May 22, 2014
Congressman Gregory Meeks (D-NY) had a strong reaction this week to the story of Deborah Peter, a young woman visiting the Congress, about the murder of her family by Boko Haram:

I want drones, I want something, because they don't belong on this earth.

The congressman from Queens, and a host of hopeful Nigerians, are getting one: eighty troops and a single Predator drone are on their way to Africa now. I share the sentiment, and I will also observe how that robotic airplane has become the weapon of choice for these situations. But it’s less certain that’s a good idea. In an editorial in yesterday’s New York Times on “The Limits of Armchair Warfare,” veterans of the Afghan campaign Jacob Wood and Ken Harbaugh complain that "our military leadership have become so enamored of the technological mystique of drones that they have lost touch with the realities of the modern battlefield.” 

If the Predator doesn’t suit the reality, it’s because Nigeria isn’t Iraq or Afghanistan. Those flying cameras will be combing some areas of dense vegetation, in a zone the size of West Virginia, trying to discern kidnappers from villagers. As one humorous reformulation of the Powell Doctrine puts it, we may do oceans and deserts, but we don’t do mountains and jungles, because technology grants less advantage there. After two long and hard-fought counterinsurgency campaigns, sending the Marines or SEAL Team Six is just less enticing. Even dispatching drones directly to Nigeria is out: they’re going to neighboring Chad. As horrifying as the savagery of Abubakar Shekau may be, ultimately, the United States government did little about the nerve gas attacks of Bashar al-Assad. For better or worse, and for now, a single drone and a few score troops at a comfortable distance are as much as Mr. Obama will send.

Perhaps it’s thus appropriate that last week Orlando, and not Washington DC, hosted the annual trade show of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). The move away from the Pentagon was quite conscious. Much of the show focused on commercial applications—for perhaps the first time ever, only one keynote speaker was a serving flag officer. To some extent, the organizers were making a virtue of necessity: the Pentagon seems to be taking, in the words of Jeremiah Gertler of the Congressional Research Service, a “strategic pause” from drone procurement for the next several years. Even two years ago, Joe Dyer, the retired admiral and former head of government business at iRobot, told the Journal that the company really had expected more of those wartime, emergency procurements to transition to “programs of record”—Pentagon lingo for something in the long-range plan. Nathan Hodge appropriately entitled his article "As Wars End, Robot Field Faces Reboot” (12 April 2012)—which is pretty much what both industry and the military are doing. 

That’s largely because the inventory of fielded drones is large, and because the military is sorting out ideas for what comes next. Aaron Mehta covered the story well for Defense News: the US Air Force in particular wants smaller, more modular, and heavily armed flying robots in the next iteration. The options, though, range from the seemingly mundane to the possibly fanciful. Colonel Ken Callahan, in charge of drone capabilities thinking on the Air Staff, spoke of pods on the USAF’s drones, just like the pods on its fighters and the pods on its many varieties of C-130. Colonel John McCurdy, head of drone programs at the Air Force Academy, spoke of aerial combat between drones, but with manned aircraft in the middle of it all, coordinating the battle. If that’s not convincing enough, just watch the viral video of that crazy Russian hobbyist again. Some pretty crazy stuff is available to geeks all over the world.

If this is to be the future, it’s worth asking whether the US wants to share in it. As I noted the other week, the federal government is restricting drone exports, and thus necessarily encouraging the development of the industry overseas. Writing for himself, Matthew Merighi of the Air Secretariat has an essay this week at CIMSEC advocating relaxing those restrictions. As Claw Dillow wrote for Fortune last year, the Aerospace Industries Association is additionally  concerned that the international Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) could hold up exports regardless of national preferences. But that result is hardly clear: Lynn Davis of RAND, who ran arms control policy for the State Department in the Clinton Administration, argued at a CSIS event early this month that the MTCR is sufficiently subject to interpretation to permit wider exports. 

It’s also important to note that if serious demand is brewing abroad, not all of it can be filled. As Aaron Stein writes today at War On The Rocks, “The Trouble with Turkey’s Drones” is that they lack satellite communications links, and even reliable engines. The latter problem is solvable for plenty of countries, so they are getting their short-ranged drones. Forget Amazon—Francesco’s in Mumbai has already delivered its first pizza by drone (even if the Mumbai Police are not amused). But because the over-the-horizon challenge is daunting for all but wealthy countries, Davis’s team at RAND recently concluded that “longer-range armed drones are unlikely to spread broadly.” 

Even at home, Wood and Harbaugh have it at most half-right. As Sandra Irwin writes in the current issue of National Defense, the ‘shine is starting to wear off’ unmanned systems at the Pentagon, because we’ve figured out what they can’t do. As I wrote two weeks ago in another essay, drones just won’t be disruptive without some really impressive technical advances that make McCurdy’s vision more compelling than Callahan’s. In short, there’s little reason to panic that drone makers are about to mail Pandora’s boxes around the world. There is enough reason to worry, though, that somebody else’s drone makers will be making the money.  

James Hasik is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

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