(NaturalNews) The race is on for drone manufacturers around the world to develop ever-sophisticated unmanned aerial vehicles for sale in what is becoming a highly competitive market. And though the primary "mission" of a drone is surveillance, a number of manufacturers are also developing armed models that can be integrated into a country's military establishment or - more ominously - could be used by a rogue state or terrorist group to target an enemy.
Consider this report from NBC News:
On a sprawling complex just outside Pretoria, South Africa, a government-owned arms manufacturer is preparing to test an armed drone that it hopes to begin selling soon to governments around the world.
The company, Denel Dynamics, says the armed version of the Seeker 400, which will carry two laser-guided missiles, will enable so-called opportunistic targeting at a range of up to about 155 miles.
No need to use airliners anymore
A photo accompanying the NBC story shows a version of the Seeker 400 flying over a South African sports complex. And while that model clearly is being utilized in an observation mode, imagine for a moment if a hostile entity were flying an armed version of that model over a sports complex in an "enemy" nation.
"These are not combat systems, they are foremost reconnaissance systems," Sello Ntsihlele, executive manager of UAV systems for Denel, told NBC. "(But if) you speak to any general, show him the capability, he will tell you, 'I want to have munitions.'"
So do terrorist groups.
What makes the South African manufacturer's example significant is that it signals the end of a time when only a handful of technologically advanced nations were capable of fielding so-called "weaponized" drones. And as the technology continues to evolve and, more importantly, proliferate, so will the chances that a state or group hostile to the U.S. will obtain a weaponized drone. As NBC News points out:
Critics say the coming proliferation of the lethal remote-controlled flying machines will forever change the face of counterterrorism operations and, eventually, warfare itself - and not for the better.
Jenifer Gibson of Reprieve, a human rights organization, tells the news network: "The U.S. has set a moral precedent. A state can declare someone a terrorist and just go out and kill them."
Her organization engages in campaigns against what it has determined are illegal drone strikes. The U.S. is at the top of the group's list, no doubt.
Supporters of the military's use of drones, however, say they have become an invaluable tool in the fight against unconventional enemies - terrorists, generally speaking, who hide in caves and isolated compounds and who can often be targeted while minimizing risk of civilian casualties. But Reprieve and others are concerned that they will lead to much wider - and more dangerous - uses, both by nations and armed groups.
Number of nations with 'weaponized' drones growing
According to RUSI (Royal United Services Institute), a think tank, only three nations at present are known to be operating armed UAVs and they include the U.S., the United Kingdom and Israel. Right now, only about 1,000 of these armed drones are in use. The U.S. has said it would arm Italy's drones, and France and Germany have made a decision to acquire them as well, NBC News reported.
From the RUSI report:
While the US drone-strikes program is under renewed scrutiny, remotely piloted aircraft are but one element of modern precision-strike capability. Military action in Mali, Libya and elsewhere has demonstrated the continuing, critical reliance on advanced technological capabilities in modern Western intervention.
This raises a number of important questions about the thresholds for military intervention, the way it is carried out, and its consequences; in particular, whether ethical, legal, and policy frameworks have kept up with the pace of technological change, and how this affects the behavior of those responsible for policy and for its implementation on the ground.
Changing the nature of warfare
China is also believed to have weaponized drones - and the Chinese are known to sell military technology to anyone with the money to pay for it.
Peter Singer, the director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the liberal Brookings Institute, says at least 26 countries have surveillance drones of a model that could be armed; additionally, 20 more countries are either working to develop or acquire weaponized drones.
Sooner rather than later many more nations will possess weaponized drones - and the nature of warfare will be forever changed.