Drone Wars Coming to a Theater Near You

According to Defense One news, every country could have armed drones within the next ten years. Every one. What will that mean for global security?

Nations from Azerbaijan to Zambia will be able to deploy drones rather than troops to assert national interests. The barriers to entry for global conflict will diminish significantly.

Will China, Vietnam, or the Philippines use armed drones to settle disputes over islands or fishing rights in the South China Sea?

Will anti-American foes launch strikes against the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain or against U.S. oil interests in Nigeria? What if non-state actors, like any of the al-Qaeda brands, obtain armed drone technology?

Will China kill the Muslim minority Uighur population in its country as alleged militants? Will Russia sow more unrest in former Soviet bloc countries through drone operations?

How will nuclear powers like India and Pakistan respond to drone threats against each other? Which nation -- Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon or Niger -- would launch strikes across borders against the Boko Haram for their abduction and killing of schoolgirls?

Could a third world war be launched by armed drone attacks by Iran, or another nation, against Israel?

This is serious stuff, and it is moving quickly from the realm of theoretical to real. There are still impediments to the use of armed drones that may impede the alarming claim that all nations could possess drones in ten years. Drone strikes are only as effective as intelligence on the ground, and on surveillance and operational capacities at the home base. Both intelligence and operational capacity may be much more difficult for nations to obtain. The threat, though, deserves attention.

The United States is setting the precedent for drone attacks, but it is not clear what the precedent is. The world needs clarity -- and soon.

Senator Rand Paul is leading the charge for greater transparency, placing a hold on the federal judicial nomination of David Barron in exchange for greater information about the drone program. Mr. Barron allegedly wrote at least two of the Justice Department memos on the lethal targeting of an American citizen and accused terrorist in Yemen, Anwar al-Alawki, whom the U.S. killed in a drone strike in 2012. The U.S. should make public not only the legal rationale for targeting American citizens abroad, but for all strikes.

Drones are really just another weapons platform, and nations must follow laws governing the use of lethal force in and outside armed conflict. Nations cannot lawfully target and kill suspected terrorists unless they pose an imminent threat to that nation, or unless that nation is at war and the target is directly participating in hostilities, or in a continuous combat function. The U.S. has never said it is at war in Yemen, and the U.S. attacks on a wedding party and other civilians have left observers deeply concerned about U.S. actions and their repercussions. If every country takes up armed drones, the rules of use must be clear.

Nations might agree that armed drones in war or to counter imminent threats present no greater concern than any other weapons platform. Some nations could launch missiles at the U.S. or its allies now, but do not for a variety of geopolitical reasons. Would the conflicts in Syria, South Sudan or the Central African Republic change significantly because of the new weapons platform?

The temptation to use drones, though, may be too great. Armed drones can inflict damage at pennies on the dollar and without troops on the ground. Armed drones could level the playing field significantly, which is not to say others would possess the same firepower as the United States, but others would have the ability to inflict some level of first strike damage that no one would find acceptable.

Perhaps the proliferations of drones combined with the temptation to deploy them is so great, that the community of nations must develop a treaty banning armed drones as they have for chemical weapons.

Banning armed drones would not mean banning all unmanned aerial vehicles. Surveillance drones may be acceptable for both counterterrorism and humanitarian purposes. Mapping war movements or law enforcement operations through surveillance could reduce casualties and improve security. Surveying land after natural disasters could speed up the delivery of food, medicine and recovery equipment.

Perhaps the billion dollar question is whether allowing all countries to hold armed drones increases the likelihood of war or détente. A serious conversation about drones needs to start -- now.