Courtesy Reuters

Sarah Kreps and Micah Zenko (“The Next Drone Wars,” March/April 2014) argue that the proliferation of armed drones is undesirable but not inevitable. To prevent the spread of such weapons, they say, Washington should limit its own exports of the technology and create a multilateral arms control regime.

Yet the existing rules governing U.S. drone exports are already very restrictive, and other countries have fielded, can field, and will field the technology without U.S. assistance. (China and Israel come to mind in this respect.) Moreover, Washington now has an opportunity to use its exports to shape emerging global norms concerning drone use and improve U.S. security by sharing an important capability with its allies and partners.

As the U.S. defense budget shrinks, Washington needs its allies and partners to help shoulder more of the cost of collective security. For example, the United States is set to lose surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities as a result of defense cuts. By exporting interoperable military equipment, such as armed drones, to allies such as France and Italy, Washington can be assured of more assistance in these areas.

U.S. drone exports come with the strongest safeguards in the world, as well as training on their safe and responsible use. Combined with more transparent policies concerning its own drone use, Washington can use its training programs and export regulations to help ensure that desirable norms surrounding drone use emerge. And by exporting such weapons to close allies and partners that are already members of the Missile Technology Control Regime, Washington can reinforce that existing arms control framework.

With or without U.S. assistance, other countries will build drones for their own purposes and in their own ways. As discoveries of several downed unmanned vehicles have recently shown, even a country as isolated as North Korea can build sophisticated unmanned systems. The commercial nature of robotics technology today, combined with the spread of global positioning systems and simple rockets and missiles, means that many countries -- and even nonstate groups and individuals -- will soon be able to build or acquire their own armed drones. 

Focusing diplomatic efforts on limiting the spread of a single type of drone -- of the sort operated by the United States today -- will simply drive states toward other drone technologies. And in that case, Washington will have far less influence over how the weapons are used.

Senior Fellow, Center for Strategic and International Studies

Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania