The Unstoppable Spread of Lethal Drones

The United States hastened the proliferation of a weapon that diminishes its relative power.


Six years ago, I argued that the United States had been shortsighted in its decision to fund a lethal drone industry and to normalize the weapon’s use. Inevitably, the approach would hasten the proliferation of lethal drones. “Our military is the strongest in the world,” I argued at the time. “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.”

That’s precisely what has since come to pass. In Yemen, where the United States long deployed lethal drones, pro-government troops were holding a military parade in an area where they thought they controlled the airspace. Then they heard a high-pitched whine and looked up as a weaponized drone exploded, killing six, wounding others with shrapnel, and sowing chaos as blood pooled where high-ranking officials had sat.

Anti-government rebels were behind the attack, which happened earlier this month. The drone resembled a model manufactured by Iran.

“This event marks a significant milestone during the conflict in Yemen, as well as the application of basic armed drones to conflict in general,” Nick Waters, an ex–British Army officer, wrote on his site Bellingcat.

Waters situates the attack as part of a broader trend that he expects to continue, observing that a decade’s proliferation “has extended the range and complexity of operations that sub-state actors can carry out, whether that be targeting a Russian airbase in Syria, attempting to assassinate a head of state, or in this case, attack a large gathering of senior officers in what they formerly regarded as a safe place. It is likely the theme set by this attack will continue to develop in the near future.”

The rebels had already been flying drones “into the radar arrays of Saudi Arabia’s Patriot missile batteries, according to the research group Conflict Armament Research, disabling them and allowing the Houthis to fire ballistic missiles into the kingdom unchallenged,” AP reports.

Aaron Stein, the director of the Program on the Middle East at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, argues that “for the United States, the longer-term implications are linked to the creative ways low-tech adversaries are using drones to their advantage,” adding that “the war in Yemen, as my colleague and friend Adam Rawnsley often says, is a preview of what a larger American-Iranian conflict could look like. Iranian-backed forces have a history of using cheap unmanned aircraft to its advantage. Yemen is the latest case study, and history suggests that countering these threats costs more than it does to launch them.”

Matters will only get worse. There will be more assassination attempts using weaponized drones, such as the one last year that targeted Venezuela’s dictator. Drones capable of taking down a commercial aircraft are already easy to get. And even as non-state actors marshal the least sophisticated drones to mount attacks, state actors are pouring money into more sophisticated drones that will proliferate as surely as their predecessors.

Indeed, as China sells advanced, weaponized drones to foreign states, “the Trump administration’s response has been to loosen controls on U.S. exports of advanced drones, on grounds that U.S. companies should be able to compete more effectively in the expanding global marketplace,” the security editor Jeffrey Smith writes at the Center for Public Integrity. There will be carnage to come.