This story was co-published with the Daily Beast.
U.S. military forces face a growing threat from sophisticated and often deadly drones, due to the broad proliferation of related weapons and surveillance technologies that until recently have largely been in the hands of friendly countries, according to a new report prepared for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The global spread of these technologies was supposed to be controlled by a system of export controls created by the West to block the spread of advanced missiles, but that system has failed to obstruct the development of drones that have potent surveillance and destructive power by potential American adversaries, the report says.
Countries like China, Russia, Iran, and even the United Arab Emirates are not only producing lethal drones but in some cases exporting both the drones and their underlying technologies.
While the most capable military drones have been used by only around ten countries until now, that number is about to expand, analysts at the RAND Corporation state in their 70-page report to Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, Jr., the Joint Chiefs chairman.
China is building a factory in Saudi Arabia meant to produce CH-4 drones that can loiter for at least 14 hours while carrying antiarmor missiles and heat sensors, and is offering to erect drone factories elsewhere, such as Pakistan and Myanmar, the report notes. China may also use the factory to make better CH-5 drones capable of carrying precision-guided missiles for as long as 39 hours.
In an illustration of how routine such deployments have become, Chinese CH-4s are already stationed at the Saudi’s Jirzan Regional airport, near U.S. Predator drones owned by UAE that are operating from the same airbase, according to satellite photos analyzed by experts at Bard College. The Emirates, meanwhile, are selling drones of their own to Russia while also offering coproduction opportunities to other countries. Germany and possibly Italy are moving towards the production and export of similar advanced drones.
“The proliferation of large UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] is accelerating,” said the June 14 report, “Assessment of the Proliferation of Certain Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems,” which was ordered by Congress.
The size of these drones gives them the capability to carry weapons of mass destruction, such as nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. But RAND’s Cyber and Intelligence Policy Center, which did the study for the Pentagon, says those uses are less likely than simply conducting advanced surveillance of U.S. forces before the outbreak of war.
Large drones are especially useful in monitoring the movement of troops and equipment near coastlines or borders, and at sea, or keeping track of “personnel and equipment readiness” on the eve of conflict, the report said. Drones of this type – like the Predator, Reaper and Global Hawk used by the United States for years in the Middle East and Africa -- “can carry larger sensors, providing better data and longer standoff distance, and can carry more munitions,” the report said.