Author : Harsh V. Pant

Originally Published 2016-10-18 07:46:20 Published on Oct 18, 2016
India should get thinking on drones

A global regime to manage the use of drones is slowly being put in place. The United States of America, along with over 40 other states, issued a declaration earlier this month outlining the principles that, in their view, should govern the export and use of armed drones to ensure that they do not cause instability or help terrorism and organised crime. This declaration to establish a set of standards for the use and sale of drones has set the stage for a meeting next year to hammer out the details. While many of the allies of the US such as Britain, Germany and Australia signed the declaration, other states like France, Russia, Brazil and China did not do so. This makes it certain that the participants in next year's meeting will find it very difficult to achieve a consensus, which will be needed to set up a global regime.

The document, called the "Joint Declaration for the Export and Subsequent Use of Armed or Strike-Enabled Unmanned Aerial Vehicles," recognises that misuse of armed or strike-enabled drones "could fuel conflict and instability, and facilitate terrorism and organised crime," and therefore that "the international community must take appropriate transparency measures to ensure the responsible export and subsequent use of these systems." But it adds that such concerns should not be seen as undermining a state's "legitimate interest" to produce, export or acquire drones, thereby trying to strike a balance between global good and national interest. The declaration also underlines that international laws on armed conflict and human rights should apply to the use of armed drones, and exports should be consistent with existing multilateral export control and non-proliferation regimes.

The impact of this declaration is difficult to assess at this point, especially as two of the largest producers and exporters of drones, Israel and China, have not signed on to it. The declaration comes at a time when it has been assessed that the drone market outside the US is likely to grow from 1.08 billion dollars in 2015 to 1.98 billion dollars by 2021. While Washington is claiming that the idea behind the declaration is to ensure that drones are for the first time subject to international law and stressing the need for transparency about exports, it is clear that not everyone agrees with the American approach. Critics have complained that while the intent behind the declaration might be laudable, it does not go far enough; as one expert told Foreign Policy, "the standards in the joint declaration are lower than those that the United States maintains for its own exports and there is little incentive for countries to strive for higher standards."

Barack Obama came into office highly critical of the military conduct of the Bush administration in various conflicts, but soon found drones to be a rather useful tool in fighting wars that the American public was getting disenchanted with. Today, America's drone programme is central to the country's war-fighting capability, and its use is likely to increase in the future. Last year, the US state department formulated an export-control policy governing the commercial sale of armed drones. Yet, the US continues to use drones in a secretive manner and has been blamed for underestimating civilian deaths from the use of drones. It has been gradually expanding the number of places it will send drones and now regularly uses them to attack the Islamic State, al Qaida and other militant groups in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other countries. There are also reports that the US military is planning to spend 100 million dollars on a drone base in the northwestern African state of Niger.

Much like other global regimes, Washington has once again set the ball rolling in trying to define the parameters of the new frontier in drone technology. The US is hoping to set the rules for using this technology and to influence the behaviour of other states. But these are still early days, as important actors like China, Russia and India are yet to accede to these new rules. At a time when India is giving a serious thought to expanding the use of drones in its military strategy, and when its negotiations with the US to buy 22 Predator Guardian drones are at an advanced stage, New Delhi needs to work out what role it wants to play in the emerging regime to manage the use and export of drones. Although India has also not signed the US-led declaration, there is little thinking in New Delhi on how India might want to proceed with this technology at the global level.

While Indian armed forces are currently operating Searcher Mark I, Searcher Mark II, Heron and Herop UAVs made in Israel and the Nishant UAV made in India, they are likely to procure more than 5,000 UAVs over the next 10 years for about three billion dollars. Given the complex security challenges that India faces, the role of UAVs in providing critical intelligence will be a key enabler not only in fighting wars effectively but also in deterring cross-border terrorist attacks. Unlike in the past, as a global regime on drones is put in place, India's voice should be a determining one, not one that is marginal and in the wilderness. New Delhi should be engaging with other like-minded countries to come up with its own principles to guide the emerging global order on drones and their use. The debate has only just begun and India should be at the front and centre of this discussion so that its own interests do not get marginalised as a new regime on the use of drones is put in place.

This commentary originally appeared in The Telegraph.

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Harsh V. Pant

Harsh V. Pant

Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations ...

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