WASHINGTON -- The drone wars are here.
While President Obama ponders new legal and moral guidelines to govern America's growing use of armed robot aircraft, the world outside the White House is engaged in a revolutionary frenzy of building, arming and flying killer drones.
Small, inexpensive and lethal, drones enable everyone from terrorists to the Chinese People's Liberation Army to engage in what the Pentagon acknowledges is a new arms race with "alarming" consequences. More than 50 countries operate surveillance drones and, increasingly, are fitting them with weapons.
The U.S. covertly uses armed drones to assassinate alleged terrorists or insurgents in Pakistan, Sudan and Somalia. In Pakistan alone, some 2,341 people identified as Taliban and al Qaeda leaders have been killed, according to one authoritative account. Armed drones are increasingly active in Afghanistan as well, where they've completed 1,160 strike missions since 2009, according to the latest Air Force data. American spy drones operate globally, from the Western Pacific to Iran, where a secret U.S. spy drone was shot down last December.
But American drones are not alone in the sky. Spy drones routinely shadow U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups and other military exercises. Drones crisscross the Persian Gulf. Israeli drones have circled over Gaza during the recent fighting there. Experts say it's a rare conflict that doesn't attract spy drones; even the United Nations has considered using drones to monitor the fighting in Congo.
Using unmanned aircraft with cameras is nothing new, of course. But armed drone technology is different: the rapidly spreading technology gives attackers a new edge, whether they are clandestine terrorist gangs or global superpowers. Small and highly maneuverable, drones can befuddle air defense systems built to intercept big, lumbering aircraft.
In the dismaying history of war machinery, armed drones are a "game-changing technology, akin to gunpowder, the steam engine, the atomic bomb -- opening up possibilities that were fiction a generation earlier but also opening up perils that were unknown a generation ago," said Peter W. Singer, an expert on drone technology and its ramifications for the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank.
A new Pentagon study frets that enemy drones could be a "very serious threat" to U.S. aircraft carriers in the Pacific and elsewhere, as well as to "supply convoys and other combat support assets which have not had to deal with an airborne threat in generations." On the battlefield, an enemy could create chaos and confusion simply by flooding the airspace with drones, and any U.S. bases within drone range would have to be closed, the report said.
"For UAVs [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles], the U.S. currently has limited dedicated defensive capabilities other than fighters or surface-to-air missiles, giving the enemy a significant asymmetric cost advantage," the Pentagon's Defense Science Board report concluded in its July 2012 study.
In essence, the study suggested, armed drones are the equivalent of the Improvised Explosive Device (IED), a simple, cheap and effective weapon which has forced the U.S. to spend billions of dollars in defense while experiencing growing casualties: 1,330 Americans have been killed in Afghanistan by IEDs, including 125 so far this year.
An incident early last month dispelled any doubts about the spread of drone technology. On Oct. 6, a small unmanned aircraft flew high over Israel's Mediterranean coast, headed for its nuclear reactor at Dimona. Soaring for 35 miles through heavily guarded Israeli airspace, the intruder was eventually shot down by an Israeli F-16.
Against such small and maneuverable threats, Israel's missile defenses -- including its Arrow and Iron Dome missile defense systems, so effective against rockets fired from Gaza this month -- are less effective.
Israeli officials speculated the drone in October was on a reconnaissance mission or possibly a practice run for a later suicide attack on the nuclear site. Hezbollah, the radical Islamic militia and political party based in Lebanon, later claimed that it had assembled and launched the drone. Experts said the aircraft was in all likelihood provided by Iran, which already has operational drones and claims its newest drone, the Shahed-129, has a range of 1,250 miles. The distance from Tehran to Tel Aviv: 988 miles.
A day after Israel shot down the Hezbollah drone, an armed Israeli drone fired a missile that wounded two activists and eight passers-by in Gaza.
On Nov. 1, two Iranian jet fighters fired multiple rounds at an American Predator drone over the Persian Gulf; the spy drone was conducting "routine surveillance," Pentagon spokesman George Little explained. The drone got away unharmed.
Obama administration officials have said they are weighing various options to codify the use of armed U.S. drones, because the increased use of drones has been driven more by perceived necessity than by deliberative policy. But that effort is complicated by the wildfire spread of drone technology: how could the U.S. restrict its use of armed drones if others do not?
Already, the Pentagon is worried that China not only is engaged in an "alarming" effort to develop and field high-tech drones, but it intends to sell drone technology abroad, according to the Pentagon report.
Indeed, the momentum of the drone wars seems irresistible. "The increasing worldwide focus on unmanned systems highlights how U.S. military success has changed global strategic thinking and spurred a race for unmanned aircraft," the Pentagon study reported.
Modern drones were first perfected by Israel, but the U.S. Air Force took the first steps in 2001 to mount sophisticated drones with precision weapons. Today the U.S. fields some 8,000 drones and plans to invest $36.9 billion to boost its fleet by 35 percent over the next eight years.
Current research on next-generation drones seems certain to exacerbate the drone arms race. The U.S. and other countries are developing "nano" drones, tiny weapons designed to attack in swarms. Both the U.S. and China are working to incorporate "stealth" technology into micro drones. The Pentagon is fielding a new weapon called the Switchblade, a 5.5-pound precision-attack drone that can be carried and fired by one person -- a capability sure to be envied by terrorists.
"This is a robotics revolution, but it's not just an American revolution -- everyone's involved, from Hezbollah to paparazzi," Singer, the Brookings Institution expert, told The Huffington Post. "This is a revolution in which billions and trillions of dollars will be made. To stop it you'd have to first stop science, and then business, and then war."