This follows Russia’s attack on residential buildings in Ukraine with a wave of drone attacks in late May, killing civilians.
Military drones range from small consumer quadcopters to remote-controlled combat aircraft – and all types are used by militaries around the world.
As a scholar of Public diplomacy and foreign policy – and a former United States Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs – I know how important it is for people to understand drones and their proliferation given the risks of war, terrorism and accidental drone collisions around the world from today.
A shopping frenzy
The US is one of more than 100 countries using drones in times of conflict.
Consumer drone shipments, worldwide, topped 5 million units in 2020 and is expected to exceed 7 million by 2025.
Worldwide drone sales increased by 57% between 2021 and 2022.
Each country is free to decide where and when to fly drones, without accountability to any other country or international authority that regulates drones. There is little guidance on the ground about the rules of the air.
Each country has a unique interest in acquiring and using drones.
China is more and more using advanced drones for covert surveillance, especially in international waters to patrol disputed islands in the South China Sea. The growing drone program has influenced other countries, such as the US, to invest as well more in technology.
The Turkish army has a very advanced drone, the Bayraktar TB2which can carry laser-guided bombs and is small enough to fit in a flatbed truck.
The United Arab Emirates import drones from China and Turkey to deployment in Yemen and Libya to keep an eye on warlords in case conflict breaks out.
And South Korea is considering starting a special drone unit after failing to respond to a recent North Korean drone raid. When North Korea deployed five drones on its southern neighbor, South Korea, in December 2022 had to scramble his fighter jets to fire warning shots.
No rules in the air
The countries with armed drones individually navigate their own rules rather than an internationally agreed set of rules.
International law prohibits the use of armed force unless the United Nations Security Council authorizes an attack, or in the case of self-defense.
But aside from launching an all-out war, drones can be legally deployed for counter-terrorism operations, surveillance, and other non-self-defense needs, making a slippery slope towards a military conflict.
Figuring out the national and international airspace rules for the use of drones is difficult.
For 20 years, experts have been trying to create international agreements on weapons – and some countries supported an informal one 2016 UN agreement recommends that countries document the import and export of unmanned aerial vehicles.
But these efforts never progressed to serious, comprehensive standards and laws that kept pace with technology. There are several reasons for this. To protect their national sovereignty, governments do not want to release drone data. They also want to avoid duplication of their technology and maintain their market share in the drone trade.
US and drones
The US has struggled to balance drone warfare as it became involved in overseas operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and other conflict zones.
The US killed a top al-Qaeda leader with a drone strike in Afghanistan in 2022.
But there have been other cases of drone strikes resulting in accidental casualties and damage.
In 2021, The New York Times reported that an American drone hit on a vehicle believed to contain an Islamic State bomb resulted in the death of 10 children – not three citizensas the US said could have happened.
Little research has been done on public opinion about how Americans feel about the US use of drones abroadmaking it difficult to build public support for military use.
Drone dangers are real.
Many drone experts, myself included, believe so unsafe for any country’s military to make its own decisions about drones with no rules governing the transfer, export, import and use of drones – and no large forum to discuss drones as the technology continues to evolve.
Multiple drones can communicate with each other at a distance, creating shared targets rather than an individual drone path or pattern. Like a swarm of bees, these drones form a deadly and autonomous air army ripe for accidents.
With the advent of artificial intelligence and more advanced unmanned aerial vehicles, drones can change speed, altitude and target in seconds, making them even more difficult to track and investigate. Attacks can happen seemingly out of nowhere.
Drone detection is another complication, especially on the battlefield.
Ukrainian and Russian troops both want to know exactly where a drone comes from. That can be difficult to determine, especially at night, as drones are fast-moving vehicles. Traditional radar detection has become more advanced with new drone detection platforms to more accurately decipher the exact location of the drone operator.
In my opinion, the world needs new and consistent rules for the use of drones in the next decade: better international monitoring of drone raids and more transparency in the outcome of drone strikes.
This is an updated version of an article originally published on May 19, 2023.