Last Thursday on The Interpreter, Jennifer Hunt outlined the considerable issues that arise in a world in which armed drones proliferate. But the proliferation of armed drones is already more advanced than her article might suggest. By some counts, up to 70 nations are pursuing them.
The announcement that the US has given approval for the weaponisation of Italian Reaper drones is significant, but not entirely unexpected. Italy is a critical partner for US drone operations, particularly since it acquired the Reaper, but also because of the importance its Sicilian NATO airbase Sigonella assumed during the 2011 Libyan campaign. From this location Italy has flown Reaper missions in support of Operation Mare Nostrum, the mission to rescue migrants sailing north from Africa. Italy has also hosted Global Hawk operations from Sigonella. By transferring Hellfire missile capability to Italy, the US builds capacity in a trusted NATO partner with the geographic access necessary to contribute to operations in both the Middle East and North Africa.
Perhaps as part of a broader tilt to federated defence, the US is on a trajectory to build armed drone capacity with a number of trusted partners (here's a US Air Force view of drone use in the next 25 years). It also sees the use of long range drones such as Triton and Global Hawk in global terms (see the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance concept here). Australia is a critical partner in this. The Royal Australian Air Force will soon acquire the MQ-4 Triton drone for maritime operations, and earlier this year the Chief of Air Force declared an intent to pursue the acquisition of up to eight armed Reaper drones in the Defence White Paper currently before government. [fold]
In Senate Estimates testimony in April, defence officials addressed the implications of wider and more active use of weaponised remotely piloted aircraft. Jennifer Hunt is right to draw attention to Micah Zenko's excellent work on the problems associated with the use of drones; his 2010 book on discrete military operations remains the best analysis of the moral hazards of the use of remote weaponry. One of his surprising findings is that civilian national security officials are more entranced with this technology than uniformed military, and have a higher appetite to use drone strikes.
To the countries already using armed drones that Jennifer listed, add another name: Iraq.
Only a few weeks ago, footage emerged of Iraq's newest acquisition, a Chinese-manufactured armed drone, ready to join operations against ISIS. My former colleague David Schafer has written extensively on the advanced state of Chinese global drone sales; the main takeaway is that they are substantial, growing, and occurring outside existing arms control regimes.
All of this means increased proliferation of armed drones is not merely a risk, it's already happening. So embedding ethics into organisations that use them is a pressing concern, one made even more pressing given that military forces are already migrating weapons systems from remotely controlled to lethally autonomous. This talk by science fiction author Daniel Suarez (embedded above) transverses some of the issues that lethal autonomy creates. And for a chilling vision of where things might eventually end up, you won't find a better read than Suarez's Kill Decision.