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Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) - DoD Purpose and Operational Use

The primary purpose of the Department of Defense (DoD) domestic aviation operations are to support Homeland Defense (HD) and Defense Support of Civilian Authorities (DSCA) operations and military training and exercises. While manned aircraft primarily support these missions, the operational use of DoD unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), in lieu of manned aircraft may be appropriate for some domestic mission sets, when sustained endurance efforts are required; unmanned aircraft provide superior capabilities; or physical infrastructure limitations prohibit the use of manned rotary or fixed-winged aircraft.

Since 2006, DoD has had very specific and stringent guidance on the domestic use of UAS. On rare occasions, DoD operates UAS domestically in support of a request from Federal or State civilian authorities. DoD only conducts these operations with the approval of the Secretary of Defense. This policy direction is set out in the Deputy Secretary of Defense Policy Memorandum 15-002, Guidance for the Domestic Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems. This guidance also states that armed DOD UAS may not be used in the United States except for training, exercises, and testing purposes.

The primary purpose of DoD domestic UAS operations is for DoD forces to gain realistic training experience, test equipment and tactics in preparation for potential overseas warfighting missions and on occasion support DSCA training and exercises. DoD has logged more than 4 million flight hours worldwide. This extensive experience is the foundation of the Department’s careful adherence to aviation safety policies and procedures regarding both manned and unmanned aircraft. The Department of Defense fields UAS across all four Service, including the National Guard. The Department currently operates more than 11,000 UAS in support of domestic training events and overseas contingency missions. These aircraft range in size from the small RQ-11B Raven to the largest RQ/MQ-4 Global Hawk/Triton, which weighs more than 32,000 pounds.

DoD Special Use AirspaceDoD UAS currently do not have direct access to the National Airspace System (NAS), unlike manned aircraft. In order for DoD UAS to operate in the NAS, the Department of Defense is required to obtain a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). A COA allows DoD UAS to fly pre-coordinated flight routes to DoD special use airspace. The vast majority of DoD UAS training is conducted in DoD scheduled special use airspace (SUA). DoD scheduled special use airspace includes the following types of airspace: Warning Areas, Restricted Areas, Military Operations Area (MOA), Prohibited Areas, Controlled Firing Areas, and National Security Areas. Upon DoD request, the FAA may issue a Class G COA via notification for low-altitude training operations in uncontrolled airspace. Class G COA via notification are issued for small-UAS that operate over government land, government-leased land or with permission of the landowner while the operator maintains sight of the aircraft.