India Stays Away as US Assembles Coalition to Check Export of Armed Drones

Before endorsing arms control declarations, New Delhi’s negotiating lines should be shaped by domestic conversations on the use and impact of new technologies in warfare.

U.S. airmen prepare a U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone as it leaves on a mission at Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan March 9, 2016. Picture taken March 9, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Josh Smith

US airmen prepare a U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone as it leaves on a mission at Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan March 9, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Josh Smith

Last week, a group of 49 countries, led by the US, issued a joint declaration on the “export and subsequent use” of armed and strike-enabled Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), hence constituting the first multinational effort towards creating an export control regime for drones.

The declaration will trigger a series of negotiations early next year, which will perhaps culminate into a formal agreement. Foreign ministry officials, speaking on background, confirmed that India was among the major delegations to receive a draft of the joint declaration at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva, but it chose to stay out of it,  preferring to “examine the initiative” for now.

The attempt at outlining a non-proliferation regime for armed drones has been driven by the US state department, and the list of signatories include Germany, Japan, South Korea, Sri Lanka and Sweden. Notably absent from the group are France, Israel, Russia and China – all of which are at advanced stages of producing or exporting armed UAVs.

Indian negotiators suggest that the pronouncement is in need of greater clarity, especially around the first principle of regulation that is listed in it. The joint declaration seeks five broad objectives:

  • To confirm the applicability of international law – specifically the law of armed conflict (LoAC) and international humanitarian law – to armed and strike-enabled UAVs.
  • To promote the “responsible” export of armed drones “in line with existing relevant international arms control and disarmament norms.”
  • To ensure that the export of armed drones is done in line with “principles of existing” non-proliferation and export control regimes, taking into account the recipient country’s history of adherence to “relevant” international obligations.
  • To ensure the export of armed drones is reported through current channels with “appropriate voluntary transparency measures.”
  • To discuss the possibility of setting “international standards” for the transfer of UAV technology.

While the joint declaration suggests that its principles do not “undermine the legitimate interests” of states to produce, export or buy such systems, India likely has several reservations in endorsing it.

The document’s references to “existing” export control regimes call into question how the Wassenaar Arrangement – which India is not a part of – will play a role in regulating the sale of technologies that are used in armed UAVs.

Having joined the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) recently, the door is open for India to buy or export armed UAVs that carry missiles with a range “equal to, or greater than 300 km.” Nevertheless, the Wassenaar Arrangement controls exports of remotely controlled and autonomous UAVs of shorter ranges, and back-end technologies like UAV software are classified as “very sensitive”, hence triggering exhausting reporting and end-user notification requirements.

While New Delhi should not have concerns about endorsing the general applicability of the international law or LoAC to armed drones, it is another matter to sign up for a declaration that invokes exclusionary export control regimes.

The declaration’s requirement of accounting for the recipient country’s “history of adherence” also raises questions as to the nature of its compliance mechanism. While the statement calls for “voluntary” transparency measures, India should be concerned that reporting requirements are not intrusive or seek end-user monitoring.

In conversations, Indian officials pointed to the fact that the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons – which may well be the umbrella treaty under which UAV export controls are finally negotiated – and the UN Register of Conventional Arms have voluntary reporting requirements which have been complied with.

Given the rapid advancement in such technologies, the extent to which strike-enabled UAVs will influence the outcome of armed conflict is unclear. In Asia, where common spaces are already witnessing contestation by the US and China, there are concerns that autonomous or remotely-controlled systems will be deployed with greater frequency to limit human casualties.

While absorbing new technologies into its arsenal and into its national security calculus, India too should be mindful of how armed drones can widen its conventional options and retain the conventional superiority it enjoys in South Asia.

A 2014 RAND study, for instance, notes that armed UAVs are unlikely to be “truly transformative,” but their deployment may be aimed at “limited sovereignty violation with a view to stop unwanted escalation.” The study suggests that in response to a cross-border act of terrorism, India may consider a UAV strike on Pakistan “for conducting a symbolic retaliatory attack, giving the government greater stature at home but allowing Pakistan a way of limiting any escalation”.

Before endorsing arms control declarations, New Delhi’s negotiating lines should be first shaped by domestic conversations on the use and impact of new technologies in warfare. The setting of international standards for armed UAVs has both strategic and commercial dimensions, in that it may strengthen the supply chains and competitive advantage of some drone manufacturers over others.

The US-led joint declaration on armed drones is by no means an indication that an export control regime for UAVs is fait accompli. Parallel conversations at the Conference on Disarmament on lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS), which implicates armed drones, reflect the difficulty in achieving consensus among the major powers on regulating new technologies in the battlefield.

China, for instance, opposes endorsing the applicability of international law to cyber weapons due to concerns that this may “legitimise” their use. It is unclear whether Beijing will adopt a similar stand on LAWS or UAVs. Pakistan, where public criticism against drone strikes by the US on its territory has been vociferous, has already made it clear it supports a pre-emptive ban on lethal autonomous systems.

The US and most of the EU countries strongly support the application of LoAC, and argue that parties to the Geneva Conventions are first obliged to determine whether “new methods of warfare” are prohibited by international law.

Russia will likely attempt to use international regimes and instruments to restrict the growing capacity of the US in this arena. Israel is not a party to either the MTCR or the Wassenaar Arrangement but maintains domestic policies that are scrupulously in line with both regimes. Given the fluidity of international politics in this space and the concurrent development of UAV technologies, India has wisely stayed away from the joint declaration of last week. Its eventual decision to embrace or stay out of such regimes should be a product of its national security calculations and not solely based on its political relationship with the great powers.

Arun Mohan Sukumar heads the Cyber Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.