Acquiring UAV Technology

I’ve noticed a number of posts and comments around the blogosphere on the spread of UAV technology.  Which indeed is happening; many states are developing and deploying UAVs of various kinds.  The WCL National Security Law Brief blog, for example, notes that India is now acquiring weaponized UAVs:

India is reportedly preparing to have “killer” unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in response to possible threats from Pakistan and China. Until now India has denied the use of armed UAVs, but they did use UAVs that can detect incoming missile attacks or border incursions.

The importance of obtaining armed UAVs grew enormously after the recent attack on paramilitary forces in Chhattisgarh that killed 75 security personnel. Sources reveal that the Indian Air Force (IAF) has been in contact with Israeli arms suppliers in New Delhi recently. The IAF is looking to operate Israeli Harop armed UAVs from 2011 onwards, and other units of the armed forces will follow.

I’ve also read comments various places suggesting that increased use of drone technologies by the United States causes other countries to follow suit, or to develop or acquire similar technologies.  In some cases, the dangling implication is that if the US would not get involved in such technologies, others would not follow suit.

In some relatively rare cases of weapons technologies, the US refraining from undertaking the R&D, or stopping short of a deployable weapon, might induce others not to build the same weapon.  Perhaps the best example is the US stopping its development of blinding laser antipersonnel weapons in the 1990s; if others, particularly the Chinese, have developed them to a deployable weapon, I’m not aware of it.  The US stopped partly in relation to a developing international campaign, modeled on the landmines ban campaign, but mostly because of a strong sense of revulsion and pushback by US line officers.  Moreover, there was a strong sense that such a weapon (somewhat like chemical weapons) would be not deeply useful on a battlefield – but would be tremendously threatening as a pure terrorism weapon against civilians.  In any case, the technologies involved would be advanced for R&D, construction, maintenance, and deployment, at least for a while.

The situation is altogether different in the case of UAVs.  The biggest reason is that the flying-around part of UAVs – the avionics and control of a drone aircraft in flight – is not particularly high technology  at all.  It is in range of pretty much any functioning state military that flies anything at all.  The same for the weaponry, if all you’re looking to do is fire a missile, such as an anti-tank missile like the Hellfire.  It’s not high technology, it is well within the reach of pretty much any state military.  Iran?  Without thinking twice.  Burma?  Sure.  Zimbabwe?  If it really wanted to, probably.

So it doesn’t make any substantial difference whether or not the US deploys UAVs, not in relation to a decision by other states to deploy their own.  The US decision to use and deploy UAVs does not drive others’ decisions one way or the other.  They make that decision in nearly all cases – Iran perhaps being an exception in wanting to be able to show that they can use them in or over the Iraqi border – in relation to their particular security perceptions.  Many states have reasons to want to have UAVs, for surveillance as well as use of force.  It is not as a counter or defense to the US use of UAVs.

The real issue is not flying the plane or putting a missile on it.  The question is the sensor technology (and related communication links) – for two reasons.  One is the ability to identify the target; the other is to determine the level, acceptable or not, of collateral damage in relation to the target. That’s the technologically difficult part.  And yet it is not something important to very many of the militaries that might want to use UAVs, because not that many are going to be worried about the use of UAVs for discrete, targeted killing.  Not so discrete and not so targeted will be just fine – and that does not require super-advanced technology.   China might decide that it wants an advanced assassination platform that would depend on such sensors, and in any case be interested in investing in such technology for many reasons – but that is not going to describe Iran or very many other places that are capable of deploying and using weaponized UAVs.  Iran, for example, won’t have super advanced sensor technology (unless China sells it to them), but they will have UAVs.

(The attached weaponry follows the same pattern.  Most countries will find a Hellfire type missile just fine.  The US will continue to develop smaller weapons finally capable of a single person hit.  Few others will develop it, partly because they don’t care and partly because its effectiveness depends on advanced sensors that they are not likely to have.)

Robots are broadly defined by three characteristics – computation, sensor inputs, and gross movement.  Movement in the case of a weaponized robot includes both movement and the use of its weapon – meaning, flying the UAV and firing a weapon.  The first of those, flying the UAV, is available widely; primitive weapons are available widely as well, and so is the fundamental computational power.  Sensors are much, much more difficult – but only to the extent that a party cares about discretion in targeting.  But it is not the case that they are making these decisions on account of US decisions about UAVs; UAVs are useful for many other reasons for many other parties, all on their own.