Since the early 20th century, the military showed interest in aircraft capable of flying under control without a pilot aboard. In 1917 the US tested a robot aerial torpedo, nicknamed the "Bug", that failed to be used in World War I. Such aircraft devices have been called drones, robot planes, pilot-less aircraft, RPVs (Remotely Piloted Vehicles), RPAs (Remotely Piloted Aircraft) and other terms. Currently, drone is the preferred common designation of the UAV (Unmanned Air Vehicle), defined by the US Air Force as a powered, aerial vehicle that does not carry a human operator, uses aerodynamic forces to provide vehicle lift, can fly autonomously or be piloted remotely, can be expendable or recoverable, and can carry a lethal or nonlethal payload. Ballistic or semi-ballistic vehicles, cruise missiles, and artillery projectiles are not considered unmanned aerial vehicles. When combined with ground control stations, data communications links, infrastructure and personnel, drones form an UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System) (¹).
For many years, the Israeli Air Force led the world in developing UAS and tactics, demonstrating its capabilities in their action against Lebanon in 1982. Technological advances especially in navigation and communications systems, and enhancement of military communications satellite bandwidth have boosted the attractiveness of UAS. In 2011, there were 680 different UAS programs worldwide, up from 195 in 2005. Global UAS expenditures are estimated to double from US$1.7 billion in 2011 to US$3.5 billion in 2020. The global market for combat aircraft alone, at approximately $15.8 billion in 2011, dwarfs the UAS market. But the rate of growth is projected to be much slower, peaking at approximately $21 billion in 2017, and dropping to approximately $19 billion in 2020. Much new business is thus likely to be generated in the UAS market. Companies from the US, Europe, Russia, Israel, China, or South Africa have their minds set on capturing a substantial share of this market.
UAVs range from the size of an insect to that of a commercial airliner. The US currently possess five UAVs in large numbers: the Air Force's Predator, Reaper, and Global Hawk; and the Army's Hunter and Shadow. Other key UAV developmental efforts include the Air Force's RQ-170 Sentinel; the Navy's UCLASS (Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike), MQ-8 Fire Scout, and BAMS (Broad Area Maritime Surveillance) UAV, and the Marine Corps's Small Tactical Unmanned Aerial System.
Missions assigned to drones are envisioned to expand from today's missions of reconnaissance and attacking ground targets to a much wider array of missions, including personnel recovery, air-borne refueling, medical evacuation, and missile defense. UAS capabilities have led to their use in missions outside the military : from patrolling state borders, to monitoring civil demonstrations or civil protection missions, including an unlimited number of controversial and legally doubtful spying and privacy-intruding operations by both public administrations and private organizations.
The fad for unmanned systems spread from the air to land and water devices. UGVs (Unmanned Ground Vehicles), while not as prolific or at the investment level of UAS, have been deployed to the theater of war operations in Iraq and Afghanistan to the level of more than 6,000 units. UMVs (Unmanned Maritime Vehicles) have also been experimented and field tested for a variety of applications.
Drone pros and cons
Major perceived advantages of drones :
Eliminate the risk to a pilot's life.
Aeronautical capabilities, such as endurance, are not bound by human limitations.
Cheaper to procure and operate than manned aircraft.
But they have also significant disadvantages :
Complications and hazards inherent in flying unmanned vehicles in airspace shared with manned assets.
Greater proclivity to crash (UAS have suffered mishaps at one to two orders of magnitude greater than the rate per 100,000 hours incurred by manned military aircraft. In recent years, however, flight experience and improved technologies have enabled UAS to approach an equivalent level to their manned military counterparts).
The qualification as "unmanned" downplays some significant limitations. Indeed, as stated by a A US Air Force general, there is nothing unmanned about UAVs. It can take as many as 170 persons to launch, fly, and maintain such an aircraft, as well as to process and disseminate its ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) products. Currently, the Air Force requires Predator and Global Hawk operators to be pilot-rated officers, thus feeding competition between manned and unmanned aircraft for potentially scarce pilots.
Another emerging area of concern is the potential chaos and resulting hazards that the intrusion of a growing number of drones can create in an air space strictly regulated by air control procedures applicable to all sorts of fixed-wing aircraft, but not designed and unfit for UAVs.
On political grounds, the use of drones as the default counter-terrorist tactic such as currently made by the US administration is highly questionable :
The nation's top leader is judge, jury and executioner in the process of carrying drone strikes to "take out" selected targets, a process that runs in strict secrecy, without accountability, and under zero scrutiny by public or parliament. This is a cancer for democracy.
In the long term, drone strikes may breed far more enemies than those that are disposed of immediately. There is ample evidence in Pakistan that the more than 300 strikes launched under Obama have turned the vast majority of the population vehemently against the US. The solution may well become the next problem.
US allies have not publicly supported the US drone strikes, and have strong reasons to question their compliance with international law and to feel concerned about the precedent it sets for others who inevitably will acquire the same technology.
US drone capability
Although the US tested drones during World War I, they did not actually use them in combat operations prior to the Vietnam War (where the AQM-34 Firebee had such a role) and subsequently in the Kosovo (1999), Iraq (since 2003), and Afghanistan (since 2001) wars, as well as in other non-declared wars in Pakistan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia.
Initial US capabilities came from platforms acquired from Israel. But given the strong demand by combatant commanders dazzled by the versatility and persistence of UAVs in performing tasks of surveillance, signals intelligence, precision target designation, mine detection, and chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear reconnaissance, unmanned systems have become a key contributor to the GWT (Global War on Terror).
The FY2001 US investment in UAS was approximately US$667 million. For FY2012, DOD (Department of Defense) has asked for US$3.9 billion in procurement and development funding. DOD's inventory of unmanned aircraft increased from 167 to nearly 7,500 (²) from 2002 to 2010. From 2011 to 2020, DOD plans to buy 730 medium-sized and large unmanned aircraft systems that are designed for conducting reconnaissance missions or for attacking targets on the ground. The CBO (Congressional Budget Office) estimates that acquiring those systems will cost about US$36.9 billion over 10 years.
(¹) Schematics of line-of-sight and remote-split unmanned aircraft system.