Pentagon documents the military's growing domestic drone use

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The US military used the MQ-9 Reaper in five domestic operations in FY 2018. 

The Pentagon this month published new data on its domestic drone use, documenting 11 missions during the 2018 fiscal year. That’s up from 11 missions over the entire span of 2011 through 2017, as noted by Dan Gettinger, co-director of Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone.

Most of the military’s 2018 missions fell under the category of “Defense Support of Civil Authorities.” That meant responding to requests from the governors of California and Oregon for support during last year’s wildfire season, as well as helping the South Carolina National Guard with its Hurricane Florence flood response. Defense Department drones were also on call throughout 2018 to provide Southern Border support for a regiment of the Army.

In 2018, the military also used its unmanned aerial systems (UAS) in three cases to provide Defense Department installation and airspace support. It also responded to a request from the governor of New York for support during an emergency response training exercise. And for five months during the fiscal year, it used drones to support the US Customs and Border Patrol’s counterdrug operations.

The Defense Department currently operates more than 11,000 UAS domestically and overseas — but its domestic uses are limited. The military can only used armed drones in the United States for training, exercises, and testing purposes. Up until last year, the Pentagon could only deploy drones to help state or federal civilian authorities with the direct approval of the Secretary of Defense. In August, then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis issued a memo enabling other military leaders, and in some cases governors, to authorize the use of drones.

As Gettinger points out, other US agencies outside of the Pentagon are using drones domestically — specifically, he notes, the Department of Homeland Security routinely uses drones to patrol US borders. 

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