Drone incident should be a wake-up call for the world's militaries

The US and the Soviets signed deals to avoid accidental Cold War conflict. UAVs need a similar approach

An American MQ-9 Reaper drone on a training mission in Nevada. AFP
Powered by automated translation

In 1986, Tom Cruise, in his role as US pilot Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell in Top Gun, intercepts a Soviet warplane, flying upside down at high speed as his co-pilot takes a mocking Polaroid of their Russian nemesis.

Were that incident to be recreated today, the daredevil romance of the stunt would be blunted by the likelihood that the Americans would be facing an automated drone, indifferent to the antics of a human pilot.

This week’s reported confrontation between two Russian warplanes and a US drone over the Black Sea shows how crowded the skies have become with unmanned aerial vehicles – and how the risk of conflict at global flashpoints is increasing. It also reveals the need to develop protocols governing countries’ safe use of military drones.

The facts surrounding the alleged incident are disputed. Washington said a collision with one of its MQ-9 drones took place after “two Russian Su-27 aircraft conducted an unsafe and unprofessional” encounter with the US device. However, the Ministry of Defence in Moscow said the drone flew over the Black Sea in the direction of Russia's border, and that its transponders were turned off, adding that its fighters did not come into contact with the MQ-9.

What is not disputed, however, is that drones have changed modern warfare. Although radio-controlled craft were used in the First and Second World Wars, it was not until the Vietnam War that such devices were deployed on a large scale, used by US forces for reconnaissance, propaganda drops and, on occasion, missile strikes.

After the 9/11 attacks, the US developed drones for carrying out targeted raids against suspected militants in countries including Afghanistan, Yemen and Iraq – a campaign that raised serious moral, legal and strategic questions as civilians lost their lives as so-called collateral damage.

Drones are cheaper to design, build and operate than warplanes and missiles, and their current ubiquity is not confined to the skies – unmanned underwater drones have been in use since the 1990s. Drones’ advantages to militaries around the world are clear – hence their growing number – but so too are the inherent risks.

As far back as a decade ago, the US Army War College’s publication Parameters was carrying suggestions that unmanned craft lowered the threshold of war by taking human pilots out of harm’s way, thereby reducing the political cost for governments of losing personnel. One paper from 2013 also warned that UAVs “may usher in a new age of accidental wars” when “mediocre drones” deployed by less-developed militaries than America’s enter the battlefield.

According to the New America think tank, more than three dozen countries now have armed drones but some of these designs lack the high-tech equipment possessed by advanced devices that could avoid accidental incidents. Simple UAVs such as Iran’s Shahed drones – a loitering munition reported to have been used in the war against Ukraine – are little more than long-range bombs.

Given the amount of drones now in operation at various geopolitical hotspots – from the Aegean to the Korean Peninsula as well as the India and Pakistan border – it is the responsibility of military powers to ensure the margin for error is kept as small as possible.

There is precedent for this. In 1989, the US and the Soviet Union signed the Prevention of Dangerous Military Activities Agreement after several incidents in the 1960s and ‘70s when American and Soviet naval commanders engaged in games of chicken, buzzed each other’s vessels with aircraft or turned their guns on each other.

The Cold War also led to a series of so-called hot-line systems between Washington and Moscow intended to establish clear channels of communication to avoid an accidental military – or nuclear – confrontation during times of international crisis.

It would be naive to expect militaries to be transparent about how they use their drones. But the spirit of pragmatism and common-sense seen in the US-Soviet understandings would go some way to steering the world clear of an accident that could have serious and widespread consequences. When it comes to the skies, it’s time to update the rules of the road.

Published: March 16, 2023, 3:00 AM