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Three Misconceptions About Drones

Author: Janine A. Davidson, Former Senior Fellow for Defense Policy, Council on Foreign Relations
June 26, 2014
Defense One


A new report is out today from the Stimson Center's Task Force on U.S. Drone Policy, co-chaired by General John Abizaid, U.S. Army (ret.) and Rosa Brooks, of which I was also a member. Our study took place over the course of a year, examining three key issue sets in the UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) debate: 1) defense utility, national security, and economics; 2) ethics and law; and 3) export controls and regulatory challenges. Our examination identified UAV misconceptions, areas of concern, and—significantly—a few concrete ways to make things better.

Among the most common drone misconceptions:

  • UAVs do not "cause" disproportionately high civilian casualties. Contrary to popular belief, armed UAVs are precision platforms: their weapons go where they're directed. Collateral damage, therefore, is due to the high-risk mission set to which UAVs are assigned—not a consequence of the platform itself. Manned aircraft have similar vulnerabilities.
  • UAVs are not inherently cheaper than manned aircraft. The "tail" created by UAV personnel is considerable, but rarely factored into the cost of the platform. Significantly, the higher cost of manned aircraft also often reflects greater capability. There are many things UAVs can do more cheaply—but significant functions they can't perform at all. Fundamentally, it remains an apples-to-oranges comparison.
  • Most UAVs are not weaponized. The Department of Defense currently operates 8,000 UAVs. Less than one percent of these carry operational weapons at any given time. The typical UAV mission remains intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR)—not combat.

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