Drones in America’s Dining Rooms


Sen. Rand Paul blasted Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement that drone strikes could be carried out on U.S. soil under extreme circumstances, with the Kentucky Republican suggesting that means Americans could be killed while they’re “eating dinner” or “at a cafe.”

When I was a young Army officer, a drone was a drone.  The Artillery shot them, they flew a pre-set course taking pictures, and then they crashed and you sent the film off to be processed.  Like drone bees they were noisy, stupid and impotent.

We were very carefully taught that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) were not drones.  UAVs fly wherever you please, provide realtime video and land like real aeroplanes.  UCAVs have the added bonus of killing your enemies without having to put humans into harm’s way.  Calling them “drones” is woefully imprecise.

If it were just Dr Paul, who I understand is a surgeon rather than a soldier, I would put it down to his misunderstanding the terminology.  After all, I have no idea what the names of the bones in the hand are (though for complicated reasons I know the mnemonic for them which is “Never lower Tillie’s pants:  Grandma may come home.”)  Rand Paul is not, however, the only person who doesn’t know the right name for flying killer robots.  So why are UCAVs called “drones” and their attacks called “drone strikes,” prompting images of job action in a beehive?

US Navy image of its Pegasus UCAV
Winging its way to a dining room near you?
US Navy photo

My own suspicion is that air forces have prompted us to use the name.  Air forces, built on the assumption that aeroplanes need highly-skilled, highly-trained pilots inside them, are to put it mildly ambivalent about the idea of turning into officers who fly transport and fuelling aircraft with the combat done by technical specialists who have never pulled a gee in their lives.

Certainly air forces are not weeping.  The ethical questions surrounding the use of UCAVs make us long for Erroll Flynn and David Niven in The Dawn Patrol.  The recent uproar surrounding a prestigious medal for UAV and UCAV operators must have prompted cheerful faces in light blue uniforms.

A “kill chain” is the set of links between identifying a target, sending forces to the target, deciding to attack the target and achieving an effect on the target.  (The effect in many but not all cases is a target blown to pieces.)  Air forces, more than armies and navies, jealously guard the idea that everyone in the kill chain should be human, military and for most roles a commissioned officer.  The idea that an aircraft can be commanded by a sergeant on the flight deck is generally repulsive to air force people.  The idea that it can be commanded by a sergeant or contractor in an office is worse.

There is a case to be made for this.  Perhaps having somebody in the kill chain who works for the company that sells the missiles you sling on the UCAV (at $70K or more a pop) is not a good idea.  Perhaps having somebody in the kill chain who is not imbued with the public service ethos is not a good idea.  Perhaps having a machine in the kill chain is not a good idea.  Perhaps, considering the death toll at Afghan weddings, having humans in the kill chain is not a good idea either.

In military circles we talk about platforms and systems, and we generally never use a plain English word where a TLA (three letter acronym) or FLTLA (four lettert TLA) would do.

In military circles we talk about platforms and systems, and we generally never use a plain English word where a TLA (three letter acronym) or FLTLA (four lettert TLA) would do.  Yet just this once we drag out a gritty Anglo-Saxon word.  This is no accident.

“Drone” is a dysphemism for a UAV or UCAV.  Dysphemism is the opposite of euphemism:  a name chosen to make something sound bad. “Drone” makes a sophisticated, deadly machine sound unsophisticated.

When the US Attorney General said yesterday that it might be legal to kill a US citizen with military force in the US he didn’t specify whether the military force would involve UCAVs or tanks.  He just said he could imagine a case in which it could be legal.

If I suggested that it might be legal to order a crewed aircraft to shoot down an airliner full of US noncombatants in US airspace I think many people could imagine a scenario in which it would be an awful but lawful option:  A hijacked aircraft flying towards a major city, perhaps.

German courts have rejected the idea, but perhaps the RAF would do it. Perhaps their boss would order it.  Perhaps his Indian counterpart would too.  Perhaps the USAF would do the same if an order came through from National Command Authority.

Does it make a difference if the killing is done by a remotely piloted aircraft? That is, if the person in control of the aircraft is on the ground and not in the aircraft itself? The language designed to keep UCAVs from putting hotshot fighter jockeys out of work is now making it difficult to understand the distinction.  “Drone strikes” in restaurants, verily even in cafés, use language to obfuscate.

Photo of an Air National Guard UAV operator
Look out, Iceman! He’s on your six!
USAF Photo

For years I’ve been calling UCAV’s “flying killer robots” because that’s what they are.  As they become more sophisticated there will be more automation and a temptation to allow more of the “kill chain” to be mechanised.  Whether that’s appropriate is an important debate, and in view of human error in wartime it is far from a simple matter of keeping a warm, human finger on the trigger.

I can’t turn back the clock and kick the imprecise term “drone” out of the collective imagination.  I can, however, demand that we set aside where the pilot puts his backside and use plain language to ask important questions about the law and ethics of killing.

About the Author
Dr Lynette Nusbacher is a strategist and devil's advocate. She is a core partner in Nusbacher Associates, a strategy think-tank. She has been a senior national security official in the United Kingdom and was Senior Lecturer in War Studies at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.