law. The policy needs to be adapted per the 21st century and the policymakers need to understand that there are several other actors using drone technology and that too in different ways. The missile technology control regime or MTCR restricts the export of missiles capable of carrying a 500-kilogram payload, at least 300 kilometres and hence drones are considered missiles under the MTCR. Essentially, drones are just model aeroplanes with great sensors on them and with users that have been used in the civilian realm. Drones have risen enormously in the civilian realm over the last five to ten years and for this reason, controlling their export is challenging. However, it’s not that difficult to develop these systems. What happens when everyone can buy a quadcopter or a fixed-wing drone for a relatively small amount of money?
Some manufacturers of non-military drones have put in safeguards such as geofencing to prevent drones from being weaponized. Geofencing is a preset limitation on where a drone can be flown. Airports are commonly fenced off to prevent drones from interfering with airport operations. Civilian drones can also be used for all kinds of helpful applications from agricultural use to checks and controls etc. Furthermore, there are concerns about the ethical issues with using armed drones. For instance, in the large-scale drone campaign started by Bush and expanded under Obama, increased use of armed drones were evident for targeted executions and increasing numbers of civilians. The civilians were killed in those kinds of operations who didn’t have any access to accountability and reparations. The large arm drones aren’t going away. Bayraktar is working on a larger drone called the Akinsi which can be satellite controlled and has a larger payload. China also appears to be working towards fielding a newly developed armed drone. However, advancements in technology are allowing smaller drones to tackle missions that previously would have only been possible with a larger drone.
Despite the challenges presented by these drones, they are immensely important to a nation’s defence arms. With new types of armed drones, potential civilian casualties and the legal gray area of targeted killings are all issues that the drone industry will need to contend within the coming years. The biggest challenge at the moment is how technology, which is always two steps ahead of regulation, can ensure that it doesn’t get out of hand.