Skip to main content Accessibility help

Droning On: Explaining the Proliferation of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

  • Matthew Fuhrmann and Michael C. Horowitz


Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), more popularly known as “drones,” have become emblematic of twenty-first century military technologies but scholars have yet to convincingly explain the drivers of UAV proliferation. Using the first systematic data set of UAV proliferation, this research note examines the spread of UAVs in the context of scholarly debates about interests versus capacity in explaining policy adoption. The results yield important insights for both IR scholarship and the policy-making community. While countries that experience security threats—including territorial disputes and terrorism—are more likely to seek UAVs, drone proliferation is not simply a function of the threat environment. We find evidence that democracies and autocracies are more likely than mixed regimes to develop armed UAV programs, and suggest that autocracies and democracies have their own unique incentives to acquire this technology. Moreover, supply-side factors play a role in the UAV proliferation process: a state's technological capacity is a strong predictor of whether it will obtain the most sophisticated UAVs. The theories and evidence we present challenge emerging views about UAV proliferation and shed useful light on how and why drones spread.



Hide All
Bodea, Cristina, and Hicks, Raymond. 2015. International Finance and Central Bank Independence: Institutional Diffusion and the Flow and Cost of Capital. The Journal of Politics 77 (1):268–84.
Boyle, Michael. 2015. The Race for Drones. Orbis 59 (1):7694.
Byman, Daniel. 2013. Why Drones Work. Foreign Affairs 92 (4):3243.
Caverley, Jonathan D. 2014. Democratic Militarism: Voting, Wealth, and War. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Cenciotti, David. 2013. US F-22 Stealth Fighter Pilot Taunted Iranian F-4 Phantom Combat Planes Over the Persian Gulf. The Aviationist, 19 September. Available at <>.
Cochrane, Joe. 2014. At Asia Air Show, Plenty of Competition for Sale of Drones. The New York Times, 16 February.
Cronin, Audrey K. 2013. Why Drones Fail. Foreign Affairs 92 (4):4454.
Davis, Lynn E., McNerney, Michael J., Chow, James S., Hamilton, Thomas, Harting, Sarah, and Byman, Daniel. 2014. Armed and Dangerous? UAVs and US Security. Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation.
Department of Defense. 2013. Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap: FY2013-2038. Washington, DC: DOD.
Early, Bryan R. 2014. Exploring the Final Frontier: An Empirical Analysis of Global Civil Space Proliferation. International Studies Quarterly 58 (1):5567.
Fuhrmann, Matthew. 2012. Atomic Assistance: How “Atoms for Peace” Programs Cause Nuclear Insecurity. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Gady, Franz-Stefan. 2015. Vietnam Reveals New Drone for Patrolling the South China Sea. The Diplomat, 28 December. Available at <>.
Gartzke, Erik. 2001. Democracy and the Preparation for War: Does Regime Type Affect States’ Anticipation of Casualties? International Studies Quarterly 45 (3):467–84.
Geddes, Barbara, Wright, Joseph, and Frantz, Erica. 2014. Autocratic Regimes and Transitions. Perspectives on Politics 12 (2):313–31.
Gilli, Andrea, and Gilli, Mauro. 2016. The Diffusion of Drone Warfare? Industrial, Organizational and Infrastructural Constraints: Military Innovations and the Ecosystem Challenge. Security Studies 25 (1):5084.
Gleditsch, Kristain S., and Ward, Michael D.. 2006. Diffusion and the International Context of Democratization. International Organization 60 (4):911–33.
Heyns, Christof. 2013. Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions. 69th Session. New York: UN General Assembly.
Horowitz, Michael. 2010. The Diffusion of Military Power: Causes and Consequences for International Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Horowitz, Michael C., Kreps, Sarah E., and Fuhrmann, Matthew. 2016. Separating Fact from Fiction in the Debate over Drone Proliferation. International Security 41 (2):742.
Horowitz, Michael C., Stam, Allan C., and Ellis, Cali M.. 2015. Why Leaders Fight. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Huth, Paul K. 1996. Standing Your Ground. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Irish, John, and Pennetier, Marine. 2013. France to Use Unarmed US-Made Drones to Hunt al Qaeda in Mali. Reuters, 19 December. Available at <>.
Jervis, Robert. 1978. Cooperation under the Security Dilemma. World Politics 30 (2):167214.
Johnston, Patrick B. 2012. Does Decapitation Work? Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Targeting in Counterinsurgency Campaigns. International Security 36 (4):4779.
Keck, Zachary. 2014. Pakistan Seeks Chinese Drones? The Diplomat, 20 May. Available at <>.
Lockheed, Martin. 2015. U-2 Specifications.
Lyall, Jason, and Wilson, Isaiah. 2009. Rage Against the Machines: Explaining Outcomes in Counterinsurgency Wars. International Organization 63 (1):67106.
Lynch, Laura. 2012. Pakistan Building Its Own Drones. Public Radio International, 13 April. Available at <>.
Marshall, Mony G., Ted R. Gurr, and Jaggers, Keith. 2015. Polity IV Project: Political Regime Characteristics and Transitions, 1800–2015. Available at <>.
McCaney, Kevin. 2014. Army to Put High Quality Radar into Smaller Drones. Defense Systems, 2 September. Available at <>.
Medina, Daniel. 2014. How Japan Fell in Love with America's Drones. Defense One, 21 July. Available at <>.
Pearson, Natalie O., and Mangi, Faseeh. 2015. Pakistan Joins Exclusive Drone Club, with Nod to China. Bloomberg Business, 10 September. Available at <>.
Posen, Barry R. 1984. The Sources of Military Doctrine: France, Britain, and Germany between the World Wars. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Posen, Barry R. 1993. Nationalism, the Mass Army, and Military Power. International Security 18 (2):80124.
Rogers, Everett M. 2003. Diffusion of Innovations. 5th ed. New York: Free Press.
Rosen, Stephen Peter. 1991. Winning the Next War: Innovation and the Modern Military. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Sechser, Todd S., and Saunders, Elizabeth N.. 2010. The Army You Have: The Determinants of Military Mechanization, 1979–2001. International Studies Quarterly 54 (2):481511.
Simmons, Beth A., Dobbin, Frank, and Garrett, Geoffrey, eds. 2008. The Global Diffusion of Markets and Democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Siverson, Randolph M., and Starr, Harvey. 1990. Opportunity, Willingness, and the Diffusion of War. American Political Science Review 84 (1):4767.
Stinnett, Douglas M., Tir, Jaroslav, Schafer, Philip, Diehl, Paul F., and Gochman, Charles S.. 2002. The Correlates of War Project Direct Contiguity Data, Version 3. Conflict Management and Peace Science 19 (2):5968.
Stohl, Rachel, Brooks, Rosa, and Abizaid, John P.. 2014. Recommendations and Report of the Task Force On US Drone Policy. Washington, DC: Stimson Center.
Talmadge, Caitlin. 2015. The Dictator's Army: Battlefield Effectiveness in Authoritarian Regimes. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Tatlow, Didi K. 2014. China Said to Deploy Drones After Unrest in Xinjiang. The New York Times, 19 August. Available at <>.
Tekle, Tesfa-Alem. 2013. Ethiopia Produces First Military Drone Aircraft. Sudan Tribune, 14 February. Available at <>.
Tucker, Patrick. 2014. Every Country Will Have Armed Drones Within Ten Years. Defense One, 6 May. Available at <,878/>.
Way, Christopher R., and Weeks, Jessica L.. 2014. Making it Personal: Regime Type and Nuclear Proliferation. American Journal of Political Science 58 (3):705–19.
Weeks, Jessica L. 2008. Autocratic Audience Costs: Regime Type and Signaling Resolve. International Organization 62 (1):3564.
Whittle, Richard. 2011. Predator's Big Safari. Arlington, VA: Mitchell Institute Press.
Work, Robert O. 2015. Deputy Secretary of Defense Speech at CNAS Defense Forum, 14 December. Available at <>.
Bank, World. 2016. World Development Indicators. Washington, DC: World Bank.
Zenko, Micah, and Kreps, Sarah. 2014. Limiting Armed Drone Proliferation — Council Special Report No. 69. Washington, DC: Council on Foreign Relations Press.
Zhukov, Yuri M., and Stewart, Brandon M.. 2013. Choosing Your Neighbors: Networks of Diffusion in International Relations. International Studies Quarterly 57 (2):271–87.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO
Type Description Title
Supplementary materials

Fuhrmann and Horowitz supplementary material
Fuhrmann and Horowitz supplementary material 1

 Word (177 KB)
177 KB
Supplementary materials

Fuhrmann and Horowitz supplementary material
Fuhrmann and Horowitz supplementary material 2

 Unknown (11 KB)
11 KB
Supplementary materials

Fuhrmann and Horowitz supplementary material
Fuhrmann and Horowitz supplementary material 3

 Unknown (59 KB)
59 KB

Droning On: Explaining the Proliferation of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

  • Matthew Fuhrmann and Michael C. Horowitz


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.