1. Opinion

Column: Don't forget that drones started as military weapons

Secret Service officers search the south grounds of the White House on Jan. 26, 2015, the morning after a drone crashed on the White House lawn.
Published Oct. 14, 2016

At the conclusion of World War II, Gen. Henry H. "Hap" Arnold made a prediction: "We have just won a war with a lot of heroes flying around in planes. The next war may be fought by airplanes with no men in them at all. … It will be different from anything the world has ever seen."

His timing wasn't exact, but he was prescient. Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, weren't used in the next war, but they have been deployed extensively in the global struggle against terrorism and extremist ideologies. And now we have to be careful they're not used against U.S. interests by terrorists who modify civilian drones.

Years ago, defense contractors realized military drones could be adapted and sold in civilian markets. The idea was simple: If allowed to operate in the U.S. National Airspace System, drones would generate an estimated 10,000 jobs, $80 billion in revenue, and spin-off technologies for future weapons. But first, the legal barriers restricting drone flights to 400 feet or less above ground needed to be removed.

After lobbying Congress, the unmanned aircraft industry achieved its greatest success — the inclusion of language on drones in the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act. The new law required the FAA to integrate drones into the national airspace system by Sept. 30, 2015.

Concerns about privacy and the lethal use of drones persisted while the act was debated, but these were mostly dismissed. The economic prospects of a new era in civil aviation where drones would deliver mail, assist with agriculture and do other domestic tasks seemed worth it to many.

However, the romantic vision was about to encounter an unanticipated reality. In early 2015, a small drone crashed on the White House lawn. The crash was immediately followed by a scare on the National Mall when Doug Hughes, a former mailman from Ruskin, landed his gyrocopter there to protest government corruption.

The rapid succession of air-related incursions in one of the most secure "no-fly zones" in the world prompted demands for an examination of drone safety and security. However, unlike Arnold, who foresaw the rise of unmanned aircraft in warfare, few understood warfare's next evolutionary leap was already under way — drones as weapons of terror. So a headline about ISIS using small drones as offensive weapons to kill two is no surprise.

In spite of our hopeful quest to use civil drones, the realities of our day demand a fresh review of facts relating to drone safety and security. In recent years, lone actors and groups acting on behalf of extremist organizations have tried, failed and succeeded with drone attacks. This is a logical progression given that many terror networks have witnessed firsthand the lethality drones can deliver. Adapting this technology along with novel strategies for terrorism was inevitable.

While the race to develop and deploy drone defense systems is underway, we are dangerously behind. In 2015, the FAA and Department of Homeland Security took great pains to warn the public against flying drones over the Super Bowl. In addition to the Super Bowl, according the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and other reports, drones continue coordinated flights over sensitive locations including nuclear power stations and weapons storage areas in the United States and Europe.

This trend follows other high-profile incursions. It also demonstrates conventional security measures at secure or hardened areas can be penetrated by these systems. However, it's the payload that poses the greatest risk.

Recently, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague, Netherlands, noted that drones could potentially deliver chemical, biological or other weapons. And it's already been done. In 2014, a protester used a drone to drop sand laced with radioactive cesium on the Japanese prime minister's office complex located in a high rise.

While industry and regulators are occupied with marketing and developing beneficial civil drones, we must consider the dangers of repurposed systems.

After 9/11, the United States invested more than an estimated $680 billion to harden our national infrastructure, much of which may now be bypassed by drones. As the United States prepares the next generation of security and defense protocols, we must consider small drones in our calculus.

Drones are often used for beneficial purposes and have saved lives both on and off the battlefield, but we must never forget how unmanned aircraft gained prominence: through intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and lethal targeting.

David J. Stuckenberg is a national security expert and chairman of the American Leadership & Policy Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit national security think tank based in Washington and Kansas City. Sarah J. Nilsson is an Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University law professor and author focusing on aviation and international drone law. She is also a senior fellow at the American Leadership and Policy Foundation.


  1. Eugene Robinson
    Impeachment is no longer optional. | Eugene Robinson
  2.  LISA BENSON  |  Lisa Benson -- Washington Post Writers Group
  3. Times files Tampa Bay Times
    Organizations that do not represent the entire region should not be using the region’s name, Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long says.
  4. A Brown Pelican tries to raise its wings as it sits on the beach at East Grand Terre Island along the Louisiana coast after being drenched in oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in June 2010.
    Here’s what readers had to say in Friday’s letters to the editor.
  5. An egret wades in the Indian River Lagoon earlier this year as clumps of algae float near mangroves in the background.
    The law was designed to protect all of our waters from pollution, degradation and destruction.
  6. University of South Florida St. Petersburg's campus URSO, CHRIS  |  Tampa Bay Times
    A revised plan better benefits students on all three campuses and more fairly treats the St. Petersburg campus.
  7. Editorial cartoons for Thursday TIM CAMPBELL  |  Washington Post Syndicate
  8. More emphasis on rehabilitation and a review of court fines and fees would be a start, a columnist writes.
  9. A graffiti of modern Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is seen on the Turkish side of the border between Turkey and Syria, in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019. LEFTERIS PITARAKIS  |  AP
    Here’s what readers had to say in Thursday’s letters to the editor.
  10. Donald Baylis, left, kisses Rosalyn Dobson's hand before getting on buses at an assisted living facility in South Florida to evacuate in advance of the arrival of Hurricane Irma in Sept., 2017. [Photo by Andrew Innerarity for the Washington Post]
    A state lawmaker’s bill would scrap the requirement that assisted living facilities report to the state when a resident is hurt or dies within one business day.