Defending against Drones

Article excerpt

Byline: P. W. Singer

How our new favorite weapon in the war on terror could soon be turned against us.

The unmanned spy plane that Lebanon's Hizbullah sent buzzing over Israeli towns in 2005 was loud and weaponless, and carried only a rudimentary camera. But the surprise flight by a regional terror group still worried U.S. analysts, who saw it as a sign that the unmanned vehicles were falling into the wrong hands.

Today that concern appears to have been well founded. At least 40 other countries--from Belarus and Georgia to India, Pakistan, and Russia--have begun to build, buy, and deploy unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, showcasing their efforts at international weapons expos ranging from the premier Paris Air Show to smaller events in Singapore and Bahrain. In the last six months alone, Iran has begun production on a pair of weapons-ready surveillance drones, while China has debuted the Pterodactyl and Sour Dragon, rivals to America's Predator and Global Hawk. All told, two thirds of worldwide investment in unmanned planes in 2010 will be spent by countries other than the United States.

You wouldn't know it to hear U.S. officials talk. Jim Tuttle, the Department of Homeland Security official responsible for safeguarding America against nonnuclear weapons, downplays the idea that drones could be used against us. "What terrorist is going to have a Predator?" he scoffed at a conference last winter. More recently, The Wall Street Journal reported, the U.S. ignored a dangerous flaw in its UAV technology that allowed Iraqi insurgents to tap into the planes' video feeds using $30 software purchased over the Internet.

Such arrogance is setting us up for a fall. Just as we once failed to imagine terrorists using our own commercial aircraft against us, we are now underestimating the threat posed by this new wave of technology. We must prepare for a world in which foreign robotics rivals our own, and terrorists can deliver deadly explosives not just by suicide bomber but also by unmanned machine.

The ease and affordability of such technology, much of which is already available for purchase commercially, means that drones will inevitably pass into the wrong hands, allowing small groups and even individuals to wield power once limited to the world's great militaries. There is, after all, no such thing as a permanent, first-mover advantage--not in technology, and certainly not in war. The British may have invented the tank during World War I, but the Germans wielded it better in the blitzkrieg more than two decades later.

For now, however, America remains at the forefront of the robotics revolution--superiority that has come at considerable effort and expense. We've channeled billions into UAVs, initiating what has been called the largest shift in military tactics, strategy, and doctrine since the invention of gunpowder. This year the Pentagon will buy more unmanned aircraft than manned, and train more UAV pilots than traditional bomber and fighter pilots combined. As Gen. David Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, put it in January, "We can't get enough drones. …