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Research Questions

  1. Are armed drones transformative weapons?
  2. Will armed drones proliferate and create global security dangers?
  3. Are new arms control agreements needed to cover armed drones?
  4. Can the United States influence future use of armed drones by others?

Abstract

Armed drones are making the headlines, especially in their role in targeted killings. In this report, RAND researchers stepped back and asked whether these weapons are transformative. The answer is no, though they offer significant capabilities to their users, especially in counterterrorism operations as has been the case for the United States. Will they proliferate? Yes, but upon a closer look at the types of systems, only a few rich countries will be in a position to develop the higher technology and longer range systems. U.S. adversaries and others will likely find weapons such as aircraft and air defenses more cost and militarily effective. Their proliferation will not create the kinds of global dangers that call for new arms control efforts, but the risks to regional stability cannot be dismissed entirely, as is the case of any conventional weapon. How the United States will use these weapons today and into the future will be important in shaping a broader set of international norms that discourage their misuse by others.

Key Findings

Longer-Range Armed Drones Are Unlikely to Spread Broadly

  • The complexity and expense of long-range armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are quite different from short-range systems, which make them difficult to develop and even to operate.
  • Many countries are developing and acquiring drones. Short-range drones are going to spread, because they have attractive civilian uses. Only a few rich and technologically advanced countries will be in a position to develop the higher-technology and longer-range armed systems.

Armed UAVs Are Not Truly Transformative

  • Armed UAV systems are not transformative weapons, though they offer the United States some significant advantages, particularly against enemies that lack air defenses. It is plausible, though not necessarily likely, that a substate group might employ armed drones to create a significant psychological effect. Innovations, such as the discovery of ways to make stealth technology cheap and easily available, could alter these conclusions, but none of these are likely.
  • Armed UAV systems do not create the global dangers and instabilities that have traditionally led to nonproliferation efforts, although the risks of proliferation cannot be dismissed entirely, as is the case with any conventional weapon.
  • Armed drones are only transformative in rare circumstances but they offer policymakers another option for intervention, in some cases where they would otherwise do nothing, while in other situations in lieu of a more costly and aggressive approach.
  • U.S. policymakers will be able to craft policies for armed drones that address the potential risks of proliferation while being able to continue its own acquisition and potential sales to allies and partners. The MTCR and Wassenaar Arrangement will be useful in achieving these twin goals.

Shaping International Behavior

  • The United States will need to address how its own use of these systems can be fit into a broader set of international norms so as to discourage their misuse by others. While the track record for constraining the use of emerging technologies has been mixed, there is evidence that U.S. leadership — and failure to lead — can matter in shaping international behavior.

Recommendations

  • Ultimately, changes to U.S. armed UAV policies and efforts to shape international norms should be based on evaluating and balancing competing risks.
  • Decisionmakers must consider the risks to U.S. counterterrorism and other missions that might come from more transparent and restrictive armed UAV policies. On the other hand, there may be longer-term risks that — without U.S. policy changes and without international norms — other governments and substate groups may acquire and use armed UAVs in ways that threaten regional stability, laws of war, and the role of domestic rule of law in decisions to use force.
  • Those concerned about these longer-term risks — particularly from operations outside warzones — should focus on shaping international norms; providing leadership through example and through forums; and developing a set of guidelines.

This report results from the RAND Corporation's Investment in People and Ideas program. Support for this program is provided, in part, by donors and by the independent research and development provisions of RAND's contracts for the operation of its U.S. Department of Defense federally funded research and development centers.

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