The out of control drone future

So this is where our supposed civilised world is heading. A disturbing piece in the weekend’s New York Times:

At the Zhuhai air show in southeastern China last November, Chinese companies startled some Americans by unveiling 25 different models of remotely controlled aircraft and showing video animation of a missile-armed drone taking out an armored vehicle and attacking a United States aircraft carrier.

The presentation appeared to be more marketing hype than military threat; the event is China’s biggest aviation market, drawing both Chinese and foreign military buyers. But it was stark evidence that the United States’ near monopoly on armed drones was coming to an end, with far-reaching consequences for American security, international law and the future of warfare.

Eventually, the United States will face a military adversary or terrorist group armed with drones, military analysts say. But what the short-run hazard experts foresee is not an attack on the United States, which faces no enemies with significant combat drone capabilities, but the political and legal challenges posed when another country follows the American example. The Bush administration, and even more aggressively the Obama administration, embraced an extraordinary principle: that the United States can send this robotic weapon over borders to kill perceived enemies, even American citizens, who are viewed as a threat.

“Is this the world we want to live in?” asks Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Because we’re creating it.”

So far, the United States has a huge lead in the number and sophistication of unmanned aerial vehicles (about 7,000, by one official’s estimate, mostly unarmed). The Air Force prefers to call them not U.A.V.’s but R.P.A.’s, or remotely piloted aircraft, in acknowledgment of the human role; Air Force officials should know, since their service is now training more pilots to operate drones than fighters and bombers.

Philip Finnegan, director of corporate analysis for the Teal Group, a company that tracks defense and aerospace markets, says global spending on research and procurement of drones over the next decade is expected to total more than $94 billion, including $9 billion on remotely piloted combat aircraft.

Israel and China are aggressively developing and marketing drones, and Russia, Iran, India, Pakistan and several other countries are not far behind. The Defense Security Service, which protects the Pentagon and its contractors from espionage, warned in a report last year that American drone technology had become a prime target for foreign spies.