The Coming Drone Wars: A Headache in the Making for American Foreign Policy

An airplane flies over a drone during the Polar Bear Plunge on Coney Island in the Brooklyn borough of New York January 1, 2015. The Coney Island Polar Bear Club is one of the oldest winter bathing organizations in the United States and holds a New Year's Day plunge every year. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

The widespread availability of drones brings new challenges to international security.

In June, the United States shot down two Iranian-made armed drones used by Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. The fact that the shoot down (and the existence of the armed drones themselves) barely registered as a significant news event shows the extent to which drones are becoming a normal feature of international conflicts.

Drones are rapidly proliferating around the globe and are now in the hands of an increasing number of state and nonstate actors. The widespread availability of drones brings new challenges to international security. As more actors have access to drones, they are likely to use them in ways that challenge norms of sovereignty and change conflict dynamics. U.S. policymakers should begin thinking now about how to best prepare for these challenges and, to the extent possible, shape emerging patterns of behavior surrounding drone use.

Over ninety nations and many nonstate actors have drones today. One of the first things that people seem to do once they get ahold of drones is send them someplace they don’t belong. With no person on board, actors can send a drone into hostile areas with fewer costs if it is shot down. Often, the result is that others do fire on drones. Again, because there is no person on board, the threshold for shooting down others’ drones is also lower.

One of the first international incidents using this technology occurred in September 2013 when China sent a drone into contested airspace over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Both China and Japan claim sovereignty over the islands, and a drone was a low-cost way for Beijing to challenge Tokyo. In response to the incursion, Japan scrambled an inhabited (“manned”) F-15 fighter jet to intercept the drone. The Chinese drone turned and left, but afterwards Japan issued new rules of engagement that Tokyo would be more willing to shoot down a drone than a manned aircraft. China fired back that the shoot down of any of its drones would be “an act of war.”

Since then, numerous actors have used drones as a low-cost way of challenging sovereign or contested areas—and often times they are shot down. Hamas and Hezbollah have sent drones into Israeli airspace and were shot down by the Israeli air force. In 2015, Assad’s regime was reportedly able to down a U.S. Predator drone in western Syria. Later that year, Turkey shot down a suspected Russian drone that had penetrated Turkish airspace near Syria. In 2016, Pakistan shot down a small quadcopter in the disputed Kashmir region that it claimed was an Indian drone (India denied the claim). Most recently in June, the United States shot down the two pro-regime drones in Syria. With the exception of the most recent case in Syria, in which the United States also shot down a manned Syrian Su-22 fighter, these incidents show a pattern of countries that are willing to put drones in risky situations and adversaries that are more willing to shoot them down than human-inhabited aircraft.