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From my experience as a senior civilian on the Air Force staff in the Pentagon from early 2002-10, including significant responsibilities involving the transfer of US aerospace systems to our foreign partners, I find the current discussion of so-called “drones” and their employment highly politicized, perversely skewed and often grossly misinformed.
In my eight and half years as an Air Force official, not once did I hear what we termed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and later, remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs), ever referred to as drones.
The first time I recall taking note of that term, in this regard, was by Christiane Amanpour on CNN. When I heard her use the moniker, while perhaps technically correct, I thought it was tremendously misleading because to the uninformed, it implied that these aircraft are robots flying about, and finding and attacking targets of their own free will.
As anyone who has witnessed US Predator or more advanced Reaper operations can tell you, that is anything but the case. These UAV/RPA ops are directly controlled by human beings who, using the controls and displays before them, might as well as be in the cockpit of the aircraft.
The operations are highly intense, requiring great skill and focus. It is the human operator, although not physically in the aircraft, who is flying it, operating its sensors to achieve maximum intelligence, and, if a legitimate target is detected and proper authorization received, launching the weapon.
It is, in fact, the lack of a person onboard the aircraft that gives it their greatest value — persistence. Having an aircraft not designed to carry the payload of a human being, but with associated support and attendant weight, allows the aircraft to fly, or linger, without refueling for many more hours than can be done with a manned aircraft. These capabilities have been tremendously effective in operations against widely dispersed and difficult-to-locate enemies
But there is a growing impression that drones are a grotesque, futuristic, out-of-control weapon of war. Collateral damage, always a regrettable event in war, including casualties among the civilian populace that our terrorist enemies are wont to use as cover, is somehow blamed on the use of armed RPAs. But, as unfortunate as these casualties among the innocent are, would they be any fewer or less consequential if they were caused by attacks from aircraft actually carrying the pilots onboard? To think so is absolutely ridiculous.
The use of armed RPAs to detect and attack our enemies, where they operate, including enemies of the United States who happen to have been of American origin is, in my view, entirely appropriate and necessary. Again, would this be questioned if the aircraft were manned ones?
The current argument has gone one step further, postulating that this same capability could be used in the US to detect and attack US citizens, without due process of law. Perhaps a fair consideration … but why now and just in the case of so-called drones? If such a discussion is an important political topic, why have we not applied it to manned aircraft, such as the helicopters that are routinely used by our police forces?
It is time for a recalibration in thinking on the part of those who really do not understand “drone” ops and have let their imaginations run away to form far-fetched scenarios.
Unmanned aerial vehicles or remotely piloted aircraft, seemingly unconventional, have proved themselves to be immensely valuable assets in the unconventional wars we recently have fought and are fighting, but these aircraft are not really as unconventional as they may seem.
Make them bigger and put the pilot onboard, and they are just slow and relatively simple. And manned or unmanned, they can succeed only in uncontested airspace, as they lack the speed, maneuverability and defensive systems to survive against an enemy with an effective air force.
The characteristics and capabilities of these aircraft do have application domestically, border patrol being just one example. Arming these aircraft may be appropriate; launching weapons from them should be subject to the same laws and legal processes as is any weapons capability used by domestic law enforcement organizations.
But let’s not confuse these capabilities and their potential applications with the important contribution made to our nation’s war-fighting effectiveness.
Bruce Lemkin, president, Lemkin International, Crownsville, Md., and US deputy undersecretary of the Air Force (international affairs), 2003-10.