PREDATOR: The U.S. military hare more than 6,000 of drones, such as the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc.'s Predator seen here. Remotely pilot aircraft (RPAs) or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), as they are also called, are a controversial technology whose development flourished after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Image: COURTESY OF U.S. AIR FORCE PHOTO/LT COL LESLIE PRATT, VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
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The September 11, 2001 attacks initiated a flurry of advances in military technology over the past decade that has helped the U.S. and its allies redefine modern warfare. None of these advancements have had a greater impact on America's missions in the Middle East than the maturation of remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or, more generically, drones. The U.S. Army's drone armada alone has expanded from 54 drones in October 2001, when U.S. combat operations began in Afghanistan, to more than 4,000 drones performing surveillance, reconnaissance and attack missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan (pdf). There are more than 6,000 of them throughout the U.S. military as a whole, and continued developments promise to make these controversial aircraft—blamed for the deaths of militants as well as citizens—far more intelligent and nimble.
Whereas drones themselves are certainly not a new concept—their origins can be traced back to the 1840s—since 9/11 they can now be loaded with a variety of sensors and weapons and are controlled by highly trained operators using a joystick and video monitor thousands of kilometers from a combat zone.
"One of the most significant things that has occurred since 9/11 is the shift from, if you will, peer-to-peer warfare to a focus on irregular warfare," says U.S. Air Force chief scientist Mark Maybury. RPAs, as the Air Force refers to them because they are indeed operated by pilots, are helping U.S. troops and their allies adjust to that shift by delivering reconnaissance data and attack support against enemies difficult to spot because of their ability to blend in with noncombatants and the rugged terrain of their surroundings. [View a slide show featuring different drones used by the U.S. military]
Use of drones has grown across several branches of the military as well as the CIA (one of the earliest users of unmanned aircraft). The Air Force, for example, logged its first 250,000 hours of drone flight time between 1995 and May 2007. The next 250,000 hours of drone flight time, however, took only a year and a half, from May 2007 to November 2008. The Air Force achieved its third set of 250,000 flight-time hours in just one year, from December 2008 to December 2009.
The Department of Defense's 2012 plan calls for "purchasing more of the existing unmanned aircraft systems for current operations, improving the systems already in service, and designing more-capable unmanned aircraft systems for the future," according to a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report published in June (pdf). The CBO estimates that the Defense Department will spend about $36.9 billion across its different branches on 730 new medium-sized and large drones through 2020.
This expansion of the military's unmanned aircraft campaign brings with it a degree of concern as drones have come under fire by critics. Some dispute the military's accuracy claims and point to unmanned aircraft as the cause of thousands of civilian deaths in the war-torn Middle East over the past decade. Others note that the fight against terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda embedded in civilian zones—most notably the killing of Osama bin Laden—has primarily been carried out using time-tested intelligence methods rather than drone-launched Hellfire air-to-surface missiles.
Dawn of the drone
The use of unmanned aircraft in war goes back 162 years, when Austria used pilotless balloons to drop bombs on Venice in 1849. As Scientific American reported at the time: "In a favorable wind the balloons will be launched and directed as near to Venice as possible, and on their being brought to vertical positions over the town, they will be fired by electro magnetism by means of a long isolated copper wire with a large galvanic battery placed on the shore. The bomb falls perpendicularly, and explodes on reaching the ground."
In the early 20th century the U.S. military recruited remote-controlled airplanes to serve as decoys or even to attack enemy targets during the First and Second World wars. From the 1950s, these aircraft began to support troops with the aid of cameras, sensors, communications equipment or other payloads. "In terms of modern use, drones really started in the early 1990s, where they were an advanced concept technology demonstration at DARPA [the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency]," Maybury adds.
General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc.'s Predator drones were introduced to combat in the mid-1990s and deployed in the U.S.'s 1999 Kosovo air campaign for surveillance and reconnaissance. Predators (which have a 20-meter wingspan) were first used in Afghanistan in October 2001 to provide intelligence and a strike capability to Operation Enduring Freedom, the official name used by the U.S. government for the war in Afghanistan. A CIA-controlled Predator drone firing a Hellfire missile killed six suspected al Qaeda terrorists in Yemen on November 3, 2002—the first use of an armed Predator as an attack aircraft outside of a theater of war such as Afghanistan, according to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS).