Almost since the United States began using the unmanned aerial vehicles known as drones, their use has drawn criticism. The latest criticism, which has received considerable attention in the wake of the drone strike on Anwar Awlaki, is that America's use of drones has sparked a new international arms race.
While it is true that some other nations have begun developing their own unmanned aerial vehicles, the extent of the alarm is unjustified. Much of it rests on myths that are easily dispelled.
Myth 1: Drones will be a threat to the United States in the hands of other nations. Drones are surveillance and counter-terrorism tools; they are not effective weapons of conventional warfare. The unmanned aerial vehicles are slow and extremely vulnerable to even basic air defense systems, illustrated by the fact that a U.S. surveillance drone was shot down by a 1970s-era MIG-25 Soviet fighter over Iraq in 2002. Moreover, drones are dependent on constant telemetry signals from their ground controllers to remain in flight. Such signals can be easily jammed or disrupted, causing the drone to fall from the sky. It's even possible that a party sending stronger signals could take control of the drone. The drones, therefore, have limited usefulness. And certainly any drone flying over the U.S. while being controlled by a foreign nation could be easily detected and either destroyed or captured.
Myth 2: Terrorists could effectively use drones to strike targets that are otherwise safe. Though it would be preferable if terrorist groups did not acquire drones, the technology required to support them is not particularly advanced. If organizations such as Al Qaeda were intent on acquiring the technology, they probably could. One of the reasons Al Qaeda may not have spent the time and resources necessary to do so is that drones would be of limited value. In addition to being very vulnerable to even basic air defense systems, drones require a great deal of logistical support. They have to be launched, recovered and controlled from a reasonably large and secure permanent facility. Wherever Al Qaeda's drones landed would immediately become a target.
It is true that a small, hand-launched drone capable of delivering a small warhead over a reasonably short distance could be, like radio-controlled model airplanes, launched in a public park or other open area and flown to a target several miles away. However, the amount of explosives that such a drone can carry is very limited (at most a few pounds) and pales in comparison to the amount of explosives that can be delivered by a vehicle or even a suicide bomber. It seems likely that terrorist groups will continue to deliver their explosives by vehicle or suicide bomber.
Myth 3: The U.S. use of drones in cases such as the Awlaki killing in Yemen serves to legitimize their use by China or Russia. International law places the same restrictions on the use of drones that it places on any other use of military force. The U.S. used a drone on Yemeni territory to kill Awlaki because it was given permission to do so by the Yemeni government, and because Awlaki was an active member of an Al Qaeda affiliate who had repeatedly been involved in operations designed to kill Americans at home and abroad. With such permission, the U.S. could instead have employed special forces or a conventional airstrike.
Numerous commentators have suggested that U.S. drone use legitimizes Russian drone use in Chechnya or Chinese drone use against the Uighurs. If China or Russia were facing genuine threats from Chechen or Uighur separatists, they might be allowed under international law to use drones in neighboring states if those states gave them permission to do so. However, given the fact that Chechen separatists declared an end to armed resistance in 2009, and that the greatest concern Russians currently have with Chechnya is with the lavish subsidies that Russia is currently providing it, the likelihood of armed Russian drones over Chechnya seems remote at best.
Likewise, there is no Uighur separatist organization that even remotely resembles Al Qaeda. Uighur unrest has taken the form of uprisings in Urumqi and other areas, similar to the Tibetan unrest of a few years ago. The Chinese eliminated such unrest with widespread arrests and disappearances, which raised serious human rights concerns. But there has been no time in which Uighur opposition has met the threshold established by international law that would allow for the use of armed drones in response to Uighur actions.
It is important to recognize drones for what they are: slow, relatively low-tech anti-terrorism tools that would be of limited use on most modern battlefields and are particularly unsuited to use by terrorist organizations.
Michael W. Lewis teaches international law and the law of war at Ohio Northern University School of Law. He is a former Navy fighter pilot and is the coauthor of "The War on Terror and the Laws of War: A Military Perspective."