A fast growing club: Countries that use drones for killing by remote control
The targeting crosshairs are focused on a dark building, tucked in the trees, when a missile dropped from the wings streaks down and the suspected terrorist base explodes in a fireball.
The grainy video might appear to be another U.S. drone strike, but this was a Nigerian military crew operating a Chinese-built Rainbow drone against Boko Haram, an extremist militia allied with Islamic State, in northeastern Nigeria’s remote Sambisa Forest on Feb. 2.
Nigeria thus joined the small but fast-growing club of countries — six so far, including three since September — using armed drones for targeted killing by remote control.
The United States and Britain fly U.S.-made armed MQ-1 Predators or MQ-9 Reapers, and Israel builds its own. But the three newcomers — Nigeria, Pakistan and Iraq — all took advantage of China’s growing exports of the unmanned aircraft systems that are reshaping modern warfare.
That worries some military analysts, who see China as undermining U.S. attempts to control a technology that gives poorer countries a relatively inexpensive bombing system that, critics say, lowers the threshold for using lethal force at a distance.
The “efforts to control the spread of drones will be relatively meaningless in the face of China’s relative promiscuity when it comes to selling drones,” said Sarah Kreps, a Cornell University professor who studies weapons proliferation. “China’s drones seem especially attractive to countries that have … been rebuffed by the U.S.”
China is “engaged in an ambitious effort” to sell drones in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, said Ian Easton, a research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute, which is based in Arlington, Va., and tracks security issues in Asia.
A total of 78 countries now deploy surveillance drones. More than 20, including the six named above, either have or are developing armed drones, according to the New America Foundation, a nonprofit public policy institute in Washington that tracks the industry.
Some nations, including Russia and Iran, designed and built their own missile-firing drone fleets. Others, including India and Jordan, reportedly bought theirs from Israel.
“It is a good illustration of how this technology has gone global,” said Peter W. Singer, a fellow at New America and author of “Wired for War,” a book on robotic warfare. “What was recently considered abnormal is the new normal of technology and war.”
All the major forces in Syria’s civil war now use drones, for example. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces, Russia, Iran and Islamic State militants all have flown unmanned aircraft the size of large model planes to reconnoiter targets, while the U.S. and Britain have operated giant Reaper surveillance and killer drones.
The U.S. is by far the most prolific user of drones. Independent groups say more than 500 U.S. military and CIA drone strikes have killed about 3,800 militants, about 400 civilians, and at least eight Americans, in seven countries over the last decade.
Most U.S. military drone exports are limited by the Missile Technology Control Regime, a 1987 international accord meant to limit the spread of ballistic missiles.
The State Department agreed in February 2015 to relax those Cold War-era restrictions, although with a “strong presumption of denial.” Each sale requires congressional approval under the foreign military sales program, and only two foreign sales have gone through in recent months.
On Feb. 17, approval was granted to sell four unarmed Reapers, each equipped with sophisticated sensors and radars, to Spain. In November, the U.S. approved Italy’s long-pending request to arm its two Reaper drones with Hellfire missiles and laser-guided bombs.
David McKeeby, a spokesman for the State Department’s bureau of political and military affairs, said the U.S. policy is to try to ensure future sales aren’t high risk.
“Moving forward, the United States intends to work with foreign partners to develop international standards for the sale, transfer and use of military [drones] more broadly,” he said.
The issue is closely watched in Southern California. Northrop Grumman Corp. and Lockheed Martin Corp. assemble surveillance drones in Palmdale, while General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. builds Predator and Reaper drones in Poway.
China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., a state-owned entity, has found a ready market for its medium-altitude, long-distance drones since 2011, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Sweden that documents the global arms trade.
China has sold at least five armed CH-3 drones to Nigeria, four to Iraq and an unknown number of larger CH-4 drones to Pakistan, the institute says. The CH stands for caihong, or rainbow.
The CH-3 is a stubby-looking plane with a 26-foot wingspan and a propeller in the back. The CH-4 appears to be a copy of the American-made Reaper, with a bulbous nose, a 60-foot wingspan and a V tail fin.
“There is increasing demand around the world for this technology and China is seizing on it,” Pieter Wezeman, a researcher at the Stockholm institute, said in a telephone interview. “China does not have political restraints to sell arms. So when they see an opportunity, they will take it.”
The proliferation became obvious last year.
On Sept. 6, Pakistani military spokesman Gen. Asim Bajwa announced on Twitter that the army had launched its first drone strike to kill three “high-profile terrorists” in North Waziristan, a tribal area in northwestern Pakistan.
Bajwa said the attack involved a Pakistani-made Burraq aircraft, named after the winged horse that Muslims say transported the prophet Muhammad from Mecca. But U.S. defense analysts say it was a CH-3 from China.
Three months later, on Dec. 6, the Iraqi military announced that it had used a Chinese CH-4 drone during the offensive to retake the city of Ramadi from Islamic State militants.
The first sign of Nigeria’s CH-3 drone fleet emerged in January last year when one crashed, and photos of the debris appeared online. The next was this month’s airstrike against the Boko Haram camp in the forest.
The Pentagon expressed no qualms about that attack.
“We are not concerned about [Nigerian government forces] having this technology,” said Lt. Cmdr. Anthony Falvo, spokesman for U.S. Africa Command, “as long as it is applied in a responsible manner and solely in an effort to better secure their borders against violent or illegal activities that disrupt stability or present a danger to their overall security.”
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