A 'Hunter' Unmanned Aerial System's controller is displayed at the U.S. military base in Vilseck-Grafenwoehr, October 8, 2013.
Michaela Rehle / Courtesy Reuters

The United States has never had a monopoly on drones. It was the Israeli Air Force’s use of drones during its war in Lebanon in the 1980s that first prompted a skeptical U.S. military to support fully the development of remote-controlled systems. The decision to arm them came later, during the hunt for Osama bin Laden after 2001 and the war on terrorism. By now, U.S. drone strikes are a regular occurrence in areas where terrorist organizations have taken root.

Drone technology and drone use have also proliferated in other countries. And even more are seeking to develop their own systems. These systems are likely to be more local affairs than those of the United States. Most of the emerging drone states -- including China -- lack the United States’ worldwide network of military bases and satellites, which allow it to operate drones far from its own borders. And, like the United States, emerging drones states are eager to develop armed drones for counterterrorism operations and surveillance. With more drones in more places come more security and policy challenges for the United States. To deal with them, it will have to come up with a new drone policy.

The tensions between China and Japan over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands are a good example of how drones introduce new diplomatic questions. Chinese manned and unmanned surveillance flights routinely violate Japan’s 12-nautical-mile zone around the islands. Japan has dispatched fighter jets to intercept a Chinese manned surveillance plane and is reported to have even contemplated shooting down Chinese drones. In response, Wang Hongguang, the former deputy commander of China’s Nanjing Military Region, wrote in early November that China should attack Japanese manned planes should Japan shoot down Chinese surveillance drones. Things have become even tenser since China declared a so-called Air Defense Identification Zone over part of the East China Sea. Japan’s Nikkei reports that the United States plans to use Global Hawk drones for surveillance in the area in conjunction with increased Japanese manned E-2C Hawkeye early-warning aircraft.

Although there has always been a risk of unintended escalation in the East China Sea, the emergence of unmanned systems adds a new twist. For example, the 2001 aerial collision near Hainan Island in the South China Sea involved manned aircraft operating in international airspace. The American plane was flying a surveillance mission when two Chinese fighter jets began to tail it. One of the Chinese fighter jets accidently bumped the U.S. plane, prompting an emergency landing at a Chinese military facility on Hainan Island. China then detained the U.S. crew and inspected the plane, despite warnings that the aircraft was U.S. sovereign territory. The incident touched off a diplomatic row between two great world powers and was an early diplomatic test for the recently elected George W. Bush administration.

The rules of engagement are relatively clear for the intentional downing of a manned aircraft, but the potential response to the shooting down of an unmanned system -- as Japan seems ready to do -- is far murkier. On the one hand, such an act could escalate and lead to a conflict. On the other, since downing a drone would pose no danger to human life, China or Japan could conclude that the provocative use of drones -- or the intentional targeting of U.S. drones -- carries less risk of retaliation and is therefore a low-stakes means of coercion.

That idea is not so far off base: In the Persian Gulf, Iran has fired on U.S. drones and was even successful in spoofing the Global Positioning System (GPS) signal of the advanced RQ-170 drone flying over its territory. An Iranian engineer told The Christian Science Monitor, “By putting noise [jamming] on the communications, you force the bird into autopilot. This is where the bird loses its brain.” The U.S. Government Accountability Office has acknowledged the risk of GPS spoofing and recommends the introduction of spoof-resistant navigation systems on drones.

In the Gulf, the United States has sporadically opted to escort its surveillance drones with manned fighter jets, which raises the cost of such operations as well as the risk of escalation. Absent a clear norm on the response to shooting down an unmanned system, incidents involving drones could snowball quickly. And that is why the United States should develop a clear policy about the targeting of drones. It should be designed to prevent unintended escalation by defining the cost of provocatively using or targeting unmanned systems. These rules would need to apply to all parties, including the United States.

First, the United States should signal that it would hold the operator responsible for the actions of unmanned systems. Any retaliation need not target the actual operator, given the complexity of locating the pilot, but could include the air base from which the drone was launched. The goal would be to reintroduce the prospect of casualties and escalation into the drone equation by clearly laying out the potential American response if an adversary considers using unmanned systems in a coercive way against the United States or its allies and partners. In short, U.S. policy should be to treat drones like their manned cousins. Similarly, in the cases where a potential adversary targets a U.S. drone, Washington should make clear that it regards such an act as akin to the downing of a manned aircraft. The response, therefore, could include the use of force or strong diplomatic action.

In setting out this policy, the United States would tacitly accept that its own drone program could invite retaliation and that bases from which it flies drones could be targeted. Yet in most cases, the United States receives overflight rights for its drone operations, which should thereby protect the United States from potential retaliation from the countries in which it currently uses drones. The policy would, therefore, weigh more heavily on new drone-operating nations while keeping in place many of the United States’ own drone programs.

Holding drone bases responsible could help minimize the ways in which emerging drone states use drones coercively against U.S. interests, as well as push them to reach similar overflight arrangements to those that the United States keeps with its partners. The new policy would not address the legality of targeted killings, but such legal questions can be dealt with separately.

The United States should begin to prepare for a world in which it no longer has a monopoly on drone technology. Still, it should do so knowing that, for now, it will retain the unique capability to use military force on a global scale. For the foreseeable future, potential adversaries will mostly use unmanned systems locally and in ways that affect the security of U.S. allies. As the United States increases its own use of drones, it should be taking steps to map out a strategy to respond to provocations. Doing so would help establish new norms for everyone.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • AARON STEIN is an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.