Army Use of Drones in U.S. is Constrained, Not Prohibited

02.14.13 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

There are significant barriers to the Army’s use of unmanned aerial systems within the United States, according to a new Army manual, but they are not prohibitive or categorical.

“Legal restrictions on the use of unmanned aircraft systems in domestic operations are numerous,” the manual states.  The question arises particularly in the context of Defense Support of Civil Authorities (DSCA), refering to military assistance to government agencies in disaster response and other domestic emergencies.

“Use of DOD intelligence capabilities for DSCA missions–such as incident awareness and assessment, damage assessment, and search and rescue–requires prior Secretary of Defense approval, together with approval of both the mission and use of the exact DOD intelligence community capabilities. Certain missions require not only approval of the Secretary of Defense, but also coordination, certification, and possibly, prior approval by the Attorney General of the United States.”

As a general rule, “military forces cannot use military systems for surveillance and pursuit of individuals.”  This is precluded by the Posse Comitatus Act, as reflected in DoD Directive 5525.5.

But there is a possibility that exceptions may arise, the manual indicates.  “[Unmanned aircraft] operators cannot conduct surveillance on specifically identified U.S. persons, unless expressly approved by the Secretary of Defense, consistent with U.S. laws and regulations.”  See U.S. Army Field Manual FM 3-52, Airspace Control, February 2013 (especially Appendix G).

“Commanders decide to employ unmanned aircraft systems judiciously. Use of unmanned aircraft systems requires approval at high levels within the DOD and the FAA prior to employment in DSCA,” the manual states.

“Certain unmanned aircraft systems such as Global Hawk can operate far above normal commercial traffic while providing situation assessment to ground commanders. Intermediate systems such as the Predator have supported recent disaster operations, dramatically increasing situational awareness at the joint field office level. If available and authorized, these systems can provide near-real-time surveillance to command posts for extended periods. The approval process is not automatic.”

The Army manual asserts that the perceived risks of drone failure or accident are out of proportion to the actual documented risks.

“For example, from 2003 to 2010, small, unmanned aircraft systems flew approximately 250,000 hours with only one incident of a collision with another airspace user. However, the perception of the risk posed by small, unmanned aircraft systems was much greater.” (page A-1).