In the late 1990s at Nellis Air Force Base, I overheard a
lively discussion of what the development of drones meant for the definition of a “pilot,” a key issue for Air Force officers—to be a pilot in our Air Force, one had to be an officer. Although drones were in use in the Balkans at the time, they were not very visible in news reporting or even within the foreign affairs community of the government. I doubt any of the 30 or so career civilian and military officials in that group knew of the role drones were already playing in the Balkans.
Now we are all aware of drones thanks to their increasing use, and the issues are of much wider concern than whether a drone operator should be considered a pilot. Most people assume drones are a recent addition to our country’s military options, but the U.S. military began working with drones during World War II for surveillance and target practice, and even experimented with using drones as
weapons, “aerial torpedoes.” Some normally-piloted aircraft were converted into drones after the end of the war, mostly to collect data on nuclear tests, and some of the more than 40 nations that deploy drones are using converted aircraft that are normally piloted by humans. (At the other end of the scale, drones the sizes of hummingbirds and insects are in development.) Through the following decades, drones were primarily used as targets for anti-aircraft practice and increasingly for surveillance. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Air Force launched well over 3,000 reconnaissance drone missions and lost over 500 drones. Today, the Air Force has more than 5,000 drones, over twice as many drones as piloted aircraft. They are still primarily used for reconnaissance and intelligence missions, but most of us know and are concerned about their use as weapons…