Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

5 big problems with the drone programs

They’re set to destroy the world and start the apocalypse of the machines — but one-hour delivery would be pretty sweet.

PATUXENT RIVER, Md. (April 22, 2015) The Navy's unmanned X-47B receives fuel from an Omega K-707 tanker while operating in the Atlantic Test Ranges over the Chesapeake Bay. This test marked the first time an unmanned aircraft refueled in flight. (U.S. Navy photo/Released)
150422-N-CE233-457 PATUXENT RIVER, Md. (April 22, 2015) The Navy's unmanned X-47B receives fuel from an Omega K-707 tanker while operating in the Atlantic Test Ranges over the Chesapeake Bay. This test marked the first time an unmanned aircraft refueled in flight. (U.S. Navy photo/Released)


By Matt McClure

Best Defense guest droner


By Matt McClure
Best Defense guest droner

They’re set to destroy the world and start the apocalypse of the machines — but one-hour delivery would be pretty sweet. Combine equal parts fear and hype and you have the current narrative on drones. It’s worthwhile to consider the real and unsolved problems with drones in today’s military in order to paint an accurate picture of the future.

Here are the five big problems with today’s military drones.

1.       A drone by any other name would smell as sweet. Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), Unmanned Aerial System (UAS), Remote Controlled Aircraft, Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV), Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA); what were once technical distinctions have become euphemisms. The military’s resistance to the popular and widely used term, drone, widens the gap between them and the public. At best, it demonstrates an indifference to the perception or concerns of the public. At worst, it represents an outdated view of the technology and its application… imagine if the Army insisted on the term, Tactical Horseless Carriage. But fortunately for the English language, the military does not control the dictionary.

2.       Data collected is not data understood. Despite popular belief, the military does not have automated recognition or computer vision algorithms sufficient to infer what is happening in a given image or feed. Even if there were a perfect target recognition algorithm, tracker, or identifier, there is always the matter of context. Context tells you why the man is digging on the side of the road. Is it a bomb or just a new drainage ditch? Understanding context is a very human-intensive process.

A single, real-time Reaper feed is beamed to multiple operations centers, ground control stations, and intelligence agencies. Multiply these locations by the dozens of analysts watching this data. In some cases, a single operator known as the ‘Eyes-on’ stares unblinking at the screen and commentates everything. The analyst next to him takes the dictation which ultimately generates the report, i.e. PowerPoint. To illustrate: grab a friend and pick a movie you’ve never seen before. Have them sit next to you with their laptop while you describe the plot and characters. They’ll make a PowerPoint in real-time. Give this PowerPoint to four different friends and have them rate the movie. Two thumbs up? Bet someone’s life on that review?

This challenge is multiplied with Wide Area systems like ARGUS. Rather than a single soda straw view, a jumbo pack of straws are available across a citywide gigapixel image. For analysts, it’s like trying to do play by play on an entire season of NBA games at the same time. The reliance on such large numbers of analysts is a big reason the Air Force insists on the term Remotely Piloted Aircraft over drone or anything ‘Unmanned.’ The DoD realizes this challenge and is actively investing in new ways to augment the performance of their operators, which leads us to our next problem…

3.       The big human experiment. Drone pilots “are as desperately needed as they are unwanted.” This is the statement according to Air Force Capt. Michael Byrnes in Air and Space Power Journal. According to Byrnes, “pressures on Airmen in the RPA enterprise have reached crisis levels.” Among the list of problems are overworked operators, institutional bias against drones, and little to no career options. Pilots are getting diagnosed with PTSD and the under-reported Moral Injury. Even after decades of drone warfare, the long-term psychological effects on operators are not completely understood.

Drone control stations are not a great place to work. Initially designed for forward deployed locations, these trailers are still the primary workspace for these aviators. New technology integration consists of installing additional monitors with yet another view. The narrow trailer means these are aligned vertically, with little thought as to the relative importance of placement of each piece of information. For communications, they use radio, instant messaging, phone, and sometimes all of them at the same time. If we designed cockpits this poorly we’d kill every pilot.

As you could guess, this environment makes it pretty tough to make life and death decisions. But don’t worry. The Air Force has a plan to make things better… directly stimulate your brain with electricity! But they’re planning on testing it on a “Phantom Skull” to make sure it’s safe. Apparently, electrifying the brains of our airmen is easier for the Air Force than good design, or an engineering change.  In the name of trying to serve their country, every drone operator is participating in a huge human experiment with little oversight for the well-being of those who serve. Speaking of oversight…

4.       What happens when a bureaucracy flies an airplane? The enormous amount of people and processes involved in drone operations creates an environment that increases mistakes, dilutes accountability, and promotes ineffective decision making. Overworked, stressed pilots operating in human factors abominations while multiple different agencies, analysts, troops, and commanders are all providing information without context, can lead to some serious mistakes. When these happen, who is to blame? Historically, it’s the process. While that’s not an incorrect statement, the response to add more process definitely is. This environment results in a decrease of personal responsibility — nobody is blamed except everybody. In this sense, the term ‘drone’ is extremely apt.

Drones have also increased leadership reliance on real-time, eyes-on information. Prior to drones, commanders relied on information flowing up the chain of command. Now they hunt for this information themselves and undermine the value of their own subordinates. This quest for perfect, personal information paralyzes decision making until nearly unattainable level of confidence is reached. Drones become a crutch for ineffective leaders and flip the very idea of the chain of command.

5.       It’s coming home. The militarization of domestic law enforcement is already concerning many. Military grade surveillance technology is guaranteed to be operating in a sky near you, if not already. The IRS and FBI already use Stingrays. We saw the JLENS catastrophic failure, with many speculating a Wide Area Sensor like Argus was on board the craft. Homeland Security, border control, and law enforcement are almost always cited in contract proposals as potential ‘dual-use commercial applications.’ For instance, this project for Air Force Motion Imagery fusion, “Phase III Dual Use Applications: Develop and mature the technology for use within the Intelligence Community and Homeland Security.”

On the current path, an airship with Wide Area Imaging and Stingrays will be floating over a city near you. Fortunately for us citizens, they’ll have a hard time finding volunteers willing to get their brains zapped.

Matt McClure is an Engineer and Analyst. He spent a decade as an Officer and Civilian in the Air Force Research Laboratory playing video games and wargaming. He is the author of an upcoming novel about terrorists, video games, and Homeland Security.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

More from Foreign Policy

The Taliban delegation leaves the hotel after meeting with representatives of Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Qatar in Moscow on March 19.

China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance

Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way.

An Afghan security member pours gasoline over a pile of seized drugs and alcoholic drinks

The Taliban Are Breaking Bad

Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.

Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid

What the Taliban Takeover Means for India

Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.