This Piece Originally Appeared in www.foreignaffairs.com
A U.S. drone at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, May, 2016 The world has entered an era of drone wars. In four major interstate wars in the last five years—those in Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh, Syria, and Ukraine—armed drones played a dominant, perhaps decisive, role. And yet the debates about drones still center on their use against nonstate actors, such as the Taliban , or speculation about their potential role in wars between the United States and near competitors, such as China. Those discussions have led many scholars to conclude that drones are so complicated and vulnerable as to be of limited use or relevance to wars between states. Some observers argue that drones may even promote international stability : countries may be less likely to escalate a conflict if a drone, rather than an aircraft with a human pilot, is shot down .
But mounting evidence points to a more disturbing trend. Cheap, survivable drones, combined with armor and artillery, offer the militaries that field them real advantages. The four recent conflicts in which drones have appeared show that even modest vehicles can help win military victories and reshape geopolitics. And as drones become part of the arsenals of more countries—surging from eight in 2015 to 20 today—new actors are poised to seize the opportunity they offer to grab territory or ignite previously frozen conflicts. Governments and analysts need to rethink the role these weapons may play in actually increasing the risk of interstate violence. A Disposable Fleet
Scholars have long believed that offensive weapons are destabilizing , because they lower the costs of conquest while raising security fears among their potential targets. Armed drones take this idea even further. Unmanned vehicles are significantly less expensive than piloted aircraft, and militaries can send them on risky missions without fear of losing personnel. Moreover, because drones are cheap, countries can acquire them in numbers large enough to quickly swarm an adversary’s defenses. Militaries have already used dozens of drones in recent wars, and in future conflicts they are likely to deploy thousands, if not tens of thousands, to destroy or degrade opposing forces before they can mount a response.
Cheap, armed drones thus trade disposability for survivability. A military can afford to lose large numbers of them, so long as enough remain to destroy designated targets. Even if each drone is individually vulnerable, deploying them en masse provides safety in numbers. The cumulative effect can overwhelm even the strongest defenses.
Observers got a sneak peek of this tactic in Nagorno-Karabakh, where Azerbaijan recently use d 1940s-era An-2 biplanes that were jury-rigged to operate remotely. The aircraft baited Armenian radar operators into turning their systems on, revealing their locations so that Azerbaijani pilots could destroy them from a distance with Israeli-made Harop drones. While Azerbaijan ultimately lost 11 An-2s, the strategy helped punch holes in Armenia’s aerial defenses. Governments need to rethink the role that drones play in increasing the risk of interstate violence. Early evidence from recent conflicts further suggests that basic armed drones might actually be more durable than initially assumed. Sophisticated Russian air defense systems, such as the S-300 and short-range Pantsir, proved surprisingly vulnerable in Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Syria. In each case, armed drones were able to escape detection and exploit coverage gaps in older systems built with larger piloted aircraft in mind. Unmanned vehicles destroyed several Russian Pantsirs in Libya and Syria and feasted on older air defense systems in Armenia.
For states that seek to break long-standing geopolitical deadlocks, the rise of relatively cheap, disposable, armed drones offers a tempting opportunity. Such vehicles can help states grab territory quickly, rapidly […]