Drop Zone: What’s in a Name? Redefining Drones in the Professional Lexicon

By Jahara “FRANKY” Matisek


Drones.  Rarely does a day pass without major news outlets employing the word as an active part of America’s Global War on Terror. Indeed, the internet, television, news media, and even our own government officials often use the word to describe what we in the Air Force call an RPA—Remotely Piloted Aircraft. The Air Force has resisted the term “drones” stating that it belies the role of “personnel in the loop.” However, is there a good reason to keep the term ‘drones’? Alternatively, should the United States Air Force and broader Department of Defense (DoD) continue its quest to change what seems to be cemented into the public lexicon? To explore the answer, it is best to start with the basics.


Defining Drones

For the uninitiated, “drone” did not enter the U.S. military lexicon until 1935 when U.S. naval officers visited Britain to observe a Royal Navy demonstration of a remote-controlled aircraft, named Queen Bee, to facilitate training for anti-aircraft gunners learning how to aim and fire accurately. These U.S. naval officers began using the name “drone” as a nod to the namesake of the Queen Bee of Britain. Since that time, numerous acronyms have entered the lexicon of military service to describe aviation drones: UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), UCAV (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle), UAVS (Unmanned Aircraft Vehicle System), UA (Unmanned Aircraft), UAS (Unmanned Aircraft/Aerial System or Uninhabited Air System), RPA (Remotely Piloted Aircraft), and RPAS (Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems). One can only assume how many more acronyms might develop in the 21st century with the addition of artificial intelligence (AI) and other automated processes requiring limited to no human involvement.

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines drone in the context of military use as “a remote-controlled pilotless aircraft or missile.” This layman’s definition has plenty of room for growth as unmanned weapons systems have been designed to operate on land, the sea, and even in space. On the other hand, the Department of Defense adds additional granularity. Joint Publication 3-30, Command and Control of Joint Air Operations, provides the most current definitions of “drones” in the U.S. military lexicon:

  • Unmanned Aircraft (UA) – An aircraft that does not carry a human operator and is capable of flight with or without human remote control.
  • Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) – That system whose components include the necessary equipment, network, and personnel to control an unmanned aircraft.

While none of these definitions refer to the need for a pilot, all drones currently operated by the U.S. military require a trained individual (customarily a rated aviator) to control it at some point.  Even this, however, is evolving as drone technology advances in line with increasing demands for more drone coverage. The Air Force is already in the process of training 100 enlisted members (by 2020) to become rated in the operation of unarmed drones. Furthermore, the Air Force and Army allow for minimal training to permit their enlisted and officers to operate small unmanned aircraft systems (SUAS) without earning a specialty certification or service identifier. Such efforts to decentralize the certification process for the use of easy to operate SUAS drones provide numerous units increased battlefield flexibility in being able to ‘organically’ produce and operate smaller drone systems to achieve on-demand Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR). This is becoming increasingly important in the attempt to counter insurgents, such as ISIS and the Taliban, which have started to regularly employ commercial off the shelf drones for their own ISR, propaganda, and combat purposes.


Drone Identity Crisis 

Due to technological advancements in communication and computing power over the last 20 years, various drones have come into civilian, commercial, and government/military use, leading to a hodgepodge of new terms. A drone, however, should not be confused with other weapon systems that can fly. For example, some might believe a drone is no different than a cruise missile, missing that a cruise missile is on a “one way trip,” while drones are launched with the expectation of a safe recovery. Nevertheless, new roles and types of drones, to include their application by various agencies and organizations around the world, has led to growth in innumerable narrowly defined terms and acronyms to describe drones, creating confusion instead of clarity. In fact, it even appears that the DoD professionally and informally detests the use of the word ‘drone.’

The term drone is absent from official DoD publications, such as the Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap: FY 2013-2038. The first roadmap, published in 2000, omitted the term. However, a noticeable change occurred in 2005 when the roadmap acknowledged the decision to stop using UAV and instead use UAS in accordance with the Federal Aviation Authority’s (FAA) decision to standardize drone terminology. Despite this instance of accommodation, this seems to be as far as the DoD is willing to flex to external influence on how to describe its weapons systems.

Despite the common use of UAS in Joint Publications, the Department has slowly moved to redefine the system commonly understood as “drone” to Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA). Then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey was quoted in 2014: “You will never hear me use the word ‘drone,’ and you’ll never hear me use the term ‘unmanned aerial systems…Because they are not. They are remotely piloted aircraft.”  He continued, stating that too many people conjure up images of robotic drones “flying around semi-autonomously making their own decisions and conducting kinetic strikes without oversight by responsible human beings.” The General is correct. Of all the military drones operated by over 90 different countries (armed and/or unarmed), each one requires a human to be involved in the operation of the aircraft (trained pilot) and, if armed, delivery of weapon payloads (operator).

The history outlined above begs the question, “Does the world not understand that a drone needs a human to pilot it and operate its weapon systems?”  Perhaps a better question is, given DoD and FAA insistence on the use of terms like RPA and UAS respectively, has the general public replaced “drones” with these new acronyms?  The answer is “Maybe, but probably not.”


The Negative Connotation of Drones

Why does the DoD and FAA insist on using acronyms to describe what is known commonly as a drone? Is the term “drone” now a dreaded “d-word” pejorative because of the way it is viewed by the American public or the rest of the world? This is a possibility given that a 2014 Pew Research Center study asked citizens in 87 countries: “Do you approve or disapprove of the U.S. using drone strikes to target extremists?” Israelis (65%), Kenyans (53%), and Americans (52%) were the only plurality of citizens in favor of drone strikes. In other countries, such as Argentina, Jordan, Egypt, Venezuela, and Pakistan, 5% or less of citizens approved of such drone strikes. Might these results have been different if UAS, RPA or UAV was used in place of “drone” in such surveys? In fact, many companies since 2013 have tried to campaign for terms that get away from the “d-word” since they are “wary of its negative connotations” due to media discussions about drones being used in a military context, despite there being a large civilian sector opportunity for their use.

There of course is a host of domestic and international concerns about drone operations. However, the U.S. typically has diplomatic arrangements in place with various countries allowing the operation of combat drones in their country. Thus, to even speculate that an air strike from a drone is an illegal or immoral action is reflective of a misunderstanding of the legal aspects of employing military force abroad. In all seriousness, there is little to no difference between an F-16 or MQ-9 delivering a precision airstrike against an insurgent or terrorist. The only real difference is loitering time over a target area (based on fuel consumption), where a fighter aircraft can typically only patrol for about an hour whereas an MQ-9 can have a loiter endurance of almost 27 hours. Hence, drones have merely enabled an operational transformation of airstrikes (by expanding targeting and strike windows), but drones have not changed the nature, spirit, or legality of warfare.


Lexicon Data on Drones

In performing a Google Scholar search on each phrase or term used for drone in scholarly journals and magazines, the figure below presents my results, having controlled for certain variables.


Note: Each drone word expression was used conjunction with the word “military.”  This made it possible for us to get data on the amount of literature pertaining directly to the use of drone-type aircraft for military uses, while managing to exclude writings referring to them in a non-military context.  To further weed out superfluous documents, patents and citations were excluded from the search as well.  While not exactly the most scientific of methods to hunt for the prevalence of certain terms in a context, it does illustrate some positivist facts pertaining to our article and the prevalence of each term in the field of academia.  For an example of what our methodological search looked like, see this link.
Clearly, “drone” is leading the pack in global literature. Maybe it is time we stop trying to invent new terms and acronyms. As it stands, the creation of different drone offshoots is trying to either obfuscate or describe an overly-specialized niche that will not outlast “drone.”


Recommendation: Build a Robust Understanding of Military Drones

The military is of course best served if its civilian oversight better understands the details of its business and precision in terminology is critical to that. However, are we unintentionally muddying the waters and confusing the debate by introducing acronyms that are overwhelmed by the broader public conversation? As the research above suggests, the word “drone” will likely remain the global term to describe what the FAA refers to as a UAS and what military leadership would prefer to call an RPA.

Therefore, if global inertia is against the military terminology, do we wade headlong into a semantic battle we will likely lose (and are losing) or do we chart a course within the current and attempt to shape it? Is it enough to ensure the public understands that “drones” are still controlled by humans? If so, can we then spend that valuable time with Congress, the media, and the public advocating for adequate funding and a more nuanced understanding of the benefits of militarized drones? More importantly, could we better argue for domestic and commercial uses of drones that do not conjure up images of a garrison state? If not, the time and energy wasted conjuring up new enigmatic drone terms will be about as successful as eating soup with a knife!



Even though the originators of the drone did not envision the use of pilots to remotely control them the way we do today, there is a need to reshape the debate due to current rhetoric surrounding their use. The DoD and various intellectual leaders in policy and academia need to provide more nuance in what drones actually do in war and in non-war operations—such as providing efficient domestic search and rescue capabilities. We need to get away from the ‘drone hyperbole’ in which many experts have engaged by trying to politicize a weapon system that provides similar kinetic effects to other weapons systems. Would such ‘drone critics’ prefer an ally on the ground providing targeting guidance for an inbound cruise missile or B-1 strike? The only difference is an increase in cost and risk.

In many ways, armed military drones are no different than any other air weapon system to come along since the advent of aerial bombardment—in 1911 Italian military aircraft were the first in history to conduct bombing missions in Libya. Reframing how drones are perceived domestically and internationally, be it through shaping Wikipedia’s definition or how they are portrayed in social media, requires meticulous arguments that debunk the “High-Tech Assassins” narrative. Moreover, with such reframing, perhaps we could accept drone definitions found in various DoD publications to get past the new drone acronym game and instead focus on the variety of capabilities that drones provide to political and military leadership. Then the DoD can advance discussions on how the U.S. employs its military capabilities around the world instead of getting caught in a losing debate over weapon systems terminology.


Jahara “FRANKY” Matisek is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at Northwestern University studying Political Science and Conflict.  Upon completion of his studies, he will be an Assistant Professor of Military & Strategic Studies at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He is a former C-17 pilot and T-6 instructor pilot with more than 3000 hours, to include over 700 hours in combat.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

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