Part of Future of Warfare Initiative

Proliferated Drones

Get ready for a drone-saturated world. Over twenty nations have or are developing armed drones and many more possess unarmed drones, including non-state actors. The Center for a New American Security (CNAS) project, A World of Proliferated Drones, will examine 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. This project will 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.

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. Outfitted with small explosives, chemical or biological weapons, they could be converted into short-range precision weapons. In 2013, China sent a drone into contested airspace in the East China Sea. In response, Japan scrambled manned fighter aircraft. 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? 


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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. Proactive policy measures that can be taken now include: reform of export control policies, declaratory policies on hostile actions by other nations with drones, and communication and actions regarding expectations of appropriate drone use.

A World of Proliferated Drones is a joint project between CNAS’ Technology and National Security Program and Future of Warfare Initiative.

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