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 US 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 US’ 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 US 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 US, which faces no enemies with significant combat drone capabilities, but the political and legal challenges posed when another country follows the US example.
The Bush administration, and even more aggressively the Obama administration, embraced an extraordinary principle: that the US 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. What was a science-fiction scenario not much more than a decade ago has become today’s news. In Iraq and Afghanistan, military drones have become a routine part of the arsenal. In Pakistan, according to American officials, strikes from Predators and Reapers operated by the CIA have killed more than 2,000 militants; the number of civilian casualties is hotly debated.
In Yemen last month, an American citizen was, for the first time, the intended target of a drone strike, as Anwar al-Awlaki, the Qaeda propagandist and plotter, was killed along with a second American, Samir Khan.If China, for instance, sends killer drones into Kazakhstan to hunt minority Uighur Muslims it accuses of plotting terrorism, what will the US say? What if India uses remotely controlled craft to hit terrorism suspects in Kashmir? US officials who protest will likely find their own example thrown back at them.