World of drones to get wider, wilder Sky’s the limit for es­pi­onage, war­fare

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY GUY TAY­LOR

The age of the drone is here, and U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies are war­ily mon­i­tor­ing their pro­lif­er­a­tion around the globe.

China uses them to spy on Ja­pan near dis­puted is­lands in Asia. Tur­key uses them to eye­ball Kur­dish ac­tiv­ity in north­ern Iraq. Bo­livia uses them to spot coca fields in the An­des. Iran re­port­edly has given them to Syria to mon­i­tor op­po­si­tion rebels.

The U.S., Bri­tain and Is­rael are the only na­tions to have fired mis­siles from re­mote­con­trolled drones, but the pro­lif­er­a­tion of un­manned aerial ve­hi­cles has be­come so preva­lent that U.S. in­tel­li­gence sources and pri­vate an­a­lysts say it is merely a mat­ter of time be­fore other coun­tries use the tech­nol­ogy.

“Peo­ple in Wash­ing­ton like to talk about this as if the sup­posed Amer­i­can mo­nop­oly on drones might end one day. Well, the mo­nop­oly ended years ago,” said Peter W. Singer, who heads the Center for 21st Cen­tury Se­cu­rity and In­tel­li­gence at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion.

What’s worse, clan­des­tine strikes car­ried out by Wash­ing­ton in far-flung cor­ners of the world have set a prece­dent that could be ugly.

Mr. Singer said as many as 87 na­tions pos­sess some form of drones and con­duct var­i­ous kinds of sur­veil­lance ei­ther over their own ter­ri­to­ries or be­yond. Among those 87, he said, 26 have ei­ther pur­chased or de­vel­oped drones equiv­a­lent in size to the MQ-1 Preda­tor — the model made by San Diego-based Gen­eral Atomics.

While Amer­i­can Preda­tors and their up­dated sis­ter, the MQ-9 Reaper, are ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing anti-ar­mor Hell­fire mis­siles, the clan­des­tine na­ture of for­eign drone pro­grams makes it dif­fi­cult to de­ter­mine how many other na­tions have armed drones.

De­fense in­dus­try and other sources who spoke with The Wash­ing­ton Times said 10 to 15 na­tions are thought to be work­ing hard on do­ing just that, and China and Iran are among those with the most ad­vanced pro­grams.

“Global de­vel­op­ments in the UAV arena are be­ing tracked closely,” said one U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial, who spoke with The Times on the con­di­tion of anonymity. “Ef­forts by some coun­tries to ac­quire armed UAV sys­tems are con­cern­ing, not least be­cause of the as­so­ci­ated pro­lif­er­a­tion risk.”

Other sources said that while the in­ter­na­tional me­dia have fo­cused on the con­tro­versy and po­lit­i­cal back­lash as­so­ci­ated with civil­ian ca­su­al­ties from U.S. drone strikes in Pak­istan, Ye­men and So­ma­lia, Wash­ing­ton’s un­prece­dented suc­cess with the tech­nol­ogy — both in tar­get­ing and killing sus­pected ter­ror­ists — has in­spired a new kind of arms race.

“It’s nat­u­ral that other na­tions and non-state ac­tors, see­ing the many ways the U.S. has lev­er­aged the tech­nol­ogy, are keen to ac­quire re­motely pi­loted air­craft,” said Lt. Gen. Robert P. Otto, deputy chief of staff at the U.S. Air Force In­tel­li­gence, Sur­veil­lance and Re­con­nais­sance Agency.

Race to the skies

The num­ber of na­tions pos­sess­ing drones nearly dou­bled from 41 to 76 from 2005 to 2011, ac­cord­ing to a re­port last year by the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice, which high­lighted the fact that U.S. com­pa­nies are no longer alone in man­u­fac­tur­ing and mar­ket­ing the tech­nol­ogy.

“Many coun­tries ac­quired their UAVs from Is­rael,” said the re­port.

It said Ger­many, France, Bri­tain, In­dia, Rus­sia and Ge­or­gia have ei­ther leased or pur­chased Is­raeli drones, in­clud­ing the Heron, a model that many for­eign mil­i­taries see as a good al­ter­na­tive to the Amer­i­can-made Preda­tors and Reapers.

A re­port this year by Teal Group, a Vir­ginia-based aero­space and de­fense in­dus­try anal­y­sis cor­po­ra­tion, said UAVs have come to rep­re­sent the “most dy­namic growth sec­tor” of the global aero­space in­dus­try, with spend­ing on drones pro­jected to more than dou­ble from roughly $5.2 bil­lion a year to­day to more than $11 bil­lion in 2022.

China is widely seen as a po­ten­tial pow­er­house in the mar­ket.

Chi­nese com­pa­nies have “mar­keted both armed drones and weapons specif­i­cally de­signed for UAV use,” said Steven J. Zaloga, a top an­a­lyst at Teal Group. “It’s a case where if they don’t have the ca­pa­bil­ity to­day, they’ll have it soon.”

Al­though there is con­cern in Wash­ing­ton that China will sell the tech­nol­ogy to Amer­i­can ad­ver­saries, sources say, the U.S. also is push­ing ahead with de­vel­op­ment of its own se­cre­tive “next gen­er­a­tion” drones.

To­day’s mod­els emerged in the post-9/11 era of non­con­ven­tional con­flict — a time when Amer­i­can use of both weaponized and sur­veil­lance-only drones has been al­most ex­clu­sively over chaotic patches of the planet void of tra­di­tional anti-air­craft de­fenses.

With lit­tle or no need to hide, rel­a­tively bulky drones such as the MQ-1 Preda­tor dom­i­nated the mar­ket. But the “big se­cret,” Mr. Zaloga said, “is that the U.S. is al­ready work­ing on … both armed and un­armed UAVs that can op­er­ate in de­fended airspace.”

Another fac­tor likely to fuel the pro­lif­er­a­tion of armed drones, he said, cen­ters on a global push to make “very small weapons” that can be tai­lored to fit smaller air­craft. This mat­ters be­cause of the roughly 20,000 drones now in ex­is­tence, only about 350 are large enough to carry the slate of weapons on the cur­rent mar­ket.

“What the new mu­ni­tions will do is mean that if you’re op­er­at­ing the smaller UAVs, you’ll be able to put weapons on them,” said Mr. Zaloga. “And those smaller UAVs are be­ing man­u­fac­tured now by quite a few coun­tries.”

In the wrong hands?

One se­ri­ous con­cern in Wash­ing­ton is that smaller drones could be used by groups such as al Qaeda or Hezbol­lah, the Iran-backed mil­i­tant and po­lit­i­cal or­ga­ni­za­tion based in Le­banon that is en­gaged in a pro­tracted war with Is­rael.

The U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial who spoke with The Times on the con­di­tion of anonymity said it is “get­ting eas­ier for non­state ac­tors to ac­quire this tech­nol­ogy.”

Hezbol­lah leader Has­san Nas­ral­lah made head­lines by claim­ing his group flew a drone into Is­raeli airspace last year, af­ter Is­rael an­nounced that it had shot a UAV out of the sky. Al­though Mr. Nas­ral­lah said the drone was made in Iran and as­sem­bled in Le­banon, lit­tle is known about pre­cisely what type it was — or whether it was armed.

Armed or not, U.S. of­fi­cials are wary. “No one is turn­ing a blind eye to the grow­ing use of sur­veil­lance-only UAV sys­tems — in­clud­ing by non-state ac­tors — even if th­ese sys­tems have a host of


A Preda­tor drone fly­ing over Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan is part of a U.S. pro­gram set­ting a global prece­dent. De­fense in­dus­try and other sources say China and Iran are among other na­tions thought to be hard at work to arm un­manned aerial ve­hi­cles.

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