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."
But neither can our adversaries—who don't need their own network of satellites and supercomputers to deploy an unmanned plane. Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson built a version of the military's hand-tossed Raven surveillance drone for $1,000, while an Arizona-based anti-immigrant group instituted its own pilotless surveillance system to monitor the U.S.-Mexico border for just $25,000. Hitler's war machine may have lacked the ability to strike the American mainland during World War II. But half a century later, a 77-year-old blind man from Canada designed an unmanned system that in 2003 hopped the Atlantic from Newfoundland to Ireland.
Today, the lag time between the development of military technology and its widespread dissemination is measured in months, not years. Industrial farmers around the world already use aerial drones to dust their crops with pesticides. And a recent U.S. Air Force study concluded that similar systems are "an ideal platform" for dirty bombs containing radioactive, chemical, or biological weapons—the type of WMDs that terrorists are most likely to obtain. Such technologies have the potential to strengthen the hand not only of Al Qaeda 2.0, but also of homegrown terror cells and disaffected loners like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. As one robotics expert told me, for less than $50,000 "a few amateurs could shut down Manhattan."
The United States has not truly had to think about its air defenses—at home or abroad—since the Cold War. But it's time it did, because our current crop of weapons isn't well suited to dealing with these new systems. Smaller UAVs' cool, battery-powered engines make them difficult to hit with conventional heat-seeking missiles; Patriot missiles can take out UAVs, but at $3 million apiece such protection comes at a very steep price. Even seemingly unsophisticated drones can have a tactical advantage: Hizbullah's primitive planes flew so slowly that Israeli F-16s stalled out trying to decelerate enough to shoot them down.
To succeed in this revolution, we need something many competitor countries already have: a national robotics strategy. That means graduate scholarships, lab funding, and a Silicon Valley–style corridor for corporate development. Otherwise we are destined to depend on the expertise of others. Already a growing number of American defense and technology firms rely on hardware from China and software from India, a clear security concern.
Equally important, we need a military and homeland-security strategy that considers not only how we use these unmanned systems but how others will use them against us. That means widening the threat scenarios our agencies plan and train for. It also means new legal regimes to determine who should have access to such dangerous technologies—lest our greatest new weapon come back to bite us.
Singer is director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution and the author of Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.