Key point: Drones suddenly offer a cheap way to conduct reconnaissance and, as the Saudi strikes just demonstrated, to actually attack U.S. allies in what is otherwise a very asymmetric air environment.
Last week’s surprise drone attack on a Saudi Arabian oil field has kicked up a significant debate on whether this is the future of conflict. The debate over drones has grown dramatically since President Barack Obama began to rely on them heavily in the war on terrorism. Other countries have quickly adapted and developed their own programs.
In the United States, it is often said that the F-35 is the last manned fighter jet America will produce. Drones are cheaper; they can loiter over a battlespace for long hours; and perhaps most importantly, if they are shot-down, there is no human pilot to die or be taken prisoner. Politically this is hugely attractive. It insures that events such as the trial of Francis Gary Powers or the imprisonment of U.S. pilots during the Vietnam War will never recur. The political path of least resistance for airstrikes is now to use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) rather than manned planes.
For smaller powers like North Korea or Iran, drones offer two other benefits. First, because drones are so comparatively inexpensive, they open the possibility of contesting U.S. air dominance. To be sure, such a challenge is still small. But in environments where U.S. air superiority is nearly complete, drones open up new space and possibilities, and this is bound to be attractive.