Many scholars and policy-makers believe that drones will spread quickly because of their low price, of their reliance on cheap commercial components and of their relative unsophistication. According to this view, this process will redistribute military power at the global level and, possibly, promote international instability. The literature in international relations and on globalization almost unanimously supports these concerns. Drawing from the scholarship in management, we show that such consensus is unwarranted. Specifically, even if we assume that advanced components are cheaply and easily available, drone warfare casts two major challenges. First, the production of combat-effective drones require advanced competences and industrial capabilities that are generally difficult, expensive and lengthy to develop. Second, the employment of drones calls for expensive and burdensome organizational and infrastructural support that, often, only few countries can afford. We test our claims by focusing on three types of military relevant drones – loitering attack munitions (LAMs), unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) and ground and airborne surveillance drones (ISR and AEW&C). Our analysis shows that drone warfare poses significantly more daunting challenges than the current debate acknowledges. ....
First, drone warfare requires combat-effective unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) able to withstand potential counter-measures and to meet specific requirements in terms of performance and capabilities. The production of such drones, in turn, requires advanced design and systems integration competences that are difficult, expensive and hence lengthy to develop. Second, in contrast to the current debate, drones are not stand-alone platform as they are virtually useless without data-link, communication relays and ground control stations – just to name a few. Thus, considering the single drone without its supporting infrastructures is tantamount to counting trains, in the late 19th century, without considering countries’ rail-networks extension. As we argue, the infrastructural and organizational support necessary for the employment of drones is extremely complex and expensive, such that in some cases it is beyond the reach of most countries.
The case of drones is not only substantively important, but also methodologically relevant. Drones are among the many transformative technologies of the post-industrial era. However, in comparison to others like direct-energy weapons, rail-guns and to certain extents even cyber capabilities, they draw more extensively from commercial components, which in turn should make them more likely to spread easily, at least according to the literature in international relations. By studying drones, we are hence able to investigate a broader issue: whether globalization, along with progress in communications and science, is undermining the US leadership in military technology.
The current debate tends to lump together all types of drones, ignoring that different drones with very different military capabilities exist. Some scholars have restricted their focus on armed drones. However, also this generalization is too broad: different types of drones with very different striking capabilities exist. For this reason, we focus on the three types of drones that can conduct different types of land-attack missions and that provide relevant military capabilities: loitering attack munitions (LAMs), unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAVs) and ground and airborne surveillance drones that can also conduct the (in)famous drone strikes (for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, ISR and airborne aerial early warning and command, AEWC). Although we are in the early stages of the drone age, and hence data is inherently limited, our investigation suggests that drones are far from cheap and easy to develop and to employ. We conclude that drone warfare poses more challenges than generally acknowledged, and hence will spread less quickly and less widely than many believe.
The rest of the article proceeds as follows: first we summarize the existing literature on the diffusion of military technology and on the diffusion of drones. Second, we present our theoretical framework. Finally, we conduct our empirical analysis. Conclusions follow.