February 11, 2015

CNAS Launches New Project on Implications of a Drone-Filled World


Washington, February 11 – The Center for a New American Security (CNAS) Technology and National Security Program and the CNAS 20YY Warfare Initiative have launched a new project, A World of Proliferated Drones. The project will examine the implications of the rapid expansion of drone use. Today, over twenty nations have or are developing armed drones and many more possess low-cost unarmed drones, including non-state actors. 

In particular, the project will study the implications of drone proliferation and policy options the United States and its allies and partners could adopt in the near-term in order to prepare for such challenges. A World of Proliferated Drones will also examine the technology available to state and non-state actors, potential uses of that technology, political and strategic implications of those uses, and possible U.S. policy options.

The project will result in recommendations for how to address the challenges associated with a drone-saturated world.

Below, please find a short commentary on the project by Paul Scharre, director of the CNAS 20YY Warfare Initiative:

The proliferation of weapons-capable drones around the world, to not only states but also non-state actors and even individuals, raises difficult challenges for crisis stability, escalation dynamics, and norms regarding sovereignty violation. Small, fully autonomous GPS-programmable drones can be purchased online by anyone for a few hundred dollars. When outfitted with small explosives or chemical or biological weapons, they could be converted into short-range precision weapons. Already, such developments have begun to impact international relations.  For example, in 2013, China sent a drone into contested airspace in the East China Sea. In response, Japan scrambled a manned fighter aircraft. These burgeoning dynamics suggest a number of questions for the future of international stability:  If one nation shoots down another nation’s drone, is that an act of war? Are states more willing to shoot down a drone, since there is no one on board? And are states more willing to engage in acts of brinkmanship with drones in the first place, since there is no human at risk?

The answers to these questions hinge not principally on the technology itself, but how states and non-state actors will use the technology, and how they will perceive its use by themselves and others. Anticipating the likely contours of a drone-saturated world will help the U.S. government take steps today to influence, as best it can, the shape of a future most conducive to American interests. Potential proactive policy measures that could be taken now include:

  • Reform of export control policies
  • Declaratory policies on hostile actions by other nations with drones
  • Communication and actions regarding expectations of appropriate drone use

Paul Scharre, Director of the CNAS 20YY Warfare Initiative, and Ben FitzGerald, Director of the CNAS Technology and National Security Program, are available for interviews. To arrange an interview, please contact Neal Urwitz at [email protected] or 202-457-9409.