Unmanned combat aerial vehicle

An MQ-9 Reaper during a training mission

An unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV), also known as a combat drone or drone, is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that usually carries aircraft ordnance such as missiles. Aircraft of this type have no onboard human pilot.[1] These drones are usually under real-time human control, with varying levels of autonomy.[2]

Equipment necessary for a human pilot (such as the cockpit, armor, ejection seat, flight controls, and environmental controls for pressure and oxygen) are not needed, as the operator runs the vehicle from a remote terminal, resulting in a lower weight and a smaller size than a manned aircraft.

While several nations possess and manufacture unarmed UAV, only the United States, Israel, Italy, China, India, Pakistan and Turkey[3] are at present known to have manufactured operational UCAV as of December 2015.[4]


One of the earliest explorations of the concept of the combat drone was by Lee De Forest, an early inventor of radio devices, and U. A. Sanabria, a TV engineer. They presented their idea in an article in a 1940 publication of Popular Mechanics.[5] The modern military drone as known today was the brainchild of John Stuart Foster Jr., a nuclear physicist and former head of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (then called the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory).[6] In 1971, Foster was a model airplane hobbyist and had the idea this hobby could be applied to building weapons.[6] He drew up plans and by 1973 DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) built two prototypes called "Praeire" and "Calere". They were powered by a modified lawn-mower engine and could stay aloft for two hours while carrying 28-pounds of load.[6]

In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel used unarmed U.S. Ryan Firebee target drones to spur Egypt into firing its entire arsenal of anti-aircraft missiles. This mission was accomplished with no injuries to Israeli pilots, who soon exploited the depleted Egyptian defenses. In the late 1970s and 80s, Israel developed the Scout and the Pioneer, which represented a shift toward the lighter, glider-type model of UAV in use today. Israel pioneered the use of Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for real-time surveillance, electronic warfare, and decoys.[7][8][9] The images and radar decoying provided by these UAVs helped Israel to completely neutralize the Syrian air defenses in Operation Mole Cricket 19 at the start of the 1982 Lebanon War, resulting in no pilots downed.[10]

In the late 1980s, Iran deployed a drone armed with six RPG-7 rounds in the Iran–Iraq War. This was the first time an armed drone was used in war.[11]

Impressed by Israel's success, the US quickly acquired a number of UAVs, and its Hunter and Pioneer systems are direct derivatives of Israeli models. The first 'UAV war' was the first Gulf War: according to a May 1991 Department of the Navy report: "At least one UAV was airborne at all times during Desert Storm." After the Gulf War successfully demonstrated their utility, global militaries invested widely in the domestic development of combat UAVs.[12] The first "kill" by an American UAV was on October 7, 2001 in Kandahar.[13]

In recent years the U.S. has increased its use of drone strikes against targets in foreign countries and elsewhere as part of the War on Terror. In January 2014, it was estimated that 2,400 people have died from U.S. drone strikes in five years.[14] In June 2015 the total death toll of U.S. drone strikes was estimated to exceed 6,000.[15]

Future models

A BAE Raven during flight testing
The EADS Barracuda on the Manching Air Base in Germany
Drone coaxial helicopter with 30mm chain gun


Note: Some of these are not aircraft prototypes but technology demonstrators (TD) that are not expected to enter service.

Name Manufacturer(s) Developing nation(s)
A-10PCAS Elbit Systems Israel
Sky-X (TD) Alenia Aeronautica Italy
Selex ES Falco Selex ES Italy
Eitan Israel Aerospace Industries Israel
Harop Israel Aerospace Industries Israel
AVIC 601-S Shenyang Aircraft Design Institute China
AURA Defence Research and Development Organisation India
Taranis (TD) BAE Systems United Kingdom
Dassault nEUROn (TD) Dassault Aviation
Rustom Defence Research and Development Organisation India
Avenger General Atomics Aeronautical Systems United States
X-47A (TD)/B (TD)/C Northrop Grumman United States
Armstechno Dulo (TD) Armstechno Bulgaria
Bateleur (TD) Denel Dynamics South Africa
Anka-TP (SIHA) Turkish Aerospace Industries Turkey
Bayraktar TB2 Kale-Baykar Turkey
Vestel Karayel Vestel Savunma A.S.[16] Turkey
Burraq[17] NESCOM Pakistan
GIDS Shahpar GIDS Pakistan
GIDS Uqab NESCOM Pakistan
Ra'd[18] Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran Iran
Karrar[19] Iran Iran
Sofreh Mahi[20] Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Company Iran
Fotros Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Company - Capable of long missions Iran
Shahed 129[21] Shahed Aviation Industries Research Center Iran
Barracuda (TD) EADS
Skat[22] Mikoyan Russia

Various Chinese UCAV concepts have also materialized. WZ-2000, UCAV versions of the Xianglong high altitude are long endurance UAV. Also, dedicated UCAV's Shenyang's Dark Sword (Anjian), and also revealed at Zhuhai 2008 was a model of a stealth strike UCAV with forward swept wings, filling a similar niche to U.S. X-45 called the Warrior Eagle.

BAE Taranis

BAE Taranis model, one of the largest design concepts
Main article: BAE Taranis

Taranis is a British demonstrator programme for unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) technology. It is part of the UK's Strategic Unmanned Air Vehicle (Experimental) programme (SUAV[E]). BAE describes Taranis's role in this context as following: "This £124m four year programme is part of the UK Government's Strategic Unmanned Air Vehicle Experiment (SUAVE) and will result in a UCAV demonstrator with fully integrated autonomous systems and low observable features." The Taranis demonstrator will have an MTOW (Maximum Takeoff Weight) of about 8000 kilograms and be of comparable size to the BAE Hawk – making it one of the world's largest UAVs. It will be stealthy, fast, and able to deploy a range of munitions over a number of targets, as well as being capable of defending itself against manned and other unmanned enemy aircraft. The first steel was cut in September 2007 and ground testing started in early 2009. The first flight of the Taranis took place in August 2013 in Woomera, Australia.[23] The demonstrator will have two internal weapons bays. With the inclusion of "full autonomy" the intention is thus for this platform to be able to "think for itself" for a large part of the mission.


J-UCAS Boeing X-45A UCAV technology demonstrator

Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems, or J-UCAS, was the name for the joint U.S. Navy/U.S. Air Force unmanned combat air vehicle procurement project. J-UCAS was managed by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. In the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, the J-UCAS program was terminated.[24] The program would have used stealth technologies and allowed UCAVs to be armed with precision-guided weapons such as Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) or precision miniature munitions, such as the Small-Diameter Bomb, which are used to suppress enemy air defenses. Controllers could have used real-time data sources, including satellites, to plan for and respond to changes on and around the battlefield.

The program was later revitalized into UCAS-D, a United States Navy program designed to develop a carrier-based unmanned aircraft.[25]


UCAS-D and Northrop Grumman X-47B are the U.S. Navy-only successors to the J-UCAS, which was cancelled in 2006. Boeing is also working on the X-45N in this sector.

In a New Year 2011 editorial titled "China's Naval Ambitions", The New York Times said "[t]he Pentagon must accelerate efforts to make American naval forces in Asia less vulnerable to Chinese missile threats by giving them the means to project their deterrent power from further offshore. Cutting back purchases of the Navy's DDG-1000 destroyer (with its deficient missile defense system) was a first step. A bigger one would be to reduce the Navy's reliance on short-range manned strike aircraft like the F-18 and the F-35, in favor of the carrier-launched N-UCAS ...."[26]

On 6 January 2011, the DOD announced that this would be one area of additional investment in the 2012 budget request.[27]

USAF Hunter-Killer

Main article: USAF Hunter-Killer

The United States Air Force has shifted its UCAV program from medium-range tactical strike aircraft to long-range strategic bombers.[24] The technology of the Long Range Strike program is based on the Lockheed Martin Polecat demonstrator.

Elbit Hermes 450

Main article: Elbit Hermes 450

The Israeli Air Force, which operates a squadron of Hermes 450s out of Palmachim Airbase south of Tel Aviv, has adapted the Hermes 450 for use as an assault UAV, reportedly equipping it with two Hellfire missiles or, according to various sources, two Rafael-made missiles. According to Israeli, Palestinian, Lebanese and independent reports, the Israeli assault UAV has seen extensive service in the Gaza Strip and was used intensively in the Second Lebanon War. Israel has not denied this capability, but to date, its policy has been not to officially confirm it either.

Lethal Miniature Aerial Munition System (LMAMS)

The LMAMS is a man-carried missile with many UAV characteristics such as loitering time and a hand-held ground station.[28][29]


Countries with known operational armed drones:

Laws and ethics of war

UAVs face multiple ethical issues.

Stand-off attacks

The "unmanned" aspect of armed UAVs has raised moral concerns about their use in combat and law enforcement contexts. Attacking humans with remote-controlled machines is even more abstract than the use of other "stand-off" weaponry, such as missiles, artillery and aerial bombardment, possibly depersonalizing the decision to attack. By contrast, UAVs and other stand-off systems reduce casualties among the attackers.[45]

Autonomous attacks

The picture is further complicated if the UAV can initiate an attack autonomously, without direct human involvement. Such UAVs could possibly react more quickly and without bias, but would lack human sensibility.[46] Heather Roff replies that LARs may not be appropriate for complex conflicts and targeted populations would likely react angrily against them.[46] Will McCants argues that the public would be more outraged by machine failures than human error, making LARs politically implausible.[46] According to Mark Gubrud, claims that drones can be hacked are overblown and misleading and moreover, drones are more likely to be hacked if they're autonomous, because otherwise the human operator would take control: "Giving weapon systems autonomous capabilities is a good way to lose control of them, either due to a programming error, unanticipated circumstances, malfunction, or hack and then not be able to regain control short of blowing them up, hopefully before they've blown up too many other things and people."[47]

Civilian casualties


In March 2009, The Guardian reported allegations that Israeli UAVs armed with missiles killed 48 Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip, including two small children in a field and a group of women and girls in an otherwise empty street.[48] In June, Human Rights Watch investigated six UAV attacks that were reported to have resulted in civilian casualties and alleged that Israeli forces either failed to take all feasible precautions to verify that the targets were combatants or failed to distinguish between combatants and civilians.[49][50][51]

United States

Collateral damage of civilians still takes place with drone combat, although some (like John O. Brennan) have argued that it greatly reduces the likelihood.[52] Although drones enable advance tactical surveillance and up-to-the-minute data, flaws can become apparent.[53] The U.S. drone program in Pakistan has killed several dozen civilians accidentally.[54] An example is the operation in 2010 Feb near Khod, in Urozgan Province, Afghanistan. Over ten civilians in a three-vehicle convoy travelling from Daykundi Province were accidentally killed after a drone crew misidentified the civilians as hostile threats. A force of Bell OH-58 Kiowa helicopters, who were attempting to protect ground troops fighting several kilometers away, fired AGM-114 Hellfire missiles at the vehicles.[55][56]

In 2009, Brookings Institution reported that in the US-led drone attacks in Pakistan, ten civilians died for every militant killed.[57][58] A former ambassador of Pakistan said that American UAV attacks were turning Pakistani opinion against the United States.[59] The website PakistanBodyCount.Org reported 1,065 civilian deaths between 2004 and 2010.[60] According to a 2010 analysis by the New America Foundation 114 UAV-based missile strikes in northwest Pakistan from 2004 killed between 830 and 1,210 individuals, around 550 to 850 of whom were militants.[61] In October 2013 the Pakistani government revealed that since 2008 317 drone strikes had killed 2,160 Islamic militants and 67 civilians – far less than previous government and independent organization calculations.[62]

In July 2013, former Pentagon lawyer Jeh Johnson said, on a panel at the Aspen Institute's Security Forum, that he felt an emotional reaction upon reading Nasser al-Awlaki's account of how his 16-year-old grandson was killed by a U.S. drone.[63]

In December 2013, a U.S. drone strike in Radda, capital of Yemen's Bayda province, killed members of a wedding party.[64] The following February, Human Rights Watch published a 28-page report reviewing the strike and its legality, among other things. Titled "A Wedding That Became A Funeral", the report concludes that some (but not necessarily all) of the casualties were civilians, not the intended regional Al-Qaeda targets. The organization demanded US and Yemeni investigations into the attack. In its research, HRW "found no evidence that the individuals taking part in the wedding procession posed an imminent threat to life. In the absence of an armed conflict, killing them would be a violation of international human rights law."[65]

Psychological impact on pilots

Controllers can also experience psychological stress from the combat they are involved in. A few may even experience posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).[66][67] There are even some reports of drone pilots struggling with post traumatic stress disorder after they have killed civilians, especially children. Unlike bomber pilots, moreover, drone operators linger long after the explosives strike and see its effects on human bodies in stark detail. The intense training that US drone operators undergo "works to dehumanise the ‘enemy’ people below whilst glorifying and celebrating the killing process."[68]

Professor Shannon E. French, the director of the Center for Ethics and Excellence at Case Western Reserve University and a former professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, wonders if the PTSD may be rooted in a suspicion that something else was at stake. According to Professor French, the author of the 2003 book The Code of the Warrior:[69]

If [I'm] in the field risking and taking a life, there's a sense that I'm putting skin in the game … I'm taking a risk so it feels more honorable. Someone who kills at a distance—it can make them doubt. Am I truly honorable?

The Missile Technology Control Regime applies to UCAVs.

On 28 October 2009, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, presented a report to the Third Committee (social, humanitarian and cultural) of the General Assembly arguing that the use of unmanned combat air vehicles for targeted killings should be regarded as a breach of international law unless the United States can demonstrate appropriate precautions and accountability mechanisms are in place.[70]

In June 2015 forty-five former US military personnel issued a joint appeal to pilots of aerial drones operating in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan and elsewhere urging them to refuse to fly and indicated that their missions "profoundly violate domestic and international laws." They noted that these drone attacks also undermine principles of human rights.[15]


Professor Faisal Kutty of Valparaiso University Law School argues that the use of drones creates "blowback" and undermines core principles of American identity.[71] He cites statistics from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism,[72] Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the findings of reports issued by Henry L. Stimson Center[73] and a joint report issued by Stanford Law School and New York University School of Law[74] to make his case.[71] The Stimson report was issued by a bipartisan ten-member panel (co-chaired by John Abizaid, a retired US Army general and former chief of US Central Command and Professor Rosa Brooks from Georgetown). The report unequivocally concluded that "The United States should not conduct a long-term killing program based on secret rationales."[73] Kutty also pointed to an op-ed published by two members of the panel, John B Bellinger III, former legal counsel to the White House National Security Council and Jeff Smith, former legal counsel to the CIA, who wrote arguing that a long-term, secret US drone programme, even if authorised under US law and defensible under international law, may not be consistent with "more basic rule-of-law principles that are at the core of the American identity and that we seek to promote around the world."[71]

Political and personal effects

As a new weapon, drones are having unforeseen political effects. Some scholars have argued that the extensive use of drones will undermine the popular legitimacy of local governments, which are blamed for permitting the strikes. The case study for this analysis is Yemen, where drone strikes seem to be increasing resentment against the Yemeni government as well as against the U.S.[75]

Some leaders worry about the effect drone warfare will have on soldiers' psychology. Keith Shurtleff, an army chaplain at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, worries "that as war becomes safer and easier, as soldiers are removed from the horrors of war and see the enemy not as humans but as blips on a screen, there is very real danger of losing the deterrent that such horrors provide".[76] Similar worries surfaced when "smart" bombs began to be used extensively in the First Gulf War.

There are new case studies that are examining the psychological effects drones have on the citizens on the ground. Peter Schaapveld, a forensic psychologist, conducted research in Yemen on the psychological effects of drones. He found that "92 percent of the population sample he examined was found to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder – with children being the demographic most significantly affected."[77] Psychologists in Gaza, meanwhile, talk of a whole generation of Gazan children suffering deep psychological trauma because of the continual exposure to the buzzing sounds of drones high above, machines that can spit lethal violence upon them and their families at any moment. Stanford’s ‘Living Under Drones’ researchers, meanwhile, have shown that civilians in Pakistan and Afghanistan are reluctant to help those hit by the first strikes because rescuers themselves have often been killed by follow-on drone strikes. Injured relatives in the rubble of the first strike have been known to tell their relatives not to help rescue them because of the frequency of these so-called ‘double-tap’ strikes. People also avoid gathering in groups in visible places. Many children are permanently kept indoors and often no longer go to school.[68]

Writer Mark Bowden has disputed this viewpoint saying in his The Atlantic article, "But flying a drone, [the pilot] sees the carnage close-up, in real time—the blood and severed body parts, the arrival of emergency responders, the anguish of friends and family. Often he’s been watching the people he kills for a long time before pulling the trigger. Drone pilots become familiar with their victims. They see them in the ordinary rhythms of their lives—with their wives and friends, with their children. War by remote control turns out to be intimate and disturbing. Pilots are sometimes shaken."[78]

This assessment is corroborated by a sensor operator’s account:

The smoke clears, and there’s pieces of the two guys around the crater. And there’s this guy over here, and he’s missing his right leg above his knee. He’s holding it, and he’s rolling around, and the blood is squirting out of his leg … It took him a long time to die. I just watched him.

Back in the United States, a combination of "lower-class" status in the military, overwork, and psychological trauma may be taking a mental toll on drone pilots. These psychological, cultural and career issues appear to have led to a shortfall in USAF drone operators, which is seen as a "dead end job".[80][81]

Public opinion summary

In 2013 a Fairleigh Dickinson University poll asked registered voters whether they "approve or disapprove of the U.S. Military using drones to carry out attacks abroad on people and other targets deemed a threat to the U.S.?" The results showed that three in every four (75%) of voters approved of the U.S. Military using drones to carry out attacks, while (13%) disapproved.[82] A poll conducted by the Huffington Post in 2013 also showed a majority supporting targeted killings using drones, albeit by a smaller margin.[83] A 2015 poll showed Republicans and men are more likely to support U.S. drone strikes, while Democrats and Independents, women, young people, and minorities are less supportive.[84]

Outside America there is widespread opposition to US drone killings. A July 2014 report found a majority or plurality of respondents in 39 of 44 countries surveyed opposed U.S. drone strikes in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. The U.S., Kenya, and Israel were the only countries where at least half the public supported drone strikes. Venezuela was found to be the most anti-drone country, where 92% of respondents disagreed with U.S. drone strikes, followed closely by Jordan, where 90% disagreed; Israel was shown as the most pro-drone, with 65% in favor of U.S. drone strikes and 27% opposed.[85][86]

Drone carrier ships

Aerial aircraft carrier drone

In March 2013, DARPA began efforts to develop a fleet of small naval vessels capable of launching and retrieving combat drones without the need for large and expensive aircraft carriers.[87]

In November 2014, the Pentagon made an open request for ideas on how to build a flying aircraft carrier that can launch and retrieve drones using existing military aircraft such as the B-1, B-52 or C-130.[88]

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