Losing perspective on proliferation

As trigger-words go, proliferation is a biggie. After all, we have the somewhat-creaking Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which, for better or for worse, might have helped keep the number of states/actors able to deploy weapons that could annihilate the human race remarkably low. I’m sure there are people out there who could talk themselves in circles about the significance of a term of biology being applied to international politics, but hey. For better or worse, the contemporary meaning of proliferation is tied to nukes.  Of course, there are other similar regimes in force, covering biological and chemical weapons, and the term is also used in reference to small arms. Now, though, there are people advocating for non-proliferation of UAVs. Fair enough, one might argue, military UAVs are a relatively new technology: control their use, save everyone the hassle of some James Cameron-ite nightmare in the future.

What I find problematic is when people such as Simon Jenkins compare nuclear proliferation to the proliferation of UAVs. To quote his opening lines:

The greatest threat to world peace is not from nuclear weapons and their possible proliferation. It is from drones and their certain proliferation.

To give Mr Jenkins some credit, one would be foolish to argue that UAV proliferation isn’t some sort of threat to world peace, but to place it on the same level as nuclear weapons, or even equate the two, is, in my mind, foolish rhetoric of the highest calibre. Even from a Benthamite “end effect” perspective, UAV’s aren’t responsible for that many deaths relative to nuclear weapons. Anyone who wishes to argue the point, take a quick look at the casualties from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nuclear weapons are so terrible because one button press (and authorisation checks etc etc) can end the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. If a contemporary American nuke hit a major population area, the casualties could probably be measured in millions. It would take an awful lot of Reaper UAVs to attain a similar tally.

What Mr Jenkins and similar commentators seem to forget is that UAVs are quite fragile, and easily destroyed. If Pakistan or Yemen bothered switching on their air defence systems, the pesky buzzing would be silenced with ease. Despite American attempts, missile defence versus a salvo of nuclear ICBMs is still an entirely uncertain proposition. Despite the fact that nuclear weapons haven’t been used, the latent threat of their use is in my mind more of a threat to world peace than UAVs (both those that exist and are likely to exist in the medium term). That’s notwithstanding the possibility of states with nuclear weapons collapsing, or criminal networks within those states passing on the technology.

The control of UAV technology is, however, a problem. In short, it isn’t that amenable to control in any meaningful sense of the word. If one wishes to “control” the proliferation of technology automating human behaviour and actions, then there would need to be some form of global bar on research in that area.* I imagine that MIT and Google might have a problem this idea. Similarly, if someone wants to control the design and building of small unmanned aircraft, well, too late, that horse bolted a long time ago. Of course, you could lock up every amateur geek enthusiast, but that would be a bit pointless. The point is, the technology to build UAVs is embedded into our society to a far greater degree than nuclear weapons, chemical and biological weapons and small arms are. UAVs are effectively an extension of the industrial revolution (mechanisation, automation, replacement of human action by machine). I’m writing this on a laptop that was probably made by a large number of robots. UAVs need to be put into perspective – despite their dangers they can’t make human life as we know it extinct and they likely can’t be controlled by treaty. A little less rhetoric and a little more thought from critics of military UAVs might produce a better critique.


*The argument that only weapon-carrying UAVs need control is pointless, since delivery mechanisms could be integrated with any unmanned airframe in the event of a war. If such an unlikely ban became reality, I would imagine that the US and China would quickly start stockpiling “agriculture surveillance” UAVs or something like that.


12 thoughts on “Losing perspective on proliferation

  1. Good article Jack – and you are spot on: will UAVs (and their application) proliferate? Of course. Will we be able to stop it? Of course not. Is the proliferation of UAVs as threatening as nuclear proliferation? Not nearly – if measured in relation to body-counts.

    But wars (and warfare) are not purely about body-counts… and the scary aspect of UAVs – a new element that this technology introduces to the battlefield – is a level of abstraction at a crucial junction. This tech move the human component of the system one critical tier away from consequence: those heavy-weight emotions such as responsibility, regret, guilt, compassion, and the plain old simple fear of outcome that used to regulate at least some of our behaviour on the battlefield as well as in the halls of power. Certain state actions are just that little bit more acceptable when they are executed by a vehicle of which the pilot is several thousand kilometres away. Thus far, we have been ‘fortunate’ – only the ‘good guys’ have used this tech, so we have yet to witness a large-scale drone duel (for one). Things are still to become very interesting in the next decade.

    So is UAV proliferation as dangerous as nuclear proliferation? Not in relation to body-counts, no. But in relation to enablement and offering the state options in domains where previously no such options were to be had – it affords the decision-maker an easier decision in relation to the continuation of policy by other means. It cheapens war. And that is an entirely different story (and the converse of nuclear means).

    • AL Johnson says:

      “Certain state actions are just that little bit more acceptable when they are executed by a vehicle of which the pilot is several thousand kilometres away. ”

      Are they?

      To me this is all just part and parcel of the hype surrounding UAV strikes.

      A remotely piloted drone works on more local battlefield awareness than, say, a cruise missile or even a supersonic jet strike package.

      One could argue that the real difference is the absence of operator risk. But then the actual effect of this is yet to be demonstrated with evidence.

    • Hi Al,

      I was of course referring to the perception – which may intersect with reality, but seldom exactly match it.

      To place that in context – I wonder how loud the outcry would have been if rather the the Reaper operations in north Pakistan, those raids were executed by B-52’s or Tomahawk missiles?

    • Person says:

      I’m going to go out on a limb here and say the local would be just as upset about their relatives being blown up by B-52s or Tomahawks as by Reapers.

    • Person says:

      It would certainly be remarkable if that weren’t true. What is the connection between that and the topic of discussion?

    • Person says:

      The “outcry” to which you originally referred in your original post arises from the consequences for those on the ground where something just went “boom”. It does not arise from the fine details of the decision-making that led to the “boom”, nor from the geographical closeness between the “boom” and the trigger-puller.

      Separately, the Pakistan bombing campaign is politically possible because of what AL Johnson has referred to above as the absence of operator risk. I believe that is the most important aspect of the technology: increasing the asymmetry of the already asymmetrical campaign. That reduces the threshold for American decision-makers, but I would argue that the image of the mighty American giant battering the (relatively) defenceless does not help win the PR campaign.

  2. Vladimir says:

    The common thread in disarmament agreements like the CWC, BWC. Landmine Treaty and is certainly true of nuclear weapons is that these weapons cannot be used in a “responsible” fashion i.e. in conformity with international humanitarian law. Biological, chemical and nuclear weapons will be used in a manner that makes it practically impossible to restrict deaths among non-combatants. Landmines as a practical matter like cluster bombs may do more harm to civilians after a conflict than to combatants during a conflict. UAVs are used in a discriminate fashion except maybe in the case of signature strikes. Having said that it may be desirable to consider an international regime like that which attempts to restrict the proliferation of ballistic missiles. It would make sense for good realist reasons. On the contrary the ability to kill a target with a drone may lead to less collateral damage than a car bomb. I imagine there’s a contrarian paper to be written about how drones will make the world safer.

    • This seems to be a critical conjecture Vladimir – in particular relating to the use of chemical weapons.

      The first wide-spread application of chemical weapons was during the First World War, resulting in around 90,000 military fatalities and further 1 million+ military casualties. The civilian casualties relating to gas usage is pegged at about 5,000 for the entire First World War on all fronts. All of these figures pale into insignificance when compared to the effect of conventional ordinance for the same war. This leads me to suspect that the 1925 Geneva Gas Protocol of the Third Geneva Convention was not as much due to the effect of chemical warfare on civilian populations (or responsible use, as you phrase it) – but for ‘something else’.

  3. Paul Withers says:

    Is the issue really about UAVs or is it about the degree of autonomy that unmanned systems have? Popular media conjures up the image of a ‘drone’ (and I hate the term!) reaping (no pun intended!) indiscriminate death and destruction on those below. The reality is the human remains ‘in the loop’ on the targeting decisions and if the UAV wasn’t available, the same missions would be prosecuted with other aerial platforms. But how far do we allow autonomy to go? As others have pointed out, we have other autonomous weapons systems that have far less human control on them after the point of launch. The technology would potentially offer full autonomy, but from a western military perspective a human still needs to be answerable for the decision to attack a target.

    In addition, UAVs are largely used for ISR; their ability to provide persistent surveillance (for civilian and military applications) offers a range on non-controversial uses (as well as many controversial ones!) apart from their use as weapons platforms.

    As far as non-proliferation is concerned, what would you ask states to sign up to? No UAVs, limits on the degree of autonomy, no armed UAVs? Its too late for any of these as the technological bar to entry into the UAV market is set fairly low. Besides unlike chemical weapons they are not ‘mala in se’ and shouldn’t be seen as anymore controversial than any other means of aerial weapon delivery.

    The current crop of UAVs are vulnerable, because they have been developed to support the current operational circumstances where there is a fairly benign air environment; Google BAE’s Tranis for a look at the next generation.

    Forget the hype, they are just another aircraft.

    I’d recommend P W Singer’s ‘Wired for War’, which addresses many of the issues around this topic and cuts through the hype

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