(Introduction to an essay in the The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Spring/Summer 2013)
Drones are proliferating at home in the United States and abroad. Our world now includes more than 300 drone breeds—including Predators, Reapers, Shadow Warriors, Avengers, Peregrines, Killer Bees, and Global Hawks—with new breeds and hybrids appearing almost weekly. The steadily rising proportion of the military budgets dedicated to drone procurement and the rapidly expanding global market for drones are leading indicators of their proliferation. Drones are proliferating so rapidly, even before a consensus about their formal name has formed. The most common designation is unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), although unmanned aerial systems (UASs) is also commonly used.
Most of the attention on and concern about drone proliferation has focused on the clandestine strikes by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and U.S. military outside our own hemisphere. At home, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is deploying unarmed versions of the Predators drones used in Pakistan and in an increasing number of other countries. Initially used solely for border security, DHS has steadily expanded the mission and geographical scope of drone operations, raising new concerns about the absence of democratic governance—and about the lack of transparency and accountability.
This boon in drone research, purchasing, and deployment far outpaces the incipient initiatives to enact rules and laws to regulate this new technology. The accelerating advance of unmanned systems technology only partially explains the lack of accompanying governance frameworks. For decades, drones have been bred almost entirely for the military and security complexes of the United States and other nations— notably Israel—as highly classified projects for clandestine missions. The lack of national and international governance over drones can also be attributed to mutually beneficial relationships between drone manufacturers and politicians.
That technology outpaces regulatory frameworks is to be expected. Yet the gap between governance and drone proliferation is particularly worrisome in the case of the rapid advance of unmanned systems at home and abroad, given that drones are primarily used for surveillance and killings. Drones will likely continue to play an ever-greater role in our society and our world. Thus, to ensure that these unmanned systems are deployed in ways that contribute to international peace and security, to prevent drones from dangerously undermining our privacy and civil rights, and to make certain that drones respond to democratic governance, a system of national laws and regulations as well as international ones is required—and currently is nowhere to be found.