The U.S. Risks Losing the Drone-War Arms Race

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NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE A rmed drones have become a fixture of modern battlefields. Until relatively recently, the United States was the world’s sole drone superpower, deploying Predators and Reapers to stalk terrorists across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. That’s no longer the case. In Libya over the last few months, a conflict that pits the Turkish-backed government in Tripoli against U.A.E.-backed forces has seen drones deployed by both sides. Iran unveiled an army of new drones fitted with anti-tank missiles in April, and China is exporting drones to traditional U.S. allies in the Middle East. Yet Washington is reticent to export its own drone technology and has watched as American drones were downed in Yemen, the Persian Gulf, and Libya. What went wrong?

Military drone technology was pioneered by Israel in the 1980s and later developed by the U.S. to fight the global war on terror. But success brought complacency, and in recent years countries such as China, Turkey, Iran, and Russia have made rapid progress in building their own drones. Of greater concern is that China, Iran, and Turkey are also exporting armed drones. This is a result of two trends: the U.S. preference not to sell its armed drones in order to keep the deadly technology from proliferating, and the desire by other countries to acquire these weapons from whoever will make them available. For instance, the U.A.E. had sought armed U.S. drones since the early 2000s; it was eventually allowed to buy unarmed Predators in 2013, and it has turned to China to fill some of its other drone needs. Since 2015, lawmakers have been pushing the Trump administration to allow the sale of armed versions.

Similarly, the Kingdom of Jordan, a close U.S. ally, turned to China after 2015 when its requests for armed drones were rebuffed. At the time, Representative Duncan Hunter pushed for the Obama administration to change its rules to permit sales to Jordan. The Pentagon has warned for years that China is filling the vacuum left by U.S. stalling on drone sales. An American official warned last year that China was “selling the hell out of drones” in the Gulf and elsewhere.

That U.S. allies or partners such as Jordan, the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Egypt are turning to China for drones is only one issue facing Washington in the global drone wars. Drones are increasingly playing a role in conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and Libya. Iran has exported drone technology to Yemen’s Houthi rebels, smuggling parts on dhows that ply the trade routes from Iran to North Africa. In November 2019 and February 2020, the U.S. Navy intercepted dhows loaded with Iranian weapons technology bound for Yemen. The Houthis have used drones against Saudi Arabia for years, deploying them to target U.S.-supplied Patriot missile radar. Iran also exported its Shahed 129 drone, which is a copy of the U.S. Predator, to Syria for testing during the country’s civil war. In recent interviews Iranian military officers have bragged about their new drone tech and boasted that they have shot down U.S. drones.

While China has been selling drones to U.S. allies and Iran is using drones against U.S. interests, Turkey is also upping its armed drone forces and exporting them. Despite arms embargoes, Turkey has been sending drones to Libya to back one side in the civil war there, fueling the growing conflict. The drones have helped the interim government in Tripoli, the Government of National Accord, to hold off an offensive by Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar, who is backed by Egypt, the U.A.E., and Saudi Arabia and whose forces, according to Turkish media, get Chinese-made drones from the U.A.E. Washington could write off the Libya conflict as a proxy war in which both sides have support from U.S. allies, but such a dismissal has significant implications. Russian air defenses, sent to Libya, downed a U.S. drone last year. Libya, Yemen, and Syria have become testing grounds for new military drone technology used by Turkey and Iran and exported from China.

U.S. exports of armed drones have been hamstrung by provisions of the Missile Technology Control Regime, which is an agreement among 35 countries regulating missile and drone exports. That agreement kept the U.S. and other signatories from selling large drones with warheads, but it gave free rein to countries such as China and Iran, which were not signatories. Even as Trump administration policy has shifted toward drone exports, the vacuum was being filled by other countries. Adversaries such as Russia are always going to seize the opportunity to test their technology on the ground. To wit, Russian air defense has improved by using Syria as a test bed. Iran similarly benefited from seeing how its drones perform against U.S. air-defense technology in Saudi Arabia. This is not to say that the U.S. should be fueling conflicts in places like Libya by selling drones to militants, but rather that it needs to take a more active role to confront the export and trafficking of drones and make sure adversaries don’t benefit from these conflicts to outpace us.

Washington must now concentrate on the drone threat and decide how U.S. drone technology can best be used to confront Iran, China, Russia, and other adversaries. Making sure that U.S. drones continue to measure up on the battlefield will be essential in any future conflict. Recent incidents in which U.S. drones were shot down have provided a clear warning of worse to come.

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