Drones or UAVs? The search for a more positive name

MoD handout photo of an RAF Reaper UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle). Image copyright Ministry of Defence

At the moment only the US, the UK and Israel are using armed drones - but many others are building them - because they bring new capabilities.

Take, as an example, this story I heard on a trip to Pakistan last year.

An Arab militant used to sleep in the same room as his wife and children in one of Pakistan's tribal areas.

One night four or five Punjabi militants came seeking shelter.

The Arab let them in and decided to sit and talk with them - and he ended up sleeping in the same room as them. That night a drone hit his compound killing all the militants and leaving the wife and children alive.

Can the Americans tell which room someone is sleeping in and who else is in there? And then can they be so accurate as to hit one bedroom not another?

Numerous officials and journalists in Peshawar and of course - many US military officers - believe they are very accurate.

A tribal leader told me another story.

Some Talibs were in the open space of a compound right by a room in which they were holding 18 hostages for ransom.

The kidnapping business is an important source of Taliban funding.

The drone hit the compound and killed all the militants. It also damaged the wall of the prison room to such an extent that the prisoners were all able to walk away unharmed.

It was an outcome the local people described as evidence of the greatness of God.

Drones clearly kill civilians too - although that may be down to targeters making mistakes rather than technological errors. But, in any event, drones are here to stay and countries with global military ambitions - such as France and the UK would like to develop their own drone technology.

But there is a tricky issue ahead - what will they call the machines they make?

As anyone working in public relations knows, if you control the language you are half way to defining an issue. It is the reason journalists get caught up in so many apparently arcane disputes.

Is that construction between Israel and the West Bank a "security fence" or a "wall?" Was Iraq "invaded" or - as US officials insisted in the early days - "liberated"?

Is it "military spending" or "defence expenditure"? And of course is that man with a gun, a "terrorist" or "freedom fighter"?

And so it is with "drones" and… various alternatives. But first, the word itself.

Apparently the contemporary use of the word can be traced back over 75 years to the development of a plane called the Queen Bee.

The UK government wanted an inexpensive, expendable, radio-controlled target for anti-aircraft gunnery practice.

According the October 1935 edition of the US journal Popular Mechanics, the Queen Bee operated perfectly under remote control within a radius of 10 miles from the aerodrome.

And so it went. Starting with the remote-controlled Queen Bee and perhaps influenced by the constant sound of the engine - you end up with a drone.

But the word also has connotations related to male worker bees - drones are generally considered rather mindless creatures - which takes us to the possible implication that the weapons systems are mindless. And not just mindless, of course, but mindless killers.

Which is presumably why the leading manufacturer of drones, the California-based company General Atomics, recently complained to the UK's Defence Select Committee that the word drone has pejorative connotations. (The company, however, was probably not best placed to make the complaint - after all, it calls its two main models the Predator and the Reaper.)

But what is the alternative? Well there is unmanned aerial vehicle - UAV. But some military officers say that does not fully capture the amount of personnel and systems involved in the operations and decision-making process.

So they switched to Unmanned Aerial System. But again that does not show that humans were involved in the process of directing the weapons.

Image copyright AP

And so they came up with the currently favoured Remotely Piloted Aircraft, RPA.

Drone manufactures, their customers and like-minded individuals are now quite dogged in not using the word "drone". But just this week they faced a significant setback.

President Obama in his State of the Union address said he was keen to limit the use of... drones. And if the commander-in-chief calls them "drones" then it is quite difficult for his subordinates and suppliers to say he is wrong.

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