Staff Sgt. James L. Harper Jr./USAF
Right now, the U.S. is king of the unmanned, Hellfire-missile-firing skies. Nobody expects America's drone dominance to last, but the end could come quickly and dramatically — and at great profit to China, says Patrick Tucker at Defense One. At least 23 countries have already developed or are working on armed drones, according to RAND Corp., and at least one of those countries, China, has already agreed to sell its Predator knockoff to Saudi Arabia and likely other nations.
"Once countries like China start exporting these, they're going to be everywhere really quickly," University of Sheffield robotics/AI professor Noel Sharkey tells Defense One. "Within the next 10 years, every country will have these.... There’s nothing illegal about these unless you use them to attack other countries. Anything you can [legally] do with a fighter jet, you can do with a drone."
Most of the new armed drones won't be too sophisticated and will be unable to reach the U.S., anyway, defense experts tell Tucker, so they're most likely to be deployed domestically inside each drone-wielding country. But it doesn't take top-shelf Reaper-class drones to cause damage and death. And legally and practically, there's not much the U.S. can do about the spread of drones, except prepare for the worst — or take a page from the Chinese and let U.S. defense contractors sell the aerial killers to countries other than Britain.