'Messengers of Death' Are Drones Creating a New Global Arms Race?

DPA/ MoD

By , Juliane von Mittelstaedt and

Part 2: Dangerous First Impressions from China


Beijing is also working aggressively to get into the global business of these silent killers, proudly advertising its own drones with names such as "Soaring Dragon" and "Dark Sword."

Chinese arms manufacturers presented 25 new UAV models last year at the Zhuhai Air Show, Asia's most important trade fair. Some of them seemed simply odd, for example a drone about the size of a duck meant to fly by beating its wings.

Others, though, made a dangerous first impression, for example the "WJ-600," which can fire missiles and adjust its wings to match flight conditions. An animated demonstration video showed the WJ-600 attacking a group of American aircraft carriers.

Still, military experts believe Chinese drone technology is not yet as advanced as its American or Israeli competition. There is no question, though, that China's engineers will be quick to catch up. With the US refusing to export any militarily applicable technology to China, the country buys whatever it can from around the world. Germany too has provided engines used in Chinese drones, one exhibitor at the Zhuhai Air Show revealed.

China's largest manufacturer is the ASN Technology Group, whose "ASN-229A" model can fire missiles around 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles). Experts in other countries are convinced China is no longer simply imitating American technology, but has long since begun to work on inventions of its own.

'We're Looking To Fill the Gap'

Zhang Qiaoliang at Chengdu Aircraft Design and Research Institute confidently informed the Washington Post, "The US is exporting hardly any armed drones, and we're looking to fill that gap."

These suppliers are also less picky than the US when it comes to their customers. Israel does trade with Russia and China is courting Pakistan. Consequently, American defense lobbying groups would love to see all of their country's export restrictions removed. James Pitts at Northrop Grumman warns, "Unless something changes in US policy (UAVs) will be another area where in five years we will look back and say, 'gee we missed the boat, the US missed the boat."

Especially in lean economic times, drones seem like an ideal purchase. With the Pentagon expected to cut costs by $1 billion in the next decade and research budgets rapidly melting away, there's hardly any money left for expensive new development projects such as fighter jets. A "Reaper" drone, on the other hand, costs just $10.5 million, 14 times less than an "F-22 Raptor" fighter jet.

Still, many military experts have mixed feelings about this development. David Ignatius, a Washington Post columnist who has also written successful, realistic thrillers about CIA work, has shown a great deal of sympathy for the Obama administration's drone program and for the defense industry's desire to export.

Will America Become Addicted to Drones?

But he dreads a world with a lot of fighter drones and few rules, and believes the US is setting a bad example with its remote-controlled executions. "How are we supposed to put up protest when Russia, for example, buys these aircraft to carry out targeted assassinations of alleged terrorists in Chechnya? Or Turkey to do the same with PKK representatives in Iraq? Or China with insurgents within the country?" Ignatius asks. He writes, "A world where drones are constantly buzzing overhead ... risks being, even more, a world of lawlessness and chaos."

Another detraction is that these precision weapons are not effective for use against large military forces. But they're very well suited for so-called surgical strikes, even in high-population areas. This means civilians will suffer in future drone wars, as they already do in Pakistan.

Peter Bergen, an American expert on terrorism, has calculated that drones in Pakistan kill seven times as many low-level followers as top terrorists. According to estimates, 20 percent of those killed are civilians, despite the precision of the remote controls.

However, for Obama drones are the miracle weapons that will allow him to bomb his way to victory in the "War on Terror," a victory his predecessor never achieved. America could become "addicted to drones," Ignatius fears -- and then be left wondering as both exports and competitors' business take off.

American's enemies, be they nations or terrorists, will eventually possess these weapons too. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has referred to his country's first domestically built drone model as "messengers of death," although experts doubt the drone's capabilities.

"Our next great challenge is to deal with the fact that our enemies also have this technology at their disposal," says Deptula, the former Air Force general.

Clear international conventions could help to regulate the use of drones, but the Obama administration is digging in behind legal guidelines established by George W. Bush, which say that those responsible for terrorists attacks may be hunted anywhere, in any manner, with the president deriving the right to use drones from the obligation for self-defense.

A Divide in Thinking

But even for some within the Obama administration, this justification has grown too thin to hold up to the current volume of drone strikes. This September saw an open disagreement between the US State Department, which wanted to allow drone strikes only to counter direct, imminent terrorist attacks, and hawks within the Pentagon, who wanted to keep all options open, everywhere.

Obama's top anti-terrorism advisor, John Brennan, made a trip to Harvard University's renowned Law School to deliver an address on the legal principles behind the war against terrorism, a speech that lent support to the hardliners. According to Brennan, drone strikes against terrorists are also allowed in regions such as Yemen or Somalia, which are not in a state of war as Afghanistan is, but where he says al-Qaida supporters hide out to plan further attacks on the US.

This line of argument has raised concerns even among some Republicans. Presidential candidate Ron Paul wondered whether it might lead to "a precedent of an American president assassinating people who he thinks are bad." Other drone detractors talk of "extrajudicial murder."

So far, the White House has consistently managed to turn a blind eye to the risks of the drone boom, for example the possibility that these weapons could be captured by terrorists. Just a few weeks ago, a 26-year-old man was arrested in Boston for allegedly planning to load model airplanes with explosives and fly them into the Pentagon. The US Army is already at work on deadly drones that soldiers would be able to carry in their packs. Such a model would be ideal for any terrorists who might manage to get their hands on it.

The Perils of Auto-Pilot War

Peter Singer, an expert on modern warfare at the Brookings Institution, isn't surprised that what were originally unarmed aircraft have so quickly developed into successful and deadly weapons. The same has happened many times throughout history, he says, for example with airplanes. But Singer expresses surprise at how unprepared we are for a world with many drone-equipped nations -- and for the new challenges particular to this technology.

Those challenges can't be overlooked. Singer describes weapons experts who, like their Israeli counterparts, have long been working on sensors that would allow UAVs to seek out their own targets, not even needing to rely on human remote control.

Automatic homing has already had successful trial runs at a US Air Force base in Georgia, yet hardly anyone has examined the potential consequences of waging autopilot war. "Legal and ethical experts have a hard time countering this, because they simply can't keep up with the pace of drone technology," Singer says.

And once again, those opponents might be too late. The US administration plans to release the latest, updated version of its pre-approved list of arms exports soon. Lobbyists for the drone manufacturers hope this will make it easier for their clients to move their wares.

In Fairfax, Virginia, analyst Zaloga sits in front of his model tanks and planes, already excited for this next development. The restrictions on exports up to now had often been "extreme," he says.

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