Drones

In recent years, the importance of military drones has become increasingly obvious and the use of drones is increasingly controversial.1 Periodic overviews and attempts to clarify and understand drones can be very useful for people concerned with this new technology and should be directed towards a re-imagining of what drones are and are used for.

The American military has in recent years increasingly suffered from a “Jupiter Complex”, or a commitment to a vision of one single global battlefield, where the most modern sciences and technologies are believed to be best applied to constant and continuous global surveillance, reconnaissance, and information networking, including a weaponized attack and emergency response system which is envisioned, designed, and intended to establish a constant American military presence over the entire surface of the planet Earth. Among other things, this Jupiter Complex has advocated and encouraged a program for armed drone patrols, drone surveillance, and drone-based missile strikes on a planetary scale. Following 9/11, the US Congress approved an “Authorization for the Use of Military Force”, which the Bush administration interpreted as an authorization to expand the use of armed drones, which had at that time become for some people an exciting new military technology. The American Department of Defense (DoD) operates drones under the AUMF, which is an openly overt authorization, and the DoD reports to Congressional armed services committees in public hearings where drone funding is public and known. The DoD has arrangements established through diplomatic channels and other forums and an established and known chain of command with recognized accountability standards regarding the use of military drones.

There had been at least a seven-fold total increase in drone attacks between the Bush and Obama administrations. During Bush’s presidency, there were less than 50 strikes launched between 2004 and 2009, mostly during the last year of the second term and mostly inside Pakistan. This trend would have almost certainly continued in the years following Bush’s second term, since drones are considered a Revolution in Military Affairs (RIMA), which inevitably generates repercussions in politics and government. Over the two years between 2009 and 2010, President Obama authorized more than four times as many strikes than during Bush’s entire term, at one point averaging one strike every four days compared with one strike every forty days during Bush’s term. In Obama’s first four months, there were as many strikes as during Bush’s entire term. Again, these deployments would have occurred regardless of election results. Drones had by that time become a priority amongst influential military, industry, and government leaders and an issue of intense contention.

There were at least 420 American launched drone strikes (and perhaps many more) between 2004 and 2013. As many as 5,000 people might have been killed, but perhaps many more. By 2011, nearly 2,300 people had been killed by American drones. In 2013, the number could have reached 4,700 or more with at least 3,600 verified. Most strikes and deaths have occurred inside Pakistan, where there were at least 9 strikes in 2007, 36 in 2008, 53 in 2009, 122 in 2010, 73 in 2011, 48 in 2012, and at least 27 in 2013. There have been a growing number of strikes in Yemen, where nearly 100 have happened since 2002, with nearly 500 people killed. In 2009, there were as many as 80 strikes in Yemen. In 2012, there were at least 42 strikes, with at least 200 people killed. US drones have also attacked a “handful” of targets in Somalia since 2006, including the first in two years during late 2013.

Budgets, Procurement, and Costs

The budgets of various managing authorities responsible for drone programs, including the American Defense Department, and the global expansion of drone basing are examples of how this Jupiter Complex is manifested.

Between 1988 and 2000, the United States spent about $4 billion on military “drones”. In 2000, $284 million. In 2001, at least $667 million, by 2005, there was at least an 18% spending increase, reaching $1 billion annually. Since 2001, a 23% annual spending increase. Between 2001 and 2013, there was a forty-fold increase in spending, and costs grew from less than $1 billion to an estimated $26 billion cumulative by 2013. By 2010, drones were costing America up to $5 billion annually, with at least $6 billion spent in 2011, $5.8 billion in 2012, $6 billion in 2013, $6.3 billion in 2014, and a projected $6.5 billion in 2015. Some estimates see $30.8 billion in acquisition and research spending between 2011 and 2015. Other estimates expect between $30 and $40 billion in spending by 2021 (for about 730 drones).

“Drones” collectively consume between 10% and 20% of Pentagon spending on military aircraft and at least 1% of the entire Pentagon budget, rising to an unknown total after factoring in classified spending, which could be billions of dollars. In 2010, of an estimated $58 billion Pentagon “black budget” on spending for classified programs and operations, which includes drones, investments in drones consumed an unknown but respective share of $19 billion for research and development, $17 billion for procurement, and $15 billion for operations and maintenance. In early 2014, the US Congress had $530 billion in classified spending, an unknown amount of which was (is) for drones.

By 2011, the US already accounted for at least one-third of all spending on all drones by all countries. By 2022, US spending may account for between 62% and 77% of global research and development and between 55% and 69% of procurement. Of a projected $94 billion total spending globally by 2022, the US may account for as much as $85 billion, much of which is spending for military drones, including thousands of armed and/or weaponized drones.

In 2000, the US National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) stated that drones should comprise one-third of the Pentagon’s air fleet by 2015. Drones today (2014) represent roughly one-third of the entire Pentagon air fleet, numbering up to 11,000, with nearly 500 weaponized. There were fewer than 200 American military drones in 2001, and fewer than 10 were armed or weaponized. By 2009, there were at least 5,500 total US military drones, and there were at least 8,000 by 2012. Procurement declined slightly after an unprecedented spike peaking during the US “surge” in Iraq, the Pentagon is expected to (or was at one time expected to) double the number of its drone fleet by 2020 to as many as 15,000, including thousands of armed drones. In 2012, one of the Pentagon’s drone programs purchased at least 1,211 drones. The number of purchases for this program dropped slightly below 300 in 2013, and expected purchases in 2014 were below 60. In a separate program managed under a separate authority within the Pentagon, investment increased by $600 million for as many as 150 drones annually through 2018, with a possible two to three-fold increase in coming years. For another growing drone program at the Pentagon, directed by another separate managing authority, the US military will likely purchase at least 730 drones through 2022, which is a 35% inventory increase at a cost of roughly $37 billion over ten years.

Another example of growing procurement is the Pentagon’s “Unmanned Multi-role Surveillance and Strike” program, which had 72 drones in 2010, and could grow by 600% to nearly 500 drones by 2020, with a 700% spending increase from $1 billion to at least $7 billion. By 2022, “multi-role” drones may total nearly 550, which is a four-fold increase from 2012. Even if procurement steadies or declines, costs are still expected to rise as drone models become more sophisticated and expensive, as manufacturing monopolies on materials and technologies solidify, and as manufacturing orders are revised by the Pentagon and financial forecasts are modified. In 2005, for instance, the Pentagon was billed for an 18% increase in costs because it was buying so many drones, but in 2011, when an order for 22 drones was reduced to 11, the Pentagon absorbed an additional 11% spike in costs. Depending on the type and model, a single drone can cost anywhere between $5 million and $150 million, and in rare cases for test models and prototypes, costs can rise as high as $635 million. The most popular model right now (2014) costs about $150 million each. But costs rise in other ways not included in budgets.

In addition to research and development, and purchases, expenses increase with costs to operate “ground cockpit” systems and other support infrastructure needed to run the program on a global scale. These costs are one example of how to see where the drone program’s costs are expanded beyond procurement. As of 2014, the US had at least sixteen stateside drone training and operating bases, and more than a dozen other known drone-oriented airbases around the world, including in Pakistan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, and at least six bases in Africa. Since 2013, the US has been running drones from at least four locations inside Tunisia to monitor people and events in Algeria and Libya. US drones have also been launched into Mali from a US base inside Niger, where at least 100 Americans are stationed (as of 2014, anyway). In Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa, at Camp Lemmonier the US spent at least $38 million annually to lease 500 acres for an airbase that housed more than 3,000 American service members and support personnel, including as many as 1,100 Special Operations personnel ( this was a three-fold increase since 2011). Drones accounted for 30% of all US military flights from the Djibouti base and at least 16 patrols were launched daily into Yemen and other countries in the region until 2013, when crashes and mishaps forced the US to relocate. The US has spent at least $68 million on runway renovations in Djibouti, at least $7 million training local air traffic controllers to help with drone flight coordination, and a total of at least $1.4 billion building Camp Lemmonier into an airbase designed specifically to accommodate American drones. The American Congress authorized at least $13 million to relocate the base following the persistent complications encountered there.

In addition to drone basing and procurement, and classified spending and research and development, costs also rise as the US buys fewer piloted aircraft and trains fewer “flight ready” pilots. Piloted aircraft accounted for 95% of US aircraft in 2005, but fell to 69% by 2012, with a projected 10% additional decline by 2020. The most advanced piloted American aircraft cost about $100 million more than the latest drone aircraft, and costs are growing as fewer airplanes are produced and procured. A collective decrease in airplanes and pilots is expected to coincide with an increase in costs, which have been projected to rise from about $17 billion to $19 billion annually. The cost of training drone specialists is only one-tenth the cost for training flight-ready pilots, and the number of flight-ready pilots being trained has fallen to about 250 annually (as of 2014). A byproduct or consequence of the US drone program is that the cost of training fighter and bomber pilots is expected to increase while the US is producing fewer pilots ready to fly fewer, but much more expensive and sophisticated, aircraft.

Another cost in using drones comes through losses from accidents and mishaps. Despite improving technology, drones still have high failure rates, and mishaps in hostile and non-hostile environments are common and are considered inevitable. A noteworthy accident happened in 2011, when a US drone crashed into the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. In late 2013, a US drone crashed into the side of a US Navy vessel near San Diego, California. At least five armed American drones have crashed out of Djibouti since 2011, at least 3 have been lost inside Iran (as of 2014). The US had recurring problems at Camp Lemmonier because of crashes related to launch problems and drones congesting civilian, non-military, airspace. An unknown number of US drones have been lost inside Pakistan, and other crashes have been documented. Crashes often occur during landings or due to weather conditions, and there are high failure rates while trying to land on naval vessels. Crashes happen through systems and communications malfunctions, unintentional “engine kills”, and human error. Crashes have become the focus of studies on counter-drone technologies, including scrambling and jamming GPS signals.

A reliable idea of failure rates is difficult to gather because the number of units and locations of total drones lost is unknown, but at least 200 and possibly many more, have crashed since 2004 in several different countries. Mishaps were frequent during the Bush administration, but are less common as the US gains experience and refines capabilities using drones. Some estimates suggest a failure rate of at least 9 drones lost per 100,000 flying hours, with a higher number lost during the first 50,000 flying hours. In 2004, mishaps were very high, but flight hours were at only about 50,000. By 2011, mishaps decreased as flight hours rose to about 650,000. In 2005, five different drone models crashed between 20 and 285 different times under different circumstances. By 2009, some estimates calculated 7.5 crashes per 100,000 hours. At least 70 of 195 launched between 2008 and 2009 crashed “catastrophically” or at “crippling rates”. In 2010, there had been at least 79 verified accidents at the cost of about $1 million each, though the cost of losses has been declining. In 2012, at least 50 drones were verified as entirely lost.

These numbers show only a very general idea of totals, since a reliable absolute bare minimum total is unknown. It is also unclear how many drones have been lost in hostile incidents, which can include drones being shot down or being targeted by electronics interference, jamming, and scrambling. In addition to the financial losses of a destroyed drone, these incidents collectively lead to the unregulated proliferation of lethal technology that has no solidified legal foundations and has been the subject of intense and ongoing controversy amidst an intensifying global drone arms race which many observers suppose will turn the world into one between countries with, and countries without, military drones.

In addition to the expenses and costs detailed above, drone spending also rises during the regular operations of drones. A typical price-tag for an hour of drone airtime is between $3,500 and $5,000, not including costs for munitions during combat missions, which can run from tens to hundreds of millions of dollars. Since 2005, there has been at least a 1,200% increase in US drone patrols globally, with a 600% increase between 2003 and 2009. In 2007, there were at least 21 patrols at any given time during a 24-hour period. In 2010, there were at least 500,000 flight hours logged. In 2011, there were at least 350,000 hours logged with 54 patrols. In 2012, there were at least 330,000 hours logged, and by 2013, there were more than 2 million total flight hours logged, creating such an overabundance and backlog of drone video and film to review and to edit, that outside agencies and corporations were consulted and contracted by the Pentagon, including the National Geo-spatial Intelligence Agency and the sports entertainment media network ESPN. At any given time, at least 65 different US drone patrols could be happening around the world. Combat patrols are made up of at least four aircraft, including one in-flight, one in-maintenance, one in-transit, and one re-fueling. For a given 24-hour patrol there are at least seven and as many as ten crews of at least twenty people each operating and monitoring drones. One-hundred is a typical number of people for lethal strike drone missions. In rare cases, up to 300 people could be involved, including remote control pilots, sensor operators, systems coordinators, information analysts, communications and video crew, field personnel, intelligence operatives, military lawyers, senior civilian officials, private companies’ representatives, and drone mechanics and other staff.

Drone Expansion and Criticisms

As the military drone program establishes itself, the US military is trying to fulfill a growing demand for drone pilots and related personnel. The drone generation in America is seeing a growth beyond military training and into university and graduate degree programs, laboratory funding, and investments in corporate development. By 2009, in the US military, there were about 400 trained drone specialists, some migrating from traditional Air Force training, or with prior “air sense” and flying experience, and some novice and entry-level. By 2009, more drone specialists were being trained than traditional combat pilots. In 2011, the Air Force Academy graduated its first class of 350 drone specialists, compared with 250 conventional pilots that year. At least 350 operators were trained in 2012, adding to the total that year of 950 operators and 1,400 drone pilots. By 2015, the Air Force expected at least 2,000 each of both drone pilots and operators, and a growing number of support staff. The cost of training drone specialists was about one-tenth the cost of training conventional pilots in 2014, and the training process has been streamlined in many cases because of high demand. Many trainees take a course of only 3 or 9 months instead of 10 or 16 months for more thorough specialization. Specialists do not usually live an “active-duty lifestyle” and do not endure the demanding physical testing which “flight ready” pilots require. Some drone specialists are assigned to patrols with as few as 20 flying hours logged, instead of the 200 hours set by higher standards and less demanding deadlines for other drone specialists. For these, and other reasons, drone specialists are considered to be detached from combat mentality except for a desensitized “push button” and “PlayStation” mentality, which is sort of byproduct of modern technologies that has raised concerns about the “dehumanization” of warfare.

Drones tend to generate a perception of war as a simulation or video game, and drone operators are often seen as a “chair force”, or, “cubicle warriors” criticized as second-class soldiers fighting a coward’s war by striking targets from remote distances (perhaps as many as 8,000 miles from a target) with no possibility of retaliation by any actual enemy in any immediately shared battle-space. There are accounts of psychological stress drone pilots endure as a result of monitoring computer screens for extended time periods and sometimes launching missiles that kill innocent people. About 30% of drone operators probably do have some stress related to their assignments, and an estimated 20% are considered clinically distressed. Of 600 operators and drone pilots surveyed by the Air Force in 2011, 42% had moderate to high stress and 20% had “emotional burnout”. In addition to concerns about the type of soldiers drone operators are, there are also criticisms about a perceived lack of honor, or a loss of virtue, in drone warfare. In 2013, for example, the Pentagon encountered a controversy by planning to issue a “Distinguished Warfare Medal” to drone operators who had an “extraordinary direct impact on combat operations”. Production of the medal was discontinued following criticisms from dozens of US senators and from service veterans about the nature of drone warfare and drone specialists’ place in drone warfare.The issue of drone operators is connected to larger issues in the age of weaponized drones.

Drones are controversial because they are an application of a non-military technology to an overtly offensive military aim. The US chose to employ drone technology as a weapon, and has since 2001 become the focus of intense criticism from observers in every academic and scientific field and discipline. The criticisms of US foreign service officers, of veteran military commanders, military operational and administrative officials, and others, suggest a situation that has struggled to reach stability but has been advocated for anyway. Despite convictions that military drones are useless or counterproductive, and amidst ongoing debates and attempts to clarify and solidify a legal framework for drones, drones have continued to be deployed in American military and intelligence operations, which many see as a serious mistake.

In mainstream American politics, for example, open opposition to drones or open criticisms of drone attacks has been noticeable only very rarely. The opposition of the American political left and others has been increasingly focused on the human rights violations, the lack of transparency and accountability, the violations of due process, the misinterpretation of authorizations, and the continued denial of information which has been happening since drones were first introduced. In the sciences and philosophy, drones have raised questions about ethical programming and computer autonomy, where drones as weapons are either considered inherently unethical or else have been put to unethical ends. Questions are also being raised about whether it is or is not ethical to allow drones an increasing amount of autonomy and separation from human control, where the role of monitoring increases and the role of controlling drones decreases. The autonomy debate involves drone operators and the so-called “human loop”, where today there is a human “in the loop”, there will be in the future merely a human “on the loop”. One of the most serious criticisms is that drone warfare makes going to war or deciding to use force less scrutinized or “easier” and that the ease with which the US seems to have been using drones has led to abuses and excesses with very little accountability and almost no transparency. The Central Intelligence Agency, for instance, employs people who answer to no known chain of command. The scrutiny over CIA drone strikes continues to be a serious controversy even though drones are being developed and deployed without any established legal agreements or consensus amongst the various people involved in these operations.

Resistance to and scrutiny of drones has been evident for as long as drones have been relevant as a new military technology. During the early years of the US drone program, the consensus within the US military was that drones were not an honorable way to fight. This sentiment became less influential as the program developed and drones were prioritized by influential factions at the Pentagon and in government and industry. During the Bush administration, CIA Director George Tenet expressed reservations about the CIA’s authority to use drones in conflict scenarios. Military hierarchy has been affected by disagreements about drones. In 2004, the 9/11 Commission expressed concerns about the US drone program being under CIA control and recommended changes that have since been reiterated, if still ignored, by policymakers. Following the 9/11 Commission’s report, the General Accounting Office in 2005 alluded to establishing a single authority for drones, amidst a lack of oversight. In 2011, the US Ambassador to Pakistan left office following repeated disagreements with the CIA and the White House over the negative impact of ongoing US drone strikes inside Pakistan. A Congressional filibuster in 2013 publicized drones, albeit in a sensationalist way, and serves as an example of a latent concern within the American government about drones amidst an increasingly tacit acceptance of drones. By 2014, the US Congress’ “Unmanned Systems Caucus” (the “Drone Caucus”), had at least 60 members in both major parties. Between 2011 and 2012, the Drone Caucus received at least $2.3 million from the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), a drone lobbying and trade group representing as many as 600 corporations, companies, and businesses, and over 7,000 individuals. The AUVSI gives Congress at least $250,000 annually and doubled its lobbying budget in 2011. This investment shows how, despite some concerns about drones, the defense budget can be recycled by the defense industry back into political lobbying and thereby influence government and policy to support the drone initiatives of industry and some military leaders.

Drones have been criticized by some military veterans as being “strategically dumb” and “tactically smart”, where any benefit is too costly and any mistakes too counterproductive to justify the deployment of drones as weapons. As time passes and drone specialists inevitably gain experience and influence, drone policy will be increasingly directed by a new generation of people unsympathetic to the concerns of many military officers, human rights advocates, and others. When official training for drone operators started in 2010, for instance, policymakers inside the military mostly included veteran combat pilots who were very highly skeptical and sometimes openly unsupportive of military drones. The tendency was to see drones as expensive and wasteful, and any benefit being negligible and any mistakes being very costly. Experience had shown that drones could not survive hostile conditions, but as America’s military power increased, the nature of America’s wars changed, becoming more asymmetrical and low-intensity, which some saw as an opportunity to introduce drone technology.

The conventions of war changed following the Cold War and as the Global War on Terror has changed into an undefined, open-ended, ongoing, “long” war, drones have become integrated and “federated” into the US military, and have become normalized despite the concerns of military leadership and others about the highly controversial nature of drones and drone combat. Drones were, and are, perceived as stifling reform and encouraging abuse, and as being wrongly employed as a strategy while they would have been better employed, very sparingly, if at all, as a tactic. For some, again, any strategic benefit drones might offer is generated at too great a cost and for too small a gain to justify the problems generated when drones cause damage, which is apparently far too often. The “whack-a-mole” criticism noticed by experienced observers says that for any one target the US kills, several other “enemies” will have been created. In this way, drones are known to have generated several types of blowback and to have backfired on far too many occasions and for too wide a variety of reasons.

Drones are criticized as being prone to create and sustain insurgency and to perpetuate endless war, yet they are being used in America’s ongoing military operations globally under the auspices of the Global War on Terror. The GWOT is understood to involve “asymmetrical” warfare, where the proportion of US force is strong enough to create a military imbalance making high-intensity conventional conflict between two or more superpowers increasingly less likely and low-intensity small-scale unconventional hostilities more likely. The US is not at war with other nations and national armies, but instead is at war with non-state actors in a transnational and globalized battlefield. In this situation, drones are believed or portrayed to have some relevance, but these assumptions have not been validated. Moreover, drones have been problematic beyond these military concerns expressed by veteran US commanders.

Conclusion

More than 15 years after America started attacking targets with drones, and after a period of well-documented abuses and ongoing controversies, no consensus exists, no single comprehensive international statement on drones exists, and yet the practice of drone attacks continues to establish a worrisome precedent of unregulated military activity amidst an intensifying and unregulated proliferation of lethal drone technology around the world. Drones have raised objections about and have been associated with problems including extraordinary rendition, CIA black-sites, enhanced interrogation and torture, kill lists, targeted assassinations and signature strikes, collateral damage, and extrajudicial killings. People continue to live in fear of drones, and yet there are no indications that the reality being created by drones will ever be governed by a consensus which reflects the concerns of those with valid observations, considerations, and insights about drones.

US military drones and the use of military drones have affected the UN Charter, the Geneva Convention, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Drones have raised debates among professionals interested in just war theory, international humanitarian law, the law of armed conflict, and law on national sovereignty and self-determination. The US has suffered allegations of war crimes, violations of rights to due process, a lack of transparency and accountability, and criticisms over a refusal to provide or share any basic information on drone warfare or to clarify the basis and justifications for the policies supporting deployment of drones.

The most serious issues about the impact drones are having include collateral damage, casualties to innocent bystanders, the CIA program and its attendant problems, endless spending on what is unpopular with experienced decision makers and many American citizens, the proliferation of lethal technology, endangering American civilians, and questions about the role of the courts either having a role in deciding who to target, or having only a limited role in deciding if US drone attacks are legal. Outside of government, human rights organizations, non-governmental organizations, and most of the rest of the word have expressed concern or disapproval of US drones. These include, but are certainly not limited to, criticisms from Reprieve, Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, Pakistan Body Count, the New America Foundation, the American Moslem Political Action Committee, CODEPINK, and the Center for Constitutional Rights. Questions persist about the approval and vetting process used in CIA strikes, including the respective roles of the presidency, the courts, and the military. The CIA program has a black budget. Operatives do not answer to any known chain of command. The CIA operate as many as 80 drones tracking up to 20 targets at a given time. CIA drones are maintained and armed by private contractors and account for as many as 80% of all American drone strikes. The US Air Force works with the CIA during some strikes and many CIA operatives were formerly in the US Air Force.

Drones have been used under the AUMF, and also under Title 10 of the US Code of Laws, which is considered to be outdated, but which has been avoided as an issue for American politicians because of concerns that political careers may be jeopardized if any kind of public stance on drones is declared. The CIA is, and has been, running covert drone operations, and reporting to Congressional intelligence committees only in closed sessions, while receiving unknown classified funding and authorization. CIA operatives do not have a known chain of command and often work with private companies who have no oversight or accountability, or adherence to any established rules of conflict but only secretive arrangements with unknown terms with host governments.

Most countries around the world strongly disapprove of US drone strikes and popular opinion polls and informal polls within military circles around the world show a strong suspicion and dislike for US drones and drone policy generally. In countries experiencing US drone strikes and hosting drone infrastructure, the unpopularity is unusually intense. Protests are common, and in too many places the US is seen as an occupying and invasive presence, with an attendant arrogance and belligerence, that only complicates an already dismal situation for those concerned with America’s problematic attitudes and ideas about human rights in the 21st century.

  1. Note: This article was written several years ago and some of the figures can be updated to remain current, but the information is still useful and hopefully offers some general ideas about drones and drone technology as these technologies are being applied to America’s controversial military programs around the world. Thanks to the efforts of human rights organizations and others who have worked to raise awareness and to positively change the problem of military drones today. []
Joseph Szczekoski is a writer from Bucks County, PA Read other articles by Joseph.