Lines between military and civilian drones are blurring, says Stimson's Stohl

By MIKE FRANCIS | The Oregonian, Portland, Ore. | Published: July 23, 2014

The U.S. government is rightly concerned with the ethical, legal and strategic considerations that are being developed to govern the use of remotely piloted aircraft, or drones. But it should also give time and attention to the long-term prospects for a domestic drone industry, a Stimson Center project manager told a Portland audience Tuesday.

Rachel Stohl, a senior associate with the Managing Across Boundaries initiative at the non-partisan Stimson Center, spoke to the World Affairs Council of Oregon Tuesday about a recently issued Stimson Center report and recommendations on U.S. drone policy. Among the report's recommendations: The United States should develop a sophisticated export control strategy for drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs.

(Read the full report: Stimson Report on U.S. Drone Policy.pdf)

If the United States can foster such a strategy for exporting U.S.-made drones, it can strengthen the domestic aerospace industry, encourage international cooperation and share the burden of providing international security, Stohl said.

"We don't want to see the U.S. drone industry put out of business," she said.

Yet the United States is lagging other nations in regulating civilian drone flights, with the Federal Aviation Administration trying to set rules in advance of a September 2015 deadline imposed by Congress. The slowness to create a regulatory framework for commercial drones stymies innovation, which has implications for U.S. leadership on drone policy, she said.

Between the lack of an export strategy and the rapid evolution of unmanned flight technology, the U.S. lead in the field won't last long, she said.

"You say the U.S. has the best," she said. "That's going to end very, very quickly."

Rules for weaponized drones

Much of Stohl's focus Tuesday was on the federal government's apparent lack of strategic direction for the use of weaponized drones. She said the Stimson Center task force is worried that the administration has slipped into a defacto approach to the targeted drone strikes that lacks accountability, oversight, strategic direction and even a thoughtful analysis of whether drone strikes are helping or hurting U.S. interests.

She said some of the polarized debate that has occurred was brought on by the U.S. government's own decision generally not to disclose and not to explain the way it employs weaponized drones, and even how it decides to employ them.

"The continuing lack of transparency 13 years in is very troubling," she said.

The United States still has the opportunity to lead an international conversation that sets "rules of the road" for drone use, but the opportunity won't last forever, Stohl said.


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