The American Interest Online | 7.16.12
By Alan W. Dowd

It seems that each week brings with it another news item about some jaw-dropping development in drone technology. Take, for example, the recent report in Britain’s Guardian newspaper that scientists at Northrop Grumman and Sandia National Laboratories are working on plans for nuclear-powered drones capable of loitering over target areas for months at a time. Reuters reports that the U.S. and Britain are collaborating on a program that would enable one pilot to command “up to five armed drones.” Next-generation drones could be empowered to identify and attack targets autonomously. In short, we are witnessing the transformation of warfare before our very eyes. This isn’t the first revolution in warfare, of course. But it may be one of the most profound—and it is certainly among the most rapid.

Although drone strikes in Pakistan get most of our attention, the drone war arguably began a couple decades ago—and a couple thousand miles away from Pakistan.

During America’s first war in Iraq, in 1991, U.S. warships used drones—back then, they were called “remotely piloted vehicles”—to track enemy movements and to aid in targeting. But sailors aboard the USS Missouri found another use for their drones. Rather than face the business end of the Missouri’s big guns, Iraqi soldiers surrendered to the Missouri’s drones—by the dozens. The Baltimore Sun reported it this way at the time: “It had to be a military first,” the newspaper concluded, “an Iraqi soldier spinning around and around with his hands in the air trying to attract the attention of the pilot of a small plane flying above him. Only it wasn’t a plane. It was a pilotless drone.”

The drone had evolved from playing a passive role in gathering intelligence and identifying targets to being an active player in what was happening in the trenches—and more accurately, saving lives in the trenches.

Drones closed the circle in Yemen a decade later, when the CIA converted a Predator drone designed for surveillance and reconnaissance into a ground-attack warplane. Retrofitted with Hellfire missiles, the killer drone targeted and eliminated the mastermind of the USS Cole attack. The unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) was born. The drone had evolved yet again.

Ten years after that first foray into drone warfare—and more than 20 years after drones made first contact with the battlefield—U.S. military and political leaders have embraced drones as their weapon of choice in the post-9/11 campaign of campaigns. Consider the drone’s impressive record and rapid rise in recent years: Swarms of drones have eviscerated al Qaeda’s leadership and thinned the Taliban’s ranks in the AfPak theater; UCAVs struck the convoy carrying Moammar Qaddafi; a stealthy reconnaissance drone kept vigil over Osama bin Laden’s compound ahead of the raid by SEAL Team 6; and a UCAV eliminated al Qaeda’s Anwar al-Awlaki. As Defense Secretary Leon Panetta famously put it during his stint as CIA director, drones are “the only game in town in terms of confronting or trying to disrupt the al Qaeda leadership.”

Yet these headlines tell only a tiny part of the larger story of how drones are rapidly dislodging manned aircraft from the central role they have played in war-fighting since World War II—and thus revolutionizing how the United States defends itself and targets its enemies. Taken together, the following fragments form a mosaic of that revolution:

  • In the past decade, the U.S. drone fleet has swelled from 50 planes to 7,500, though the vast majority of these drones are not UCAVs. Wired magazine notes that the military owns only 161 Predators and Reapers, which are known for ground-attack operations. Still, drones represent 31 percent of the Pentagon’s air armada, and the Pentagon’s plan is to double the drone fleet by 2020, while the size of the manned bomber force plateaus and the manned fighter force shrinks. The fleet of combat-class drones is expected to grow to 650 by 2021, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports. In fact, Congress is on record as wanting drones to comprise “one-third of U.S. military operational deep strike aircraft,” CRS notes. Accordingly, spending on drones has exploded from $667 million in 2001 to $3.9 billion in 2012, the CRS report adds.
  • There has been a 1,200-percent increase in combat air patrols by drones since 2005. In fact, CRS matter-of-factly notes that a Predator engaged in air-to-air combat with an Iraqi MiG in 2003. The drone didn’t survive the engagement. Of course, the Predator wasn’t built for such a mission. One gets the sense that 20th-century warplanes will be no match for the Predator’s faster, stronger, smarter and meaner cousins, which will soon leap from the drawing board to the skies. Indeed, next-generation drones are being fashioned to conduct air-superiority missions, midair refueling and jamming, as well as their current surveillance, reconnaissance and ground-attack missions. In short, America’s unmanned air force will be “expected to take on every type of mission currently flown by manned aircraft,” as CRS concludes.
  • Already, the Predator’s younger brother, the Reaper, has been developed and deployed with weaponry grafted into its systems. Instead of just two Hellfire missiles, the Reaper has 14 and flies higher and faster than the Predator. Some versions of the Reaper are equipped with the ominously named “Gorgon Stare.” As Air Force Times explains, if 12 different targets scatter from a building in 12 different directions, “Gorgon Stare could dedicate one angle to each.”The Navy will soon deploy a carrier-borne UCAV, the X-47B. And the Air Force wants America’s next-generation bomber, the Long Range Strike bomber, to be “optionally manned.”
  • The Air Force concedes that growth in demand for UCAVs has made relying on “experienced pilots” to fly drones “unsustainable.” Hence, the Air Force is training more pilots to fly drones than fighter and bomber pilots combined.
  • In his book “War Made New,” Max Boot notes that UCAVs equipped with “target-recognition systems” and “autonomous attack systems” are on the horizon. Under a mode of operation known as “self-learning autonomy,” drones could be empowered to identify and attack targets based on predetermined conditions.
  • A new drone known as the “Global Observer” flies some 12.3 miles above the earth, enabling it to scan “an area larger than Afghanistan at a single glance,” as The Los Angeles Times reports.
  • The CIA has built an airbase in the Middle East for the sole purpose of launching UCAVs against al Qaeda cells in Yemen, further underscoring Panetta’s assertion that drones are “the only game in town.”

Before he left his post as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen wistfully remarked, “There are those that see the JSF [F-35 Joint Strike Fighter] as the last manned fighter—or fighter-bomber or jet—and I’m one that’s inclined to believe that…We’re at a real time of transition here in terms of the future of aviation.”

It remains to be seen whether U.S military and political leaders—and the people who entrust America’s security to them—are prepared for this transition.

Faced with a similar revolutionary moment in 1931, then-Major George Patton dismissed “those who now proclaim that the airplane should be the sole means of waging future wars...This notion is absurd...The airplane is here to stay. It is a great arm, but it has no more replaced all others than did gunpowder.”

UCAVs may be here to stay, but they won’t become the sole means of warfare. They won’t replace war-fighters. And they certainly won’t make war less likely. In fact, given that UCAVs remove their remote-control pilots from the dangers of war, they may make war too easy to wage. Drone warfare, after all, is war not only at a safe remove, but at the safest remove. That lack of risk is fueling this drone revolution—and opening the way to uncharted territory.