Drone Double Standard

December 2, 2012

My inner cynic became extremely cranky after I read this New York Times article: Growth in China’s Drone Program Called ‘Alarming’. The message here is that China has ramped up its unmanned aerial drone program, which could be some sort of threat to U.S. superiority in this field in the future.

Question: Why is it OK for the U.S. to not only have a drone program, but also to use it, often times illegally, to bomb the crap out of folks (suspected terrorists as well as civilians) in Central Asia, but it’s not at all cool for China to develop the same technology?

Traditionally, the U.S./Western response to this sort of question about weapons of mass destruction is an assurance that “We are responsible nations and only use these weapons systems in appropriate situations, but other nations are untrustworthy.” People who lost family members in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden, etc. may have a different point of view, but that’s a can of worms I probably shouldn’t open at this time.

Personally, I have a hard time supporting the following “concerns”:

“In a worrisome trend, China has ramped up research in recent years faster than any other country,” said the unclassified analysis published in July by the Defense Science Board. “It displayed its first unmanned system model at the Zhuhai air show five years ago, and now every major manufacturer for the Chinese military has a research center devoted to unmanned systems.”

The report, which said “the military significance of China’s move into unmanned systems is alarming,” suggested that China could “easily match or outpace U.S. spending on unmanned systems, rapidly close the technology gaps and become a formidable global competitor in unmanned systems.”

Pardon my cynicism, but this is either evidence of a double standard or simply push back from defense contractors worried about a little competition; either way, I have zero sympathy. As to the competition theory, check out this Wired piece on the new Chinese drones, paying special attention to the price differential (i.e., the high-quality U.S. offering is 30 times more expensive than the Chinese counterpart).

There’s a lot of money at stake here. Keep that in mind the next time you hear some blowhard “patriot” on Capitol Hill concern trolling about Chinese drone technology.

8 thoughts on “Drone Double Standard

  1. Bill Rich

    There is one standard: Protection of US interest. US developing drones and devaluing US$, pivoting of US military assets, US worrying about PRC developing drones, aircraft carrier, carrier based air frame, North Korean and Iranian nuclear and missile programs, PRC currency manipulation, etc. etc. etc. all have the same measurement: protection of US interest. PRC is the only country that doesn’t put protection of its own interest as first priority, right ?

    1. Stan Post author

      Realism explains the policy fine, but doesn’t allow for a BS “We’re responsible, and they aren’t” excuse. The U.S. likes to dress up its realism with a thin covering of ideology, which is annoying. Moreover, I suspect even some of the realist arguments are simply put out there to cover for the guys who make money off of defense tech.

    2. Justin

      > PRC is the only country that doesn’t put protection of its own interest as first priority, right ?

      Nice looking strawy mannequin you got there. Really ought to give him a couple more good whacks to show who’s boss.

  2. Fons Tuinstra

    Not shortage of double standards. I always knew that data passing by through the US could be accessed by US authorities. Only last week I learned the the Patriot Act allows them to access all data where in one way or another a US company is involved.
    In the Netherlands there is a debate on a national electronic registry for medical information. Among already many concerns about the safety of this online system, now the Patriot Act has become an issue, since the system is outsourced to a US company.
    Does China have a Patriot act that would force companies like Huawei and ZTE by law to hand over any information, even when it is hosted abroad? I do not think so.

  3. anon

    i don’t think it’s about “cool” or “not cool.” the concern is felt among people who see a potential military adversary on a path to achieving technological parity in its weapons systems, which concern is entirely legitimate. i don’t think there’s a double standard there at all. now, whether or not china is appropriately viewed as a potential military adversary of the US is “a whole nother” issue…

  4. Ollumi

    I don’t know either the defense industry or the “unmanned aircraft” industry in any sort of detail worth mentioning, but if it’s anything like other things these bloated companies make, then it’s not very farfetched to suggest market erosion as a motivation, at the very least. It’s been my impression that they’ve been selling rocket launchers to bird hunters for years, and going about it arrogantly, so it wouldn’t surprise me at all if someone panicked if others started selling actual bb guns and chose whatever methods available to them to hinder this process (other than altering their own approach, which is structurally impossible).

    It’s my speculation that no one at all is worried about the “closing of the technology gaps” for at least another 20 or 30 years. Meeting actual demand instead of being able to comfortably dictating it, on the other hand, is a whole other matter.

    1. H.Z.

      “for at least another 20 or 30 years” …

      How so? If anything it is much easier for China to close the gap on the unmanned systems than on manned systems. The manned systems (such as carriers) will be hindered by cultural and political barriers in how its military is organized. But unmanned systems are mostly system integration issues that China tends to excel at: it can hire a lot more engineers cheaply than US can. Look at Huawei if you want any evidence.