Lethal Drones: Coming Soon to Every Country That Wants Them

America has failed to prepare for proliferation.

The United States pioneered the use of weaponized drones. For that reason, our approach to drone strikes will influence all future uses of this weapon by other countries.

Get ready for the results. Within 10 years, "virtually every country on Earth will be able to build or acquire drones capable of firing missiles," Defense One reports. "Armed aerial drones will be used for targeted killings, terrorism and the government suppression of civil unrest." 

Peter W. Singer of the Brookings Institution confirmed a proliferation trend: "Nations in NATO that said they would never buy drones, and then said they would never use armed drones, are now saying, ‘Actually, we’re going to buy them.’ We’ve seen the U.K., France, and Italy go down that pathway. The other NATO states are right behind.” China is expected to sell drones internationally.

This is the future I warned about last fall when I debated drones at the University of Richmond: 

There's a strong case to be made that Americans are being shortsighted about drones themselves. Our military is the strongest in the world. The gap between our Air Force and the next best is huge. In the short term, our near monopoly on drones has given us an even bigger advantage. But these are naturally asymmetric weapons. Cheap. Far easier to build and operate than a fighter jet.

Relatively inconspicuous.

As they spread to other states and non-state actors, they'll decrease our edge. Perhaps we should've used this window, where we're the undisputed leader on drones, to shape international norms more to our long term advantage. Instead, we've set precedents that we'd hate to see other countries adopt. As we legitimate drone warfare, we legitimate it for everyone.

There's no way to go back and undo what we've done.

But it remains the case that the sooner we start thinking farsightedly about the international drone norms that we want, the more we can do to bring them about. The best chance for future success would require us to put constraints on American behavior before other countries match our technology. That would create a short-term disadvantage, but it could pay huge long-term dividends.

Instead, the United States seems intent on developing weaponized drones that also operate autonomously. By the time an article can be written about how every country will have that technology available to them, it will be too late to stop it. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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