Parameters | Fall 2013
By Alan W. Dowd 

Although she doesn’t seem to challenge the central premise of my essay—that drone warfare opens the US to a range of geostrategic, geopolitical, constitutional and public policy challenges the American people and their elected representatives have not fully considered—Ms. Franke  offers some helpful insights. Among the most important of these is the notion that we should “not confound the tool, i.e. armed UAVs, with the strategy, targeted killing.” Regrettably, that appears to be what is happening in policymaking circles, as targeted killing with UCAVs—a tactic—has taken the place of strategy. Even so, I share Ms. Franke’s view that UCAVs can be a tool of considerable military value, but only if their use is more restrained and better defined by policymakers.

Ms. Franke emphasizes the importance of distinguishing between UAVs and UCAVs. Her admonition is well taken. My essay made sure to note that “In the past decade, the US drone fleet has swelled from 50 planes to 7,500, though the vast majority of these drones are not UCAVs,” and made a distinction between the Army’s fleet of reconnaissance/surveillance drones and strike drones. I did use the “UCAV” acronym in discussing the disparity between manned and unmanned training costs.

It’s worth noting that even some Pentagon documents use the umbrella term “UAS”—or “unmanned aerial systems”—in discussing strike and non-strike drones. Moreover, there is a significant difference in the costs of training drone operators and traditional pilots. A recent Air Force report discussing MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers—importantly, the report describes the MQ-1 as focusing on “interdiction and armed reconnaissance against critical, perishable targets” and the MQ-9 as “a persistent hunter-killer”—concluded that using non-aviators to operate these armed drones could save several hundred thousand dollars per pilot/controller.

Ms. Franke takes issue with my mention of 75 countries having drone programs underway. My essay did not say that all of them are UCAV programs, but some are. In fact, Russia is developing what it calls “automated strike aircraft.” Germany is procuring armed drones. After its experience in Libya and Mali, France is keenly interested in acquiring the Reaper. And then there are the known unknowns: Are Hezbollah’s drones armed? Has North Korea retooled its drones into offensive weapons? To whom will China sell its armed drones? Moreover, a drone doesn’t have to be armed to trigger an international incident, as the US and Iran have learned, which is one of my broader points: Drones could usher in a new age of accidental wars.

A final caveat on sourcing: Ms. Franke writes, “There is not as much scholarship on drones as one might think; most of the articles…are predominantly based on newspaper editorials and other media reports,” and she warns against using “notoriously unreliable media reports.”

First, I am aware of no “notoriously unreliable media reports” cited in my essay. Second, owing to the nature of this new, evolving weapons system, the use of media reports as supporting material is unavoidable. Third, just as it is problematic to conflate “UAV” and “UCAV,” it is problematic to conflate “editorials” and “media reports.” Of the 49 footnotes in my essay, one comes from an editorial: a New York Times editorial expressly cited to convey how armed drones are being promoted by the press. Two come from authoritative essays penned by topic experts: a former US ambassador and a former NSC official. There are 20 news sources cited, six Defense Department reports, five books, three scholarly journals/reports, two military briefings/interviews, two polls, one State Department briefing, one treaty and one statute.