Droning On

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Droning On
By: Samuel Brannen

Not since the atomic bomb has public imagination been so captured by a new military capability. The media calls them “drones.” Industry prefers “unmanned aerial systems” or “UAS.” The U.S. Air Force insists they’re “remotely piloted aircraft.” Advocates talk about their inevitability, superiority, and potential. Opponents warn of overly sanitizing war and the rise of the machines at the expense of our very humanity.

The Obama administration’s unrealized promise of transparency regarding its use of UAS in counterterrorism has warped the debate by allowing opinion to run wild. Lacking from the conversation has been a balanced discussion of the opportunities of this new technology as it has mostly been used, under well-codified rules of engagement by the U.S. armed forces. In this common employment it has saved countless lives both by its ability to discriminate and precisely strike targets and to protect U.S. ground forces from threats such as improvised explosive devices.

The lack of strategic conversation unfortunately extends to inside the Pentagon, where the current generation of technology is viewed by many senior leaders as a “last war” requirement that simply will not survive the archetypal anti-access/area-denial wars of the future. This is resulting in across-the-board cuts by the military departments to their UAS budgets for the third straight year. Such decisions ignore the evidence that these platforms fared far better than expected against air defenses in Libya, let alone Israel’s novel employment of unmanned systems conducting electronic warfare alongside manned tactical fighter aircraft against hostile air defenses. Deep cuts also harm development of unmanned technology for new applications in the air, ground, and maritime domains.

It’s time for a real conversation on how to balance the risks and opportunities of unmanned systems for the United States. CSIS has convened a working group to do just that, and we will issue our findings early next year.

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