- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 10, 2013

The age of the drone is here, and U.S. intelligence agencies are warily monitoring their proliferation around the globe.

China uses them to spy on Japan near disputed islands in Asia. Turkey uses them to eyeball Kurdish activity in northern Iraq. Bolivia uses them to spot coca fields in the Andes. Iran reportedly has given them to Syria to monitor opposition rebels.

The U.S., Britain and Israel are the only nations to have fired missiles from remote-controlled drones, but the proliferation of unmanned aerial vehicles has become so prevalent that U.S. intelligence sources and private analysts say it is merely a matter of time before other countries use the technology.

“People in Washington like to talk about this as if the supposed American monopoly on drones might end one day. Well, the monopoly ended years ago,” said Peter W. Singer, who heads the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Brookings Institution.

What’s worse, clandestine strikes carried out by Washington in far-flung corners of the world have set a precedent that could be ugly.

Mr. Singer said as many as 87 nations possess some form of drones and conduct various kinds of surveillance either over their own territories or beyond. Among those 87, he said, 26 have either purchased or developed drones equivalent in size to the MQ-1 Predator — the model made by San Diego-based General Atomics.

While American Predators and their updated sister, the MQ-9 Reaper, are capable of carrying anti-armor Hellfire missiles, the clandestine nature of foreign drone programs makes it difficult to determine how many other nations have armed drones.

Defense industry and other sources who spoke with The Washington Times said 10 to 15 nations are thought to be working hard on doing just that, and China and Iran are among those with the most advanced programs.

“Global developments in the UAV arena are being tracked closely,” said one U.S. intelligence official, who spoke with The Times on the condition of anonymity. “Efforts by some countries to acquire armed UAV systems are concerning, not least because of the associated proliferation risk.”

Other sources said that while the international media have focused on the controversy and political backlash associated with civilian casualties from U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, Washington’s unprecedented success with the technology — both in targeting and killing suspected terrorists — has inspired a new kind of arms race.

“It’s natural that other nations and non-state actors, seeing the many ways the U.S. has leveraged the technology, are keen to acquire remotely piloted aircraft,” said Lt. Gen. Robert P. Otto, Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

Race to the skies

The number of nations possessing drones nearly doubled from 41 to 76 from 2005 to 2011, according to a report last year by the Government Accountability Office, which highlighted the fact that U.S. companies are no longer alone in manufacturing and marketing the technology.

“Many countries acquired their UAVs from Israel,” said the report.

It said Germany, France, Britain, India, Russia and Georgia have either leased or purchased Israeli drones, including the Heron, a model that many foreign militaries see as a good alternative to the American-made Predators and Reapers.

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