Why Drones Will Challenge Sovereignty But Won’t Proliferate

Stimson Spotlight

Why Drones Will Challenge Sovereignty But Won’t Proliferate

By Abhijit Iyer-Mitra: 

The Stimson Centre's recent report on drones was thorough, extraordinarily comprehensive and balanced. Even so, there are two potential shortcomings if one approaches the findings from a South Asia viewpoint - the first is the evolving notion of state sovereignty, the second is the slippery slope of drone proliferation. It's instructive in each case to consider the emergence of - and parallels between - drones and another modern military tactic: cyberwar. The modern military application of cyber technologies may very well play an influential role in shaping the future use of drones in warfare.

Both drones and cyber technologies share some remarkable similarities with regards to their genesis, the progression of their technological curve, their proliferation, and usage. The first is their ability for seemingly stealthy covert attacks that enable greater degrees of plausible deniability and the divorcing of actions from immediate consequences. Like drones, cyber attacks confer a certain anonymity on the attacker and insulate the attacker from the kind of consequences that the physical projection of manned forces would suffer. Both drones and cyber focus on the non-linear nature of war and the ability of a seemingly small-precise attack to have disproportionate effects in the course of that war.

A second similarity is that each technology has been around in various forms for quite some time and both have seen quantum leaps in capacity, which is now being multiplied because of global digital connectivity. General purpose computers have existed since the 1940s when the first workable models were built. Similarly the earliest evolution of attack drones could be argued were the V1s, which had a warhead, similar propulsion, flight paths and - as became evident in the Battle of Britain - they were extremely vulnerable in all but the most benign environment, though they did not have two-way communications, control, and endurance. It is really since the 1980s, however, that both drones and computers came into their own for two reasons - a lowering of the technology threshold and the advent of digital communications. What we have seen since then is nothing short of a revolution in terms of capabilities and effects. While both proliferated in numbers, and have gained an increased profile, this is where the similarities end.

While computers have plebianised - become progressively cheaper to the point that that have made a single individual a veritable army, drones have in fact have become patricianised - hyper specialised, expensive, and so dependent on a systems approach that their support infrastructure is largely out of reach to most countries except the U.S. and NATO. The sum total of a drone's capabilities such as loiter time, recall, return to base, two way communications, plausible deniability- have already existed in various platforms such as combat aircraft and cruise missiles. A drone differs because it combines a specific subset of cruise missile and fighter capabilities into one platform.

While drones are more controversial, emerging cyber realities have tested notions of sovereignty like few things have in the Westphalian system since the concept emerged in the 17th century. To date attacks by states using cyber technologies have been non-lethal, which in turn has made their challenge to notions of sovereignty seem less controversial and certainly less polarising than military strikes by drones. At some point, these expanding notions of sovereignty may have crossover effects that will most likely give greater legal and normative cover to the lethal use of drones. We have already seen the language of arms control agreements like the Arms Trade Treaty and the Missile Technology Control Regime enter cybersphere negotiations. Crossover, therefore, of notions of sovereignty from the cyber world to the physical world of attack drones may not be that far off.

The Stimson report, compiled by a distinguished task force of U.S. experts with a more NATO alliance perspective, found some concern about the slippery slope of other countries duplicating the United States in drone warfare. I would offer a different assessment, that the cost benefit analysis, the unique sensitivity to avoiding collateral deaths, and the quality focus of NATO operations - as well as the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance infrastructure that is critical to drone warfare - will be impossible to duplicate by other countries anytime in the medium to long term.

Shashank Joshi and Aaron Stein in a 2013 essay in Survival identified five factors that must exist in combination for a state to be able to breakout into serious drone warfare: cost, support, infrastructure, the intelligence burden of precision targeting, the threat environment, and doctrinal as well as legal framework. All of these are interrelated and have to make sense for a state to implement simultaneously in order to justify a drone program as a major component of national defense. After calculating opportunity costs, it is very difficult to imagine any country - including supposed breakouts like China, Russia, or India - having the kind of need and capability that would support a drone programme even remotely comparable to the United States. If anything, these capabilities can be better achieved for these states more cost effectively through their conventional arsenals of fighters and cruise missiles.

On balance, the West should be more worried about the impact of emerging cyber legislation on drone warfare and sovereignty than on a country outside of NATO duplicating anything remotely comparable to the infrastructure that enables the U.S. to carry out drone strikes. 

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Photo credit: Defense Images via flickr