ARMED DRONE TECHNOLOGY
Over the last decade, t he United States went from having unarmed surveillance drones to sophisticated armed drones capable of conducting prolonged surveillance and then killing the target. This chapter will take stock of those developments by answering a number of questions that provide context for the recent evolution of armed drone technology.
Q. What is a drone?
The term "drone" has come to loosely refer to "unmanned aerial vehicles" (UAVs), or what the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) refers to as an "unmanned aerial system" (UAS) and the US Air Force to as a "remotely piloted aircraft" (RPA). The latter organization prefers to incorporate "pilot" because of the significant training required, even for a remotely positioned operator. All of these names speak to the attribute that unifies drones: that they operate without pilots on-board.
For some observers, this essentially means that everything is a drone. As Kelsey Atherton of Popular Science puts it, " 'drone' as a category refers to any unmanned, remotely piloted flying craft, ranging from something as small as a radio-controlled toy helicopter to the 32,000-lb., $104 million Global Hawk. If it flies and it's controlled by a pilot on the ground, it fits under the every- day-1 anguage definition of drone."1 Despite this broad definition, Atherton suggests that until recently, model airplanes have been governed by a different set of laws from drones. Indeed, Canadian laws have distinguished between drones and hobby aircraft, stating that a drone is "a power-driven aircraft, other than a model aircraft, that is designed to fly without a human operator on board."2 For the United States, the line between drones and model aircraft is increasingly blurred. In 2015, the FAA passed regulations requiring any unmanned aircraft greater than 0.55 pound and less than 55 pounds to register their aircraft (those greater than 55 pounds require FAA approval, a step beyond registration), which effectively includes model aircraft. All unmanned aerial systems (UAS), as the FAA calls them, must fly below 400 feet, be kept within the visual line of sight, and not fly within 5 miles of an airport.
Indeed, one reason the FAA essentially subsumed model aircraft is that the line between the two is increasingly arbitrary as drones have become smaller and hobbyist model aircraft have become more sophisticated. For example, hobby aircraft can be equipped with first-person view (FPV) capabilities in which a camera is mounted in front of the model aircraft and flying the aircraft via a video down-link that is displayed on either a portable monitor or video goggles, thus extending the visual range of the pilot and raising concerns about collisions. At the point that this FPV goes beyond the line of sight, the FAA would likely consider it a drone that would fall under their regulatory framework. However, operating within the line of sight does not mean an aircraft is not a drone. Quadcopters are traditionally operated within the line of sight and yet they are commonly considered drones.
Another source of potential confusion is the difference between a drone and cruise missile. While the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR, which will be discussed later) considers cruise missiles as a type of drone, they are actually distinct platforms. As with drones and model aircraft, cruise missiles can be confused with drones because they too are unmanned. However, drones, according to the Defense Department, are meant to be recovered while cruise missiles are one-way systems. Furthermore, a cruise missile's munitions are integrated into its airframe, while the drone's are more segregated and detached.3 In addition, while both drones and cruise missiles are used for stand-off strikes, drones have a shorter range and are slower than cruise missiles. The one-way nature of cruise missiles, their long-range capability, and their speed as compared to drones impacts the types of missions for which cruise missiles and drones are used. Drones are therefore more likely to require forward operating bases because of their limited range compared to cruise missiles.4
Even this theoretical difference between drones and cruise missiles can become blurred by some of the drones operated by countries other than the United States. For example, Israel has developed a weapons system that is considered a drone (the Harop, also known as the Harpy) that is essentially a oneway drone in which the platform itself acts as the munition, though it does carry limited amounts (less than 10 kg or less than 5 lb.) of explosives in its nose. In this regard, the drone is essentially acting as something of a suicide aircraft, rocket, or cruise missile. What makes this drone different from a cruise missile is its ability to loiter over a target; after loitering, it attacks by self-destructing into the target.