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February 5, 2016

To Slow Armed Drone Spread, U.S. Should Set an Example, Report Finds

In this undated handout image supplied by Dassault Aviation on June 12, the technical team for the six European countries that have been working as a single unified team in Istres, France to achieve the nEUROn armed drone final assembly. (Dassault Aviation - Stroppa via Getty Images)

In this undated handout image supplied by Dassault Aviation on June 12, the technical team for the six European countries that have been working as a single unified team in Istres, France to achieve the nEUROn armed drone final assembly. (Dassault Aviation – Stroppa via Getty Images)

The United States is the most prolific user of armed drones in the world. That puts it in a position prevent widespread proliferation of them elsewhere, a Council on Foreign Relations report announced Friday concludes.

And it’s worth worrying about, because drones have the ability that some other technologies do not to contribute to strife.

“The unique ability of drones to hover for long periods over a target and react quickly to strike opportunities, all with no risk to a pilot, means, the authors believe, that they will be deployed more frequently than other armed assets,” the foreword to the report reads. “This has the potential to raise the number of armed interactions among states and increase — perhaps dangerously — the costs of misinterpretation and miscalculation on the part of governments.”

The report acknowledges that it’s not easy to determine the degree to which armed drones are spreading right now, because of government secrecy in some countries and bold, unproven claims by others about their capabilities — but points to known examples of where it’s happening, of countries besides the United States selling them and examples of where countries are trying to develop their own armed drones. And it acknowledges that there are “high barriers to entry for some countries that wish to join the armed drone market.” (Another recent scholarly examination of the subject suggests that those barriers are so high as to make widespread drone proliferation unlikely for a long while.)

But the United States can lead the world in several regards on the pace of armed drone proliferation and nature of their use.

The report recommends that the United States become more open about its use of armed drones in a bevy of specific ways.

In February 2014, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said, regarding armed drones, “I would hope, as other countries acquire similar capabilities, that they follow the model that we have for the care and precision that we exercise.” Though this supposed model could serve as a good precedent, it remains largely a secret, thereby leaving a precedent of minimal transparency and a lack of justification for drone strikes.

And as a drone manufacturer, the United States also could set high standards for their export, the report recommends.

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