The splendidly quotable title quote - "Clearly, drones are the future for dull or dangerous missions" - comes from Dan Jangblad , chief strategy officer for Sweden's aerospace company, Saab AB, by way of an article in today's Wall Street Journal (David Pearson, October 9, 2013, B6, likely behind paywall), "Europe's Elusive Drone Push." The article walks through the current state of European research and development, manufacture, and general account of European aerospace and defense manufacturers trying to get themselves, and European governments, into the rapidly business of drones, and military drones especially.
The paradox is that European manufacturers are at the cutting edge of drone technological developments in large drones - not just fixed wing aircraft, but also helicopters - but far behind in developing markets for them, largely because of lack of front end R&D support and back end orders from European governments. A demonstration flight of an unmanned military helicopter by Franco-German company Eurocopter
for local media showed that European aerospace companies are still at the cutting edge of technologies to develop large drones—the unmanned aerial vehicles that are playing an ever-increasing role over hostile territory. Their capacity to hover in the air for over a day allows them to tirelessly watch enemy movements, providing valuable surveillance and tactical support to troops on the ground. But a tally of unmanned aircraft owned by various European air forces tells a different story: all the large and advanced drones in service in Europe were imported from the U.S. or Israel.
But as the WSJ chart (above) shows, "all" large and advanced drones in service in Europe is a tiny number compared to the US - and very rapidly that will be true of others in Asia as well. Moreover, drones in service in European militaries are typically only surveillance drones, and equipped with far less advanced avionics, automation, and - perhaps most crucially - sensor arrays than equivalent US or Israeli drones (whether surveillance or weaponized). That accounts for much of the "demand" gap - Europe's militaries haven't made serious procurement commitments until recently, when European operations in Libya and Mali made clear that this was, in the words of the French defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, at the time of the initial French intervention in Mali against Islamist forces there, "incomprehensible." As the New York Times reported on February 20, 2013:
One of the most shocking lessons for him from Mali, Mr. Le Drian said, was the lack of French surveillance drones, which he called “incomprehensible.” France has only two drones in theater, he said. “A country with aeronautical skills, that makes good airplanes and that did not anticipate what surveillance and intelligence will look like tomorrow — or even combat!” he said. France “did not anticipate and refused to make this choice — but this doesn’t date from today but from 5 or 10 years ago. I have asked that someone explain the story to me so I understand why we didn’t do it, since, really, we should have.” Perhaps the problem was national pride and a refusal to buy American? “I’m trying to remedy this impasse and this pride,” he said. “It’s a real question for us.”
Minister Le Drian's "two drones" in Mali are not enough provide 24/7 surveillance of the kind that monitoring the movements of insurgent forces across a vast terrain requires. Moreover, the WSJ says that of France's total fleet - four aging, out of date UAVs - one is currently out of commission. France plans to "quadruple" its surveillance drone fleet; this means, however - viewed from Minister Le Drian's desk - that buying American is not so much a matter of pride as need, now. America and Israel are where supply meet demand. The delicate dance of defense R&D to provide investment capital at the beginning, along with the commitment of aircraft orders at the other end, comes too late - a decade at least has been lost to Europe. Moreover, industry executives tell the Journal that the "absence of a pan-European, cooperative approach—no single country has a budget to create its own program—raises the risk that emerging competition from countries like China, South Africa and Turkey will move into the empty space." Inevitably your own aeronautical industrial and design base suffers - not just in military aircraft, of course, but across the board. Everyone understands that drones are going to transform much of aviation over the next several decades, and Europe finds itself behind in several key drone sectors at the level of production, even as its designs are in some vital areas cutting edge.
Neither today's WSJ article nor the February 2013 NYT article takes up the question of how much European civil society and anti-drone campaigning has affected the willingness of European defense ministries either to buy military drones or engage in developing them. One can only speculate as to those effects, but European defense ministry officials and their lawyers appear actively to be grappling with the legal, policy, moral and legitimacy arguments that surround drones and targeted killing by the United States. Seeking to understand those arguments does not mean agreeing with them, but they do want to know what they are, partly to formulate positions for themselves, their view of the applicable law for themselves, and partly to see whether, how, and to what extent cooperation with the US is possible in NATO operations. They seek to fill in three conceptual categories: where their legal views on lawful targets are the same as the US; where they are different but functionally reconcilable so to be able to operate according to their own views, but still cooperating directly with the US in operations; and where they are simply irreconcilable with American legal view, in both legal theory and operational practice, to such an extent that there is no genuine possibility of a parallel legal track leading to approximately the same practical result. European governments have to reach their own internal legal and policy views on these new technologies, and also face important skepticism in their parliaments as to the use or development of military drones; defense ministries seek to understand these arguments, in order to determine, articulate, and defend their own positions.
That involves understanding, however, why Europe's militaries need to deploy - as a humanitarian and ethical matter - both surveillance and weaponized drones in some, even many, missions where lack of alternatives means that they now use manned attack aircraft. French and British 2011 air operations over Libya are case-in-point. After Qadaffi fell, NYT reporters C.J. Chivers and Eric Schmitt tried to get answers from NATO about civilian casualties there; NATO initially brushed them off entirely, even when presented with a lengthy list of civilian casualty incidents from NATO air strikes. NATO eventually grudgingly admitted that there might have been, but declined to undertake any investigation. The reporters were not, note, claiming that any of these incidents was illegal, let alone a war crime - the real question, or at least my question arising from their list, was whether even lawful targeting could have been made still more precise using drones in both surveillance and missile strikes.
It is unlikely that it would not have been improved; whether by a lot or a little is hard to assess. Not long after the air campaign opened, and the Obama administration had said that it was "leading from behind" and so not providing direct, overt military assets over Libyan airspace, the head of NATO was urgently calling on the US to provide surveillance drones to improve targeting abilities of European manned attack jets. But the reality is that tactically it made little sense to use a surveillance drone to locate a moving target, and then call in manned aircraft requiring precious tactical minutes - by which time the target might have moved or civilians have shifted. The obvious thing was to weaponize the drone.
Meanwhile, however, campaigning organizations - in the US and elsewhere, but strongest by far in their impact in Europe - darkly warn that as weaponized drones spread, the US will reap what it has sown through its targeted killing policies, and come to regret its arrogant exercise of special power privileges. This is not a persuasive claim, I would say, or an accurate characterization of the US position. The US does not believe that it is merely availing itself of a technology to which, for a time, it has held special access, and law must conform to its special privileges. On the contrary, the US sees its use of drone warfare and targeted killing as both lawful and good policy, and this in large part because the US sees the situation as an armed conflict and legally constrained existing law of targeting. One might disagree - as many do, including some European allies, campaigning groups, and the ICRC - with parts of the US interpretation of those rules, particularly who can be targeted and when, but it is a legally defensible, articulated position that adheres to (and develops in the context of new technology) long-held US positions on targeting law.
With respect to others such as China, Russia, or others, however, the US is not claiming special privileges of power here - "just because we can." The US government appears perfectly happy to say that if other governments actually follow these targeting standards, it does not have a problem as a matter of the laws of war - including China or other potential state adversaries. The possibility that China and other states would somehow not have marched ahead to develop so important a civilian (and not just military), technology as drone aircraft just because the United States somehow did not do so is far-fetched at best. (I leave for another post the question of whether possible drone military encounters over islands contested between China and Japan are better or worse than the alternative encounters.)
It is finally hard to say, save by speculation, how much campaigning efforts to stigmatize a weapon and governments that acquire it actually impact government policies - especially when the technology is going to be transformative in so many ways that military uses will be only one part. Still, I would guess that the impact in Europe has been to slow down - not stop, but slow, and possibly fatally so, from a "business model" standpoint - the European defense establishment's development of military drone technology. In that sense it is speculative, yes, but an important missing link in the account of the business of European military drones that the WSJ article describes. But the result today is exactly what the article describes: from the standpoint of having a home-grown military drone technological base, as well as actually possessing drones and especially the latest technologies, Europe is left in the position of playing catchup.