Strategic Effects of Proliferating Military UAVs in the Asia Pacific Region

By Kenneth Anderson
Friday, June 24, 2016, 2:44 PM

Although drone warfare to date has overwhelmingly been analyzed in the context of US operations against non-state actors - Al Qaeda or affiliated groups or, more recently, ISIS - much of the impact of drones on warfare is likely to come in the markedly different environment of state-to-state conflict (or near conflict) in the Asia Pacific ocean. The conflict environment, not to put too fine a point on it, of China versus, well, everyone or anyone else in the waters that China regards as its near-abroad and everyone one else regards as, more or less, the high seas.

The strategic, policy, and legal issues are radically different in this setting, of course, than they are in the setting of targeted killing of discrete terrorists as individuals or small groups, or else as an alternative air platform in conventional land warfare. The Asia Pacific setting for the use of UAVs has been given far less attention than it merits. So a new report by Kelley Sayler, an associate fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) is very welcome - “The Promise of Unmanned Systems in the Asia Pacific,” May 2016. The report is a short, well-sourced read, with several striking policy recommendations. (CNAS, it’s worth noting for those who don’t know its work, has emerged as one of the most important policy shops in national and international security, and produces much of the best policy work on autonomous weapons, UAVs in conflict, and technology and weapons generally.)

Abstract: In this paper, CNAS Associate Fellow Kelley Sayler analyzes the proliferation of unmanned systems—particularly UAVs—within the framework of the increasingly contentious issue of area-denial/anti-access weapon systems in the Asia-Pacific generally, and in China’s near-abroad specifically. Contending that current UAV platforms are inadequate against well-equipped militaries (as opposed to nonstate actors), Sayler overviews development programs and emerging technologies that would benefit the United States both as standalone elements, and as a means to enhance legacy systems for the changing threat environment. Sayler concludes that current restrictions on exports of armed and/or stealthy UAVs degrade the capacity of even trusted allies to share the burden of wartime ISR capability in the Asia-Pacific and thus simplifies potential enemies’ targeting calculus.