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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.