Is the world about to see a "drone race" among the United States, China and several other major powers? Writing in the New York Times, Scott Shane argued that just such an arms race is already happening and that it is largely a result of the widespread use of drones in a counterterror role by the United States. Shane suggests that an international norm of drone usage is developing around how the United States has decided to employ drones. In the future, we may expect that China, Russia and India will employ advanced drone technologies against similar enemies, perhaps in Xinjiang or Chechnya. Kenneth Anderson agrees that the drone race is on, but disagrees about its cause, arguing that improvements in the various drone component technologies made such an arms race inevitable. Had the United States not pursued advanced drone technology or launched an aggressive drone campaign, some other country would have taken the lead in drone capabilities.
So which is it? Has the United States sparked a drone race, or was a race with the Chinese and Russians inevitable? While there's truth on both sides, on balance Shane is correct. Arms races don't just "happen" because of outside technological developments. Rather, they are embedded in political dynamics associated with public perception, international prestige and bureaucratic conflict. China and Russia pursued the development of drones before the United States showed the world what the Predator could do, but they are pursuing capabilities more vigorously because of the U.S. example. Understanding this is necessary to developing expectations of what lies ahead as well as a strategy for regulating drone warfare.
States run arms races for a variety of reasons. The best-known reason is a sense of fear: The developing capabilities of an opponent leave a state feeling vulnerable. The Germany's build-up of battleships in the years prior to World War I made Britain feel vulnerable, necessitating the expansion of the Royal Navy, and vice versa. Similarly, the threat posed by Soviet missiles during the Cold War required an increase in U.S. nuclear capabilities, and so forth. However, states also "race" in response to public pressure, bureaucratic politics and the desire for prestige. Sometimes, for instance, states feel the need to procure the same type of weapon another state has developed in order to maintain their relative position, even if they do not feel directly threatened by the weapon. Alternatively, bureaucrats and generals might use the existence of foreign weapons to argue for their own pet systems. All of these reasons share common characteristics, however: They are both social and strategic, and they depend on the behavior of other countries.