“How long before we will see the first AK-47 version of an armed drone?” Wim Zwijnenburg of Dutch peace organisation PAX and one of the leading researchers connected with The European Forum on Armed Drones (EFAD ) warns that the threshold to employ armed drones becomes lower. He launched a report at the Fourth Conference of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) in Japan.
The report Unmanned Ambitions, Security implications of growing proliferation in emerging military drone markets signals a growing interest in building cheap, reliable and easy-to-deploy military drones. While the United States, Israel and China are dominating the high-tech segment of the global drone market, emerging drone technology producers in countries such as Turkey, Iran and Ukraine are focusing on gaining a substantial share of the middle- and small-range sector of the market for military drones. Not all drone producing countries are member to the ATT.
At the conference Zwijnenburg and Frank Slijper urge states to clearly define their legal position on the use of lethal force with drones, particularly in areas outside of official battlefields, and work toward building a normative and regulatory framework for the use and proliferation of drones. This process should take a multilateral approach and should consider both, the current and future challenges military drones may pose.
The survey conducted for the report indicates that there are 21 countries producing at least 60 different types of drones within this segment, serving a global market estimated to be worth US$20 billion. This development fits within a wider trend of increased deployment of unmanned systems – in and outside of traditional battlefields. Over 90 states currently use military drones to gather intelligence, provide targeting information or to strike targets with lethal force. Most of the emerging drone technology producers have not yet exported their drones, however, this new trajectory signals a growing interest in building cheap, reliable and easy-to-deploy military drones. This raises the question: how long before we will see the first AK-47 version of an armed drone?
New security risks with drones
The low risk to military personnel, the reduced cost and improved ability to access remote and difficult terrain drone technology offers have led to an increase in drone use for targeted killings and cross-border operations by both, state and non-state actors. There have been numerous cross-border incidents in Afghanistan, Iran, Israel, India and Pakistan, some of which have triggered an escalation of military force. Moreover, so-called ‘kamikaze’ drones, or loitering munitions, are deployed to target critical infrastructures, and commercial drones are easily equipped with explosives by armed groups to be used in attacks on military targets or attempted assassinations. Such, and other uses of drone technology is likely to present a greater challenge to security and lead to regional instability.
Urgent need for a framework
As unmanned systems have also gained popularity for civilian use, exerting control over platform and payload technologies has become a serious challenge for global arms export control regimes. This holds especially for emerging drone industries in countries that are not party to these control mechanisms. Based on the report’s findings and our wider engagement in international debates on drone use and proliferation, PAX has issued a set of recommendations that aim to address the growing concerns raised about the risks associated with an increased use of lethal force with armed drones, particularly targeted killings, and the growing proliferation of unmanned military systems.