Last week, a U.S. unmanned aircraft fired a missile that killed the deputy commander of the Pakistani Taliban. So say Pakistani officials; the White House neither confirmed nor denied that assertion, but offered assurances that the deceased was a very bad man. Except for the public naming of the targeted individual, it was in many ways just another week for armed unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). Although the frequency of such attacks has been declining, more than one a week reportedly has been carried out in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen during Barack Obama's presidency, an order of magnitude more than under George W. Bush.
But it was apparently the first such killing since Obama announced a shift in policy on UAS strikes. In a lengthy speech May 23 at the National Defense University, the president said he is giving “guidance” that the operation of armed UAS mostly be conducted by the military, rather than the CIA, which has flown some of the missions. And he said the strikes should be limited to those who “pose a continuing, imminent threat to Americans,” situations where it would be too difficult or dangerous to try to capture the target and when the likelihood of civilian casualties is low.
Whatever one thinks about the specific operational limits Obama sought to define, moving toward accountability and transparency is welcome. Indeed, it is overdue for a great democracy. Still, it is hard to discern how much difference these criteria will make in practice. Last week's attack may not have fit the new rules. The strike was on a group that has focused on bombings and assassinations within Pakistan, making the U.S. action seem more an instrument of foreign policy than part of Afghanistan war operations.
Moreover, the president has not resolved all issues surrounding the role of UAS in modern warfare—nor should he alone be allowed to, even just for the U.S. The issues are profound and the technologies are still evolving. While most UAS missions are not literally unmanned but controlled by humans remotely, the era of autonomous robotic combat is not far off, as this month's historic flight of the X-47B from an aircraft carrier makes clear.
Meanwhile, on the domestic front, unmanned aircraft are no less in the spotlight. Many Americans are deeply concerned about possibilities of UAS for surveillance and spying, both by law enforcement and nosy private citizens. Others are concerned about threats to the safety of manned air traffic. In 43 states, laws have been enacted or legislation is pending to limit the use of UAS.
Invariably called drones in the popular press—making them sound both menacing and dumb—UAS is an incredibly broad category of aircraft. They range from Global Hawks the size of anor to experimental vehicles no larger than an insect. The alone operates more than 7,000 UAS (Its first flew in 1917!). And the missions are almost as varied, both militarily and on the civil side. They are used for cargo; in search and rescue; mapping and photography; monitoring crops, fish and infrastructure; weather forecasting, and scientific research.
But there is no denying that unmanned aircraft have become a focal point for an array of difficult new issues for which Americans are far from consensus—especially about limits of “the war on terror” and the proper balance of domestic security and civil liberties in the 21st century. Other technologies raise similar issues but none cuts across so many hot-button questions of morality, privacy and safety as UAS.
The advantages of UAS for reducing cost and risk and their growing sophistication will continue to make it tempting to use the aircraft more often and in new situations. So, for many Americans they raise the spooky specter of flying robots waging war or watching them. It may not be fair that so much complex and emotional freight has been attached to discussions of the rules for operating unmanned aircraft, but this is the rhetorical environment in which the rules will be decided.
To ignore these larger issues or protest that UAS are “just another technology” is a sure-fire way to cede influence in the debates that will affect the growth of the UAS industry. Its leaders need to keep their sense of humor and emphasize the benefits and variety of these aircraft and how any risks they present are manageable. UAS proponents must help their fellow citizens separate the issues—and the aircraft—to see the potential for these systems to improve the wealth and well-being of Americans in so many ways. Manufacturers and users of UAS have to do more to explain these wonderous machines to a wider world.