Pentagon flew handful of drones over U.S. in last decade

Shutterstock image. Copyright: Ivan Cholakov

The Defense Department has in the last decade flown drones over U.S. territory multiple times in support of civilian authorities, according to a newly released inspector general report.

The drone flights, of which there were fewer than 20, were done lawfully and DOD officials take the domestic use of drones, or unmanned aircraft systems, "very seriously," the report said. It was released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from FCW and other outlets.

The IG report, dated March 20, 2015, surveyed the U.S. military's use of drones for non-military missions from September 2006. It sheds light on the complications that arise when the DOD puts to use domestically a technology that has become an emblem of U.S. power projection.

There are no federal statutes that address the "employment of the capability" provided by a military drone when it is requested by civil authorities, according to the IG; DOD officials have therefore drawn up an applicable policy framework.

One issue the IG found was a lack of a standardized process for approving DOD drone use in support of civil authorities. "We were told that this ad hoc process contributed to anxiety among the service and [National Guard Bureau] unit commanders about when they had the authority to employ their UAS resources as requested," the report said.

Representatives of the military services and the National Guard also expressed concern to the IG that "policy ambiguity is potentially degrading UAS training and operational readiness." The DOD response to the report said that a February 2015 directive addressed this issue.

According to the IG, the decline in  use of drones overseas has resulted in fewer training opportunities for drone use. Military officials see an opportunity to fill that training gap domestically, the report said.

Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, said the IG report was a "positive story," and an indication that the rules for domestic drone use were working.

"Remarkably, out of the relatively small number of requests for support that DOD has received from civil authorities since 2006 ('less than twenty'), at least some of them were not approved," Aftergood told FCW. "So the standards for evaluating the requests appear to be meaningful."

The IG concluded that while drone operators across the DOD "understand the American public's legitimate concerns about civil liberties and privacy rights, they do not operate UASs any differently from manned platforms with similar capabilities."

About the Author

Sean Lyngaas is an FCW staff writer covering defense, cybersecurity and intelligence issues. Prior to joining FCW, he was a reporter and editor at Smart Grid Today, where he covered everything from cyber vulnerabilities in the U.S. electric grid to the national energy policies of Britain and Mexico. His reporting on a range of global issues has appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Economist, The Washington Diplomat and The Washington Post.

Lyngaas is an active member of the National Press Club, where he served as chairman of the Young Members Committee. He earned his M.A. in international affairs from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and his B.A. in public policy from Duke University.

Click here for previous articles by Lyngaas, or connect with him on Twitter: @snlyngaas.


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