There are a lot of terms you can use to talk about planes that fly without anyone inside them. You might be overwhelmed by these choices and be unsure what you’re supposed to say at your next congressional hearing, political rally or family barbeque.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey recently had some harsh words for people who talk about “drones.” “You will never hear me use the word ‘drone’ and you’ll never hear me use the term ‘unmanned aerial systems,’” Dempsey said.
Dempsey told reporters he wanted them to say “remotely piloted aircraft,” instead. But then Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel uttered the dreaded D-word in an interview with Charlie Rose—on the very same day.
So who is right?
Letter of the day
Q is the only letter you need to worry about when talking about pilotless aircraft. But the letter’s definition depends on where you find it.
The alphabet soup of American military aircraft designations—things like F-16C, AC-130U and NKC-135A—is governed by a set of rules called the Mission Design Series, or MDS. Q is the MDS letter for planes without pilots.
For example, when the Q is first—as in QF-16A, one of which is seen above—that is officially called a “drone.” But when the Q is last—like MQ-1B—the rules say it is an “unmanned aircraft.”
So what about remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and unmanned aerial combat vehicles (UCAV)? The Air Force’s official MDS manual says these are all valid terms for “unmanned aircraft.”
So what’s the difference between a drone and an unmanned aircraft? The aircraft are apparently largely identical, according to their formal definitions.
Neither type has a pilot inside and both can be flown either by remote control or autonomously. On the other hand, the rules say a balloon can be an unmanned aircraft, but it can’t be a drone.
The drone definition also clearly says it can carry “lethal or non-lethal payloads.” Similarly, unmanned aircraft might carry weapons … or might not.
But the flying branch says a UAV never carries weapons—that would make it a UCAV.
Talk this way
The Pentagon clearly has preferences, regardless of any official definitions. Dempsey’s comments are a prime example.
In March, the Air Force published a style guide to help its news editors deal with “Air Force-unique words and phrases.” The guide claims the service’s preferred term is “RPA.”
“Remotely piloted aircraft systems”—a term not found in the MDS manual—is also suggested. UAS is okay, too, but only if you’re talking about the whole setup—the aircraft, control station, etc.
But the Air Force style sheet says you should never, ever, say “UAV.” Also, the people flying them are not “operators,” they’re “RPA pilots.”
And herein lies the crux of the matter.
Dempsey wants reporters to call them RPAs in order to remind the public that there is a human being at the stick and that dozens of people are required to keep the aircraft flying. “There is a man or woman in the loop,” he added after his remarks about the word “drone.”
The flying branch also needs to reinforce the idea of actual personnel flying unmanned planes. The service is run by pilots and it would have something of an existential crisis in a world without them—so be on the look out for the up-and-coming term “pilot-optional.”
The Defense Department has struggled more and more with these issues as drones become a more important part of the military arsenal. The Pentagon’s attempt last year to create a medal for drone pilots turned into a public-relations nightmare.
So really, the media and the public are not entirely wrong when they use any of the half-dozen terms for pilotless planes. The real issue is more philosophical.
The Pentagon knows the American way of war is changing. But the brass also knows that existing awards and decorations—and words—don’t always fit anymore. In demanding semantic consistency, the military is just trying to make sense of a confusing time.