Drones have taken center stage in the Ukraine war. Early on, Ukraine capitalized on the Turkish-made TB2 Bayraktar unmanned aerial vehicle to help thwart Russia’s incursion, including by sinking the Moskva, a prominent Russian guided-missile cruiser. In the second half of 2022, Ukraine took the unprecedented step of building a “drone army,” consolidating earlier gains to include both small, tactical drones and civilian drones modified for military use. Meanwhile, the United States has sent more than 1,000 “kamikaze” Switchblade drones, sometimes called “stray munitions,” to Ukraine as part of its $40 billion security assistance packages. As the war drags on, Ukrainian officials have demanded more advanced drones from the United States, which US policymakers have been reluctant to provide.
Why is this so? Given the overwhelming American support for sending military aid to Ukraine, US policymakers should feel welcome to send advanced attack drones to the country, such as the MQ-9 Reaper long-range, high-altitude surveillance drone. Indeed, research shows that “US officials routinely invoke survey data to enhance the legitimacy of their policy actions.” This has been particularly the case in bipartisan efforts to transfer sophisticated weaponry to Ukraine, including the M1A1 Abrams tank.
However, US officials point to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), created in 1987 to prevent the proliferation of potential ballistic and nuclear weapons delivery vehicles, as they cannot send those drones into Ukraine. The Biden administration is also citing its new conventional arms transfer policy, which considers the potential human rights implications of arms sales, to limit the export of drones.
But do Americans believe that domestic politics and international norms should limit the export of armed drones, among other forms of military aid? To answer this question, we conducted an original survey of Americans. We examined whether domestic and international restrictions shape public attitudes, or whether other considerations, such as exporters, the nature of the importer, the intended use of drones, or past military aid, are more important.
Our study shows that legal obligations directing the export of drones do not build public support, even though these measures underpin Washington’s continued restraint. Rather, two considerations shape public support for the export of drones: the recipient country and the intended use. The Americans prefer to trade drones with supposed allies and for their intended use to be non-lethal. While policymakers are bound to do what they believe is in the public interest, they also recognize that they must respond to the preferences of voters. Our results not only show that Americans support drone exports, especially to Ukraine, but also show that Americans are indifferent to the domestic politics and international norms that policymakers often cite to curb drone exports. This suggests that US citizens do not think they matter much.
HOW DO WE STUDY PUBLIC OPINION?
To examine US citizens’ support for drone exports, we distinguished five characteristics that may influence public attitudes toward drone exports. First, we rotated the importing country based on research showing that trade often follows security alliances. Second, we replaced the use of drones by capitalizing on research suggesting that the public may support the export of drones if the capability is used for non-lethal and non-lethal purposes. Third, we randomized past military assistance not including drones to assess the escalation potential of drones relative to other weapons.
Fourth, we randomized other drone exporting countries, allowing us to examine whether international competition shapes public support for drone sales. We measured respondents’ understanding of international competition by assessing their support for drone exports from the perspective of other countries that are the world’s leading drone proliferators. Finally, we presented respondents with various export control instruments, moving through the MTCR and CAT policies (the aforementioned policies designed to prevent proliferation and protect human rights), to assess how compliance with these instruments moderates public support for drone exports.
After reading a hypothetical drone export scenario that mixes these attributes, we asked respondents to rate their support for drone exports using a five-point scale, with one corresponding to “strongly against” and five corresponding to “strongly support.” We transformed responses from zero to one to reflect the percentage of respondents who support drone exports at each attribute level.
WHAT IS PUBLIC SUPPORT FOR DRONE EXPORTS?
Contrary to policymakers’ frequent references to restrictions imposed by export control measures, we find that public support for drone exports is not driven by domestic policy or even international norms.
Rather, we find that public support for drone exports is shaped by two considerations. First, Americans care most about the receiving country. If the country is perceived as an ally, whether the respondent was correct or not, the respondent’s willingness to support drone exports increases. Americans are the most supportive of drone exports to Ukraine (62%), for example, compared to Germany (59%) or Japan (57%). Interestingly, more than 56% of respondents identified Ukraine as an ally, which is comparable to respondents’ perceptions of allies that have formal defense treaties with the United States, including Germany (52%) and Japan (50%). : Americans are the least supportive of drone exports to Saudi Arabia (46%), even though 28% of Americans believe Saudi Arabia is an ally of the United States.
Second, the Americans are also considering the targeted use of drones. We find that the public is less supportive of the export of drones used for lethal purposes. Public support for the export of drones is highest if the capability is used for seemingly innocuous reasons, including humanitarian aid (59%), while lowest if the capability is used in conflict, particularly strikes (53%). Drones used for intelligence gathering split the difference at 55%, which is close to the level of public support for exporting drones used for strikes. This latest revelation suggests that the Americans are supporting the export of drones to Ukraine, but with a caveat. As one participant noted, policymakers must ensure that drones “do not risk escalating into direct conflict with Russia.” This is in line with other reactions, with one claiming that “Russia is wrong, but we shouldn’t be interfering in such an overt way.”
Our results also show that the public is more or less reluctant to export drones than other forms of traditional military assistance, such as tanks, that are “physically present and visible” when determining their level of support for drone exports. Whether drones are also exported to other countries has little bearing on public support for American exports.
A CALL TO ACTION FOR OUR POLICY.
Taken together, our findings point to a potential breakdown in public and US policymaker support for drone exports, particularly to Ukraine. However, our results should not be interpreted as a “green light” for the sale of drones. Policy makers have an obligation to implement policies that they believe are good for the country. As such, they often point to the CAT policy and the MTCR to limit the export of drones, reflecting concerns about proliferation risks.
Policy makers may be right. In some countries, opposition groups have used drones against their own national government leaders, while authorities in other countries have targeted their political rivals. But our analysis shows that these concerns may not be shared by the Americans, especially when it comes to the export of attack drones to Ukraine. And, as Steven Pifer points out, “The Kremlin’s red lines, which have never been clearly spelled out, appear less strict than some in the West clearly believe. There is room for an expansion of U.S. and Western military aid to Kiev that does not cross the lines that appear to have emerged over the past year.” Indeed, concerns about the escalation of the situation in Ukraine due to US military aid have eased over time. While the tanks were once seen as too provocative to provide to Ukraine, risking direct conflict between Russia and the United States, they are now being hailed as a “game changer.”
As the conflict in Ukraine drags on, policymakers have a lot to think about. They are already opening the door to providing F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine after months of rejected requests. Even if the public approves of the move, which signals support for the transfer of more advanced weaponry to Ukraine, only policymakers can decide whether sending armed drones should follow.