U.S. Drones are from Mars, Euro Drones are from Venus

Pink-Drone (1)

Two years ago, on the way to a conference, I found myself sitting next to a gender studies professor on the plane. When I told him about my research, he asked: “What gender do you think drones have?” I did not know how to respond at the time, never having asked myself that question and never having been overly convinced of the need to ‘gender study’ everything.

Since then however, I have realized that my airplane seatmate might have had a point. Looking at drones from a gender perspective can tell us something about American versus European views on drones – and additionally makes for a highly entertaining story.

What’s in a name?

A drone – or ‘Unmanned Aerial Vehicle’ – does not have a gender, of course. But people tend to attribute gender to objects. One important factor influencing this process is said object’s name. Another is its capabilities and types of use.

The military, and in particularly the U.S. military, loves naming things and then giving them acronyms. A piece of equipment usually has at least two names or designations. There is a serious name – which is too long and gets immediately shortened – such as ‘C4ISTAR system’, the handy abbreviation for ‘Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Information/Intelligence, Surveillance, Targeting Acquisition and Reconnaissance System’ (click here for more fun military abbreviations). And there is also a catchy name, often a reference to flora and fauna, which can at times be brutal or belittling: the F-18 ‘Hornet’, A-10 ‘Thunderbolt’ or Hiroshima’s not-so-‘Little Boy’.

What to call drones has been the object of an ongoing controversy. In particular, their popular designation – ‘drone’ – is in dispute. It is not clear where the term comes from. It may be a reference to a 1930s pilotless version of the British Fairey Queen fighter aircraft, the ‘Queen Bee’. Or it may have originated with bee-like, black-striped target drones. Ultimately, the name could simply be derived from the buzzing sound UAVs (used to) make.

What is certain is that the military and industry are working hard to dissuade people from calling unmanned aircrafts ‘drones’, mainly because they worry that it sounds too menacing and removes the pilot from the equation. At the 2013 AUVSI convention (Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International), much to the amusement of the press, the Wi-Fi password was “DontSayDrones”.

From a gender studies point of view, the term ‘drone’ is intriguing. Biologically, a ‘drone’ (the bee) is a peculiar thing. The term refers to a male bee, which does not have a father as it develops from an unfertilised egg and does not have a sting as its only raison d’être is to fertilise the queen’s eggs.

Even more interesting are drones’ (the aircraft, not the bees) sub-categories. Smaller UAVs are generally classified into ‘nano-/micro-’, ‘mini-’, and ‘tactical’ UAVs. The largest UAV types are ‘HALE’ UAVs (High Altitude Long Endurance). The best-known UAV type, however, which includes the notorious Reaper and Predator models, is the so-called ‘MALE’ UAV (Medium Altitude Long Endurance). Incidentally, MALE drones are the most powerful UAVs currently in use; the large majority of armed UAVs are MALE drones. The world’s largest fleet of ‘male’ drones is, of course, under U.S. command.

European ‘female’ drones

Europe, on the other hand, appears to be going a different way. Currently, several European countries are discussing a project to develop a pan-European MALE UAV. It is not known whether Airbus put together a working group of marketing experts to come up with the project’s name, or whether it was invented by the projects’ managers. But Europe’s drone project is now called “Future European MALE project” – short: FEMALE. Robert Kagan must be delighted.

Is this European drone actually somehow ‘female’, i.e. smaller or less powerful (or whatever one might associate with the adjective)? For the moment, it is unclear how the FEMALE project will eventually turn out. However, I recently spoke to a UAV expert from the German Armed Forces who has been involved in the negotiations on the choice between importing foreign-built drones and developing a European system. He told me that many Europeans were not too fond of American unmanned systems as their armament was not appropriate for their purposes. In a nutshell: the American bombs were considered too big.

If the German Armed Forces were to procure armed UAVs – which in itself is a separate discussion – my source said they would most likely prefer small and scalable armament: “Ideally, we could have a UAV carrying a number of very small bombs – and only a few of them would be fitted with explosives. The other would have no explosive material but would produce only a loud bang or smoke without causing harm.” He continued:

The idea is to use those systems to create an effect – not necessarily to kill. If you want to hinder someone from crossing a bridge, you don’t need to shoot a missile at that person. It might be enough to drop a bomb without explosives ten meters in front of that person. Is he still going to cross the bridge afterwards? I doubt it. Hence, the desired effect has been achieved.

The European FEMALE drone might turn out to be able to do exactly that – achieve an effect without causing unnecessary harm or destruction.

As of today, these ideas are still up in the air. But eventually, the skies over war zones could be filled with both ‘male’ and ‘female’ drones. The verdict on whether one of the systems is better than the other is thus still out. As in real life, a combination of the approaches may turn out to be most expedient.


Ulrike Esther Franke is a DPhil student in International Relations at the University of Oxford, where her work focuses on the strategic implications of the increasing use of UAVs by Western armed forces.  She is the Managing Editor of the St. Antony’s International Review (STAIR).


Image: Modified U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson