ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Pentagon’s drones are an iconic symbol of war abroad, plane-sized matchsticks with wings lurking over cities and countrysides waiting for the moment routine patrol becomes un-routine. For the most part, the missions of those drones have remained abroad, but over the years the Department of Defense has flown drones a handful of times over the United States in support of civil authorities. From 2011 to 2017, the Pentagon reports just 11 total domestic drone missions.
But in 2018, that total doubled, with 11 domestic missions flown by military drones.
On Jan. 11, the Department of Defense published its 2018 statistics. The drones involved include everything from MQ-9 Reapers down to DJI Phantoms, and involvement in missions ranging from training exercises to border security and emergency response. (Notably, drone operations by the Department of Homeland Security are excluded from these statistics). These numbers are helpfully collected and contrasted with domestic drone use by the military from 2011 to 2017 by the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard University.
In 2018, military MQ-9 Reapers flew five missions over the United States, four of which were in support of forest firefighting in California and Oregon. One Reaper mission, flown from May 7-10, was described as an incident and awareness exercise in the state of New York. RQ-11B Ravens flew two missions: one a base installation in Bangor, Kitsap, Washington, and the other a Defense Support of Civil Authorities mission in response to Hurricane Florence and requested by the South Carolina National Guard.
In addition, DJI Phantoms flew two missions stateside for the military in 2018: installation support at Camp Pendleton, and air show support on behalf of DoD public affairs at Cherry Point, North Carolina. An MQ-1C Gray Eagle was on call throughout 2018 in support of southern border security missions, and an RQ-21 Blackjack was requested by Customs and Border Patrol for counternarcotics operations from November 2017 to March 2018.
Those use cases roughly match up to how the Pentagon used drones at home between 2011 and 2017, with the exception that 2018 saw far more border monitoring. The Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency used DJI Phantoms and NOVA III drones for flood-related missions in South Carolina in 2015. Additionally, the Corps of Engineers used those drones after flooding in Mississippi in 2015 and 2016, and for Civil Works operations in 2016 and 2017.
While using military drones for border monitoring took on a prominence in 2018 that it lacked earlier this decade, it’s not entirely unprecedented. The Marine Corps deployed RQ-2 Pioneer drones on the border in 1990, 1998, 1999, 2001 and 2002.
“The growing use of drones for activities like border surveillance is a natural outgrowth of increasing technological maturity for current-generation drones and increasing willingness of non-DoD [U.S. government] personnel to use drones,” said Michael Horowitz, a former Pentagon official now with the University of Pennsylvania, who has studied drone issues. “It is now clearer, almost two decades after 9/11, that drones could have a role to play in border surveillance and counter-drug operations. Officials outside of the military now have a better understanding of what drones are and what they can do, so it is not surprising to see requests for their use growing within the United States government.”
These missions all feature drones used exclusively as surveillance platforms. The upward trend in use suggests we may see more drone flights carried out by the military in support of local authorities, especially along the border, in the years to come.
Since 2006, the Department of Homeland Security has operated its own fleet of Reaper drones, referred to instead as Predator B drones. Between 2011 and 2016, DHS drones totaled 31,000 flight hours, of which 19,000 were spent patrolling the southwest border of the United States. Customs and Border Protection continues to hire pilots for these drones, and DHS is exploring the role of smaller drones in watching the border. (In 2018, the Office of Inspector General at DHS found the department’s drone operations lacked both data security and privacy protections.)
In light of the existing operations by DHS, what are we to make of the increase in domestic drone operations by the military?
“There has been discussion of the potential of drones for border surveillance for several years, so it is not surprising to see that finally pick up. The real question is, over time, who will own/operate these systems,” Horowitz said.
One possibility is that — since these are small data sets — 2018 was an anomalous year, with an unexpected frequency of use. Data from drone operations in 2019 and 2020 will provide a more solid grounding on whether 2018 was an outlier or a precedent. On the homeland security side, 2017 also saw more CBP drone flights than any previous year.
Another possibility is that the use of military drones to support domestic missions, especially ones related to natural disasters and border monitoring, are bound to increase as governors and civil agencies become more comfortable requesting military surveillance assets to meet domestic needs. On Jan. 10, 2019, the Defense Logistics Agency posted a request for information concerning the utilization of drones for disaster relief. The drones concepts detailed in the RFI would have an immediate applicability to disaster relief, transporting modest payloads of food and water to people in need, including uniformed members of the military actively deployed to combat the disaster.
More than anything else, the expansion of military domestic drone missions and the continuation of DHS drone flights on the border signal the durability of a mature technology that is at its best in permissive skies, looking for irregularities on the ground below. It also means we are working from an incomplete picture.
While drones make up a significant part of border surveillance, tethered aerostat radar systems provide some border coverage, and crewed aircraft also contribute flight hours. What may look like a surge in drone flights when compared against prior drone operations could instead be a change in the means of surveillance, with a new platform for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance replacing the piloted craft of an older age.
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.