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So what if Iranian drones did strike Syria? We are not entering a dark age of robotic warfare.

- April 4, 2016
A U.S. Air Force MQ-1B Predator drone at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. (Courtesy of U.S. Air Force)

Did Iranian drones hit Syrian targets in February, as has been reported? If confirmed, the news would support dark predictions about how the robotic revolution may affect international politics. Some scholars, analysts and policymakers worry that military drones are easy and cheap to produce and to operate. So what happens when an increasing number of countries — from Nigeria to Iraq, from Iran to North Korea — gain inexpensive but advanced military capabilities?

Policymakers worry that the proliferation of drones would make the world more unstable and conflicts more likely.

There’s also a potential strategic cost. If many countries begin operating military drones, the United States might lose its military-technological superiority. Military drones could permit countries to match U.S. military power at a fraction of the cost and time it took the United States to develop its military-industrial complex, depriving the United States of an important advantage in combat. Potentially, even poorer nations could come to possess advanced military capabilities threatening the United States or its allies.

But our research, recently published in the journal Security Studies, shows such concerns are highly exaggerated.

Producing military drones is expensive and complex

First, military drones are neither easy nor cheap to produce. Toy-like drones are available online for a few hundred dollars, but these devices are not going to destroy U.S. Army battalions, overseas bases or U.S. cities. Only drones with extremely advanced capabilities could affect the international balance of power. Designing, developing and producing such platforms require advanced facilities and extensive experience in manufacturing cutting-edge technologies. That’s daunting — and doesn’t come cheap. The United States unquestionably leads in this realm.

Let’s look at France, second only to the United States in its military technology. France is extremely protectionist, especially about its military. In the late 1990s, the French government began funding programs to build long-range unmanned surveillance platforms like those developed by the United States and Israel. Such efforts systematically failed. In 2013, the French government decided to give in and buy the U.S.-made RQ-9 Reaper, the U.S. military’s platform for carrying out drone strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Yemen. The reason? Producing even an allegedly “simple” platform like the Reaper poses acute technological challenges even for advanced countries.

U.S. drone technology is advancing far more quickly than other nations’ technology

Our research also suggests that U.S. technology development is outpacing the worldwide spread of military drones. As the U.S. military creates next-generation drones, other countries are still struggling to produce first-generation drones — which are vulnerable to the most basic counter-systems, such as a rifle shot or controls hacked with off-the-shelf software.

What does this mean? As the United States and its allies develop capable and effective anti-drone systems, many countries’ current (or hoped-for) fleets of drones will inevitably become obsolete — at least against U.S. or allied troops and facilities.

That doesn’t mean we should completely dismiss the threat, but the broader implication is quite straightforward. Proliferation of these earlier-generation platforms isn’t likely to affect global peace and stability.

It’s really hard to deploy military drones

Perhaps most important, employing drones for military operations is extremely challenging. As Ron Adner of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College explains, any innovation poses what he calls “ecosystem challenges.” Simply put, innovations generally require organizational and infrastructural support. The more daunting such challenges are, the more difficult adopting an innovation will be.

To operate medium- to long-range drones, armed forces need advanced communication systems, command and control infrastructures, and skilled personnel. Even the U.S. military, despite unrivaled satellite communications, still struggles to allocate enough satellite bandwidth to employ its military drones in different parts of the world. Troops that want to operate these platforms must have a set of tactical procedures and operational concepts — but developing these takes time and political effort, as military innovations generally encounter strong resistance within the military and from a government.

The United States and Israel took several years to learn how to effectively fly and operate drones in combat. Could other countries, with more limited experience, lower budgets, and less-skilled and experience personnel, really catch up swiftly?

Look at Iraq’s drone program. Last year, the Iraqi government bought military drones from China. But Iraq doesn’t have any communication satellites. Therefore, it must pilot its drones using relatively short-range direct radio waves (in technical terms, this is “line-of-sight” communications). Radio waves, however, are easy to jam, so Iraq can fly its drones only within its borders, making them all but impossible to use to start a war with another country.

What’s more, when Iraqi armed forces first used this new technology, they mistakenly hit their own ground troops instead of the intended Islamic State targets. Operating advanced technology is never easy, especially without experience.

Don’t worry about other nations’ drones

So even if Iran has carried out its first drone strike, there’s no need to conclude we’re entering a dark age of drone warfare.

That’s because on the one hand, the proliferation of drones around the world doesn’t increase the chance of instability and conflict. Developing and employing drones poses more challenges than generally acknowledged. U.S. investments in counter-drone systems will help prevent less-capable platforms from jeopardizing global peace and security.

On the other hand, investing in counter-systems and in more advanced drone technology will help the U.S. military stay in the technological lead, especially if the U.S. military can harness the most advanced technologies now being developed by the U.S. private industry. The U.S. military has the experience to operate the information and communication technologies that military drones require — and will probably stay out in front in the age of robotics warfare.

Andrea Gilli is a post-doctoral fellow at Metropolitan University Prague. Mauro Gilli is a post-doctoral fellow at Dartmouth College. This article draws from their recently published “The Diffusion of Drone Warfare? Industrial, Organizational and Infrastructural Constraints” in the journal Security Studies.