The march of technology brings “The Forty-Year Drone War”

In Technology of War Martin van Creveld, the greatest historian of our time, describes how new technology affects both the nature of war — and the societies that use them.  Today we have taken a large step into the future by deploying unmanned aerial vehicles as flying assassins.  We can make only two guesses as to the consequences.

  • There will be unexpected consequences.
  • Our opponents will respond, probably themselves using this technology.

This is an extension of our bombing in Iraq.  Not having been bombed, like so many other nations, we are insensitive to feelings death from the sky invokes in so many other people.  Or, judging from the news blackout of our Iraq bombing, we just prefer not to know.  For more about this see the articles at the end of this post.

Today’s feature discusses this:  “The Forty-Year Drone War“, Nick Turse, TomDispatch, 24 January 2010 — Reposted with permission:

Introduction by Tom Englehardt

There’s something viral about the wondrous new weaponry an industrial war system churns out. In World War I, for instance, when that system was first gearing up to plan and produce new weapons by the generation, such creations — poison gas, the early airplane, the tank — barely hit the battlefield before the enemy had developed countermeasures and was cranking up his own production line to create something similar. And this process has never stopped.

The wonder weapon of our present moment is the missile-armed unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, now doing our dirty work, an endless series of targeted assassinations, in the Afghan-Pakistani borderlands. Such weapons always come with wondrous claims. Here’s a typical one from a recent Wall Street Journal editorial:Never before in the history of air warfare have we been able to distinguish as well between combatants and civilians as we can with drones.” When it comes to war, beware of any sentence that begins “never before,” and the claims of future breakthroughs or victories that go with them.

It’s easy, of course, for the editorial writers of the Journal to pen such confident sentiments thousands of miles from the war zone. They would undoubtedly feel quite differently if their hometowns and neighborhoods were the targets of such “precise” weaponry, which has nonetheless managed to kill hundreds of civilians.

Drones, of course, do just what they were meant to do, as surely as did poison gas, the airplane, and the tank early in the last century: they kill. That’s indisputable, but the promised “breakthroughs,” whether aimed at destroying enemy fortifications, enemy networks, or the enemy’s will, seldom follow so reliably. And yet once the wonder fades and the overwrought claims with it, the wonder weapons remain in our world — and (here’s the viral part) they begin to spread.

There is no evidence that the drones are breaking the back of either the Taliban (Afghan or Pakistani) or al-Qaeda in our distant wars, but plenty of evidence that they are helping to destabilize Pakistan and create intense anti-American feelings there. Now, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates indicated on arriving in Pakistan last week, we are thinking of giving the Pakistanis their own unarmed surveillance drones, while from Iran to China, Israel to Russia, powers everywhere are rushing to enter the age of 24/7 robotic assassination along with, or just behind, us. You might think that this would give the Pentagon pause, but a prospective arms race just gets the blood there boiling, and when it comes to Terminator-style war, as Nick Turse indicates below, the U.S. Air Force has plans. Boy, does it ever!

The Drone Surge – Today, Tomorrow, and 2047
By Nick Turse

One moment there was the hum of a motor in the sky above.  The next, on a recent morning in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, a missile blasted a home, killing 13 people.  Days later, the same increasingly familiar mechanical whine preceded a two-missile salvo that slammed into a compound in Degan village in the tribal North Waziristan district of Pakistan, killing three.

What were once unacknowledged, relatively infrequent targeted killings of suspected militants or terrorists in the Bush years have become commonplace under the Obama administration.  And since a devastating December 30th suicide attack by a Jordanian double agent on a CIA forward operating base in Afghanistan, unmanned aerial drones have been hunting humans in the Af-Pak war zone at a record pace.  In Pakistan, an “unprecedented number” of strikes — which have killed armed guerrillas and civilians alike — have led to more fear, anger, and outrage in the tribal areas, as the CIA, with help from the U.S. Air Force, wages the most public “secret” war of modern times.

In neighboring Afghanistan, unmanned aircraft, for years in short supply and tasked primarily with surveillance missions, have increasingly been used to assassinate suspected militants as part of an aerial surge that has significantly outpaced the highly publicized “surge” of ground forces now underway.  And yet, unprecedented as it may be in size and scope, the present ramping up of the drone war is only the opening salvo in a planned 40-year Pentagon surge to create fleets of ultra-advanced, heavily-armed, increasingly autonomous, all-seeing, hypersonic unmanned aerial systems (UAS).

Today’s Surge

Drones are the hot weapons of the moment and the upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review — a soon-to-be-released four-year outline of Department of Defense strategies, capabilities, and priorities to fight current wars and counter future threats — is already known to reflect this focus.  As the Washington Post recently reported, “The pilotless drones used for surveillance and attack missions in Afghanistan and Pakistan are a priority, with the goals of speeding up the purchase of new Reaper drones and expanding Predator and Reaper drone flights through 2013.”

The MQ-1 Predator — first used in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s — and its newer, larger, and more deadly cousin, the MQ-9 Reaper, are now firing missiles and dropping bombs at an unprecedented pace.  In 2008, there were reportedly between 27 and 36 U.S. drone attacks as part of the CIA’s covert war in Pakistan.  In 2009, there were 45 to 53 such strikes.  In the first 18 days of January 2010, there had already been 11 of them.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the U.S. Air Force has instituted a much publicized decrease in piloted air strikes to cut down on civilian casualties as part of Afghan War commander General Stanley McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy.  At the same time, however, UAS attacks have increased to record levels.

The Air Force has created an interconnected global command-and-control system to carry out its robot war in Afghanistan (and as Noah Shachtman of Wired’s Danger Room blog has reported, to assist the CIA in its drone strikes in Pakistan as well).  Evidence of this can be found at high-tech U.S. bases around the world where drone pilots and other personnel control the planes themselves and the data streaming back from them.  These sites include a converted medical warehouse at Al-Udeid Air Base, a billion-dollar facility in the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar where the Air Force secretly oversees its on-going drone wars; Kandahar and Jalalabad Air Fields in Afghanistan, where the drones are physically based; the global operations center at Nevada’s Creech Air Base, where the Air Force’s “pilots” fly drones by remote control from thousands of miles away; and — perhaps most importantly — at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, a 12-square-mile facility in Dayton, Ohio, named after the two local brothers who invented powered flight in 1903.  This is where the bills for the current drone surge — as well as limited numbers of strikes in Yemen and Somalia — come due and are, quite literally, paid.

In the waning days of December 2009, in fact, the Pentagon cut two sizeable checks to ensure that unmanned operations involving the MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper will continue full-speed ahead in 2010.  The 703rd Aeronautical Systems Squadron based at Wright-Patterson signed a $38 million contract with defense giant Raytheon for logistics support for the targeting systems of both drones.  At the same time, the squadron inked a deal worth $266 million with mega-defense contractor General Atomics, which makes the Predator and Reaper drones, to provide management services, logistics support, repairs, software maintenance, and other functions for both drone programs.  Both deals essentially ensure that, in the years ahead, the stunning increase in drone operations will continue.

These contracts, however, only initial down payments on an enduring drone surge designed to carry U.S. unmanned aerial operations forward, ultimately for decades.

Drone Surge:  The Longer View

Back in 2004, the Air Force could put a total of only five drone combat air patrols (CAPs) — each consisting of four air vehicles — in the skies over American war zones at any one time.  By 2009, that number was 38, a 660% increase according to the Air Force.  Similarly, between 2001 and 2008, hours of surveillance coverage for U.S. Central Command, encompassing both the Iraqi and Afghan war zones, as well as Pakistan and Yemen, showed a massive spike of 1,431%.

In the meantime, flight hours have gone through the roof.  In 2004, for example, Reapers, just beginning to soar, flew 71 hours in total, according to Air Force documents; in 2006, that number had risen to 3,123 hours; and last year, 25,391 hours.  This year, the Air Force projects that the combined flight hours of all its drones — Predators, Reapers, and unarmed RQ-4 Global Hawks — will exceed 250,000 hours, about the total number of hours flown by all Air Force drones from 1995-2007.  In 2011, the 300,000 hour-a-year barrier is expected to be crossed for the first time, and after that the sky’s the limit.

More flight time will, undoubtedly, mean more killing.  According to Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann of the Washington-based think tank the New America Foundation, in the Bush years, from 2006 into 2009, there were 41 drone strikes in Pakistan which killed 454 militants and civilians.  Last year, under the Obama administration, there were 42 strikes that left 453 people dead.  A recent report by the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, an Islamabad-based independent research organization that tracks security issues, claimed an even larger number, 667 people — most of them civilians — killed by U.S. drone strikes last year.

While assisting the CIA’s drone operations in the Pakistani tribal borderlands, the Air Force has been increasing its own unmanned aerial hunter-killer missions.  In 2007 and 2008, for example, Air Force Predators and Reapers fired missiles during 244 missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.  In fact, while all the U.S. armed services have pursued unmanned aerial warfare, the Air Force has outpaced each of them.

From 2001, when armed drone operations began, until the spring of 2009, the Air Force fired 703 Hellfire missiles and dropped 132 GBU-12s (500-pound laser-guided bombs) in combat operations.  The Army, by comparison, launched just two Hellfire missiles and two smaller GBU-44 Viper Strike munitions in the same time period.  The disparity should only grow, since the Army’s drones remain predominantly small surveillance aircraft, while in 2009 the Air Force shifted all outstanding orders for the medium-sized Predator to the even more formidable Reaper, which is not only twice as fast but has 600% more payload capacity, meaning more space for bombs and missiles.

In addition, the more heavily-armed Reapers, which can now loiter over an area for 10 to 14 hours without refueling, will be able to spot and track ever more targets via an increasingly sophisticated video monitoring system.  According to Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance, the first three “Gorgon Stare pods” — new wide-area sensors that provide surveillance capabilities over large swathes of territory — will be installed on Reapers operating in Afghanistan this spring.

A technology not available for the older Predator, Gorgon Stare will allow 10 operators to view 10 video feeds from a single drone at the same time.  Back at a distant base, a “pilot” will stare at a tiled screen with a composite picture of the streaming battlefield video, even as field commanders analyze a portion of the digital picture, panning, zooming, and tilting the image to meet their needs.

A more advanced set of “pods,” scheduled to be deployed for the first time this fall, will allow 30 operators to view 30 video images simultaneously.  In other words, via video feeds from a single Reaper drone, operators could theoretically track 30 different people heading in 30 directions from a single Afghan compound.  The generation of sensors expected to come online in late 2011 promises 65 such feeds, according to Air Force documents, a more than 6,000% increase in effectiveness over the Predator’s video system.  The Air Force is, however, already overwhelmed just by drone video currently being sent back from the war zones and, in the years ahead, risks “drowning in data,” according to Deptula.

The 40-Year Plan

When it comes to the drone surge, the years 2011-2013 are just the near horizon.  While, like the Army, the Navy is working on its own future drone warfare capacity — in the air as well as on and even under the water — the Air Force is involved in striking levels of futuristic planning for robotic war.  It envisions a future previously imagined only in sci-fi movies like the Terminator series.

As a start, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA, the Pentagon’s blue skies research outfit, is already looking into radically improving on Gorgon Stare with an “Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance-Infrared (ARGUS-IR) System.”  In the obtuse language of military research and development, it will, according to DARPA, provide a “real-time, high-resolution, wide area video persistent surveillance capability that allows joint forces to keep critical areas of interest under constant surveillance with a high degree of target location accuracy” via as many as “130 ‘Predator-like’ steerable video streams to enable real-time tracking and monitoring and enhanced situational awareness during evening hours.”

In translation, that means the Air Force will quite literally be flooded with video information from future battlefields; and every “advance” of this sort means bulking up the global network of facilities, systems, and personnel capable of receiving, monitoring, and interpreting the data streaming in from distant digital eyes.  All of it, of course, is specifically geared toward “target location,” that is, pin-pointing people on one side of the world so that Americans on the other side can watch, track, and in many cases, kill them.

In addition to enhanced sensors and systems like ARGUS-IR, the Air Force has a long-term vision for drone warfare that is barely beginning to be realized.  Predators and Reapers have already been joined in Afghanistan by a newer, formerly secret drone, a “low observable unmanned aircraft system” first spotted in 2007 and dubbed the “Beast of Kandahar” before observers were sure what it actually was.  It is now known to be a Lockheed Martin-manufactured unmanned aerial vehicle, the RQ-170 — a drone which the Air Force blandly notes was designed to “directly support combatant commander needs for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to locate targets.”  According to military sources, the sleek, stealthy surveillance craft has been designated to replace the antique Lockheed U-2 spy plane, which has been in use since the 1950s.

In the coming years, the RQ-170 is slated to be joined in the skies of America’s “next wars” by a fleet of drones with ever newer, more sophisticated capabilities and destructive powers.  Looking into the post-2011 future, Deptula sees the most essential need, according to an Aviation Week report, as “long-range [reconnaissance and] precision strike” — that is, more eyes in far off skies and more lethality.  He added, “We cannot move into a future without a platform that allows [us] to project power long distances and to meet advanced threats in a fashion that gives us an advantage that no other nation has.”

This means bigger, badder, faster drones — armed to the teeth — with sensor systems to monitor wide swathes of territory and the ability to loiter overhead for days on end waiting for human targets to appear and, in due course, be vaporized by high-powered munitions.  It’s a future built upon advanced technologies designed to make targeted killings — remote-controlled assassinations — ever more effortless.

Over the horizon and deep into what was, until recently, only a silver-screen fantasy, the Air Force envisions a wide array of unmanned aircraft, from tiny insect-like robots to enormous “tanker size” pilotless planes.  Each will be slated to take over specific war-making functions (or so Air Force dreamers imagine).  Those nano-sized drones, for instance, are set to specialize in indoor reconnaissance — they’re small enough to fly through windows or down ventilation shafts — and carry out lethal attacks, undertake computer-disabling cyber-attacks, and swarm, as would a group of angry bees, of their own volition.  Slightly larger micro-sized Small Tactical Unmanned Aircraft Systems (STUAS) are supposed to act as “transformers” — altering their form to allow for flying, crawling and non-visual sensing capabilities.  They might fill sentry, counter-drone, surveillance, and lethal attack roles.

Additionally, the Air Force envisions small and medium “fighter sized” drones with lethal combat capabilities that would put the current UAS air fleet to shame.  Today’s medium-sized Reapers are set to be replaced by next generation MQ-Ma drones that will be “networked, capable of partial autonomy, all-weather and modular with capabilities supporting electronic warfare (EW), CAS [close air support], strike and multi-INT [multiple intelligence] ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] missions’ platform.”

The language may not be elegant, much less comprehensible, but if these future fighter aircraft actually come online they will not only send today’s remaining Top Gun pilots to the showers, but may even sideline tomorrow’s drone human operators, who, if all goes as planned, will have ever fewer duties.  Unlike today’s drones which must take off and land with human guidance, the MQ-Ma’s will be automated and drone operators will simply be there to monitor the aircraft.

Next up will be the MQ-Mb, theoretically capable of taking over even more roles once assigned to traditional fighter-bombers and spy planes, including the suppression of enemy air defenses, bombing and strafing of ground targets, and surveillance missions.  These will also be designed to fly more autonomously and be better linked-in to other drone “platforms” for cooperative missions involving many aircraft under the command of a single “pilot.”  Imagine, for instance, one operator overseeing a single command drone that holds sway over a small squadron of autonomous drones carrying out a coordinated air attack on clusters of people in some far off land, incinerating them in small groups across a village, town or city.

Finally, perhaps 30 to 40 years from now, the MQ-Mc drone would incorporate all of the advances of the MQ-M line, while being capable of everything from dog-fighting to missile defenseWith such new technology will, of course, come new policies and new doctrines.  In the years ahead, the Air Force intends to make drone-related policy decisions on everything from treaty obligations to automatic target engagement — robotic killing without a human in the loop.  The latter extremely controversial development is already envisioned as a possible post-2025 reality.

2047: What’s Old is New Again

The year 2047 is the target date for the Air Force’s Holy Grail, the capstone for its long-term plan to turn the skies over to war-fighting drones.  In 2047, the Air Force intends to rule the skies with MQ-Mc drones and “special” super-fast, hypersonic drones for which neither viable technology nor any enemies with any comparable programs or capabilities yet exist.  Despite this, the Air Force is intent on making these super-fast hunter-killer systems a reality by 2047.  “Propulsion technology and materials that can withstand the extreme heat will likely take 20 years to develop. This technology will be the next generation air game-changer. Therefore the prioritization of the funding for the specific technology development should not wait until the emergence of a critical COCOM [combatant command] need,” says the Air Force’s 2009-2047 UAS “Flight Plan.”

If anything close to the Air Force’s dreams comes to fruition, the “game” will indeed be radically changed.  By 2047, there’s no telling how many drones will be circling over how many heads in how many places across the planet.  There’s no telling how many millions or billions of flight hours will have been flown, or how many people, in how many countries will have been killed by remote-controlled, bomb-dropping, missile-firing, judge-jury-and-executioner drone systems.

There’s only one given.  If the U.S. still exists in its present form, is still solvent, and still has a functioning Pentagon of the present sort, a new plan will already be well underway to create the war-making technologies of 2087.  By then, in ever more places, people will be living with the sort of drone war that now worries only those in places like Degan village.  Ever more people will know that unmanned aerial systems packed with missiles and bombs are loitering in their skies.  By then, there undoubtedly won’t even be that lawnmower-engine sound indicating that a missile may soon plow into your neighbor’s home.

For the Air Force, such a prospect is the stuff of dreams, a bright future for unmanned, hypersonic lethality; for the rest of the planet, it’s a potential nightmare from which there may be no waking.

Copyright 2010 Nick Turse

About the author

Nick Turse is the associate editor of and the winner of a 2009 Ridenhour Prize for Reportorial Distinction as well as a James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, In These Times, and regularly at TomDispatch. Turse is currently a fellow at New York University’s Center for the United States and the Cold War. He is the author of The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives (Metropolitan Books). His website is

About the Air War in Iraq

Our use of airpower is the great undercovered story of the Iraq War.  Tom Engelhardt has been one of the few covering this key aspect of the war.  A journalist — no military expert — he has told a story ignored by most warbloggers and military experts.  For example, look at the low volume of coverage of the air war at StrategyPage, the Small Wars Council, and by Stratfor.  Here are his major articles on the air war, essential reading for anyone seeking to understand our activities in Iraq.

  1. Incident on Haifa Street, TomDispatch, 19 September 2004
  2. Dahr Jamail on Life under the Bombs in Iraq, TomDisatpch, 2 February 2005
  3. Icarus (Armed with Vipers) Over Iraq, TomDispatch, 5 December 2005
  4. Michael Schwartz on Iraq as a Killing Ground, TomDispatch, 10 January 2006
  5. Air War, Barbarity, and the Middle East, TomDispatch, 28 July 2006
  6. Nick Turse: The Air War in Iraq Uncovered, Tom Dispatch, 24 May  2007
  7. Bombs Away Over Iraq, TomDispatch, 29 January 2008
  8. The Role of Airpower in the Iraq and Afghan Wars“, Anthony H. Cordesman, Center for Strategic adn International Studies, 19 March 2008
  9. Oops, Our Bad“, TomDispatch, 10 April 2008
  10. In Iraq, a Surge in U.S. Airstrikes“, Washington Post, 23 May 2008 — “Military Says Attacks Save Troops’ Lives, but Civilian Casualties Elicit Criticism”

For more information from the FM site

Reference pages about other topics appear on the right side menu bar, including About the FM website page.  To see all posts about our new wars:


Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 word max), civil and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

17 thoughts on “The march of technology brings “The Forty-Year Drone War””

  1. As a former Marine Infantry officer and Fighter pilot,I look with apprehension on the advent of the drones. Not because of some nostalgia for my days of putting an F-4 Phantom in full afterburner and going like a “bat out of hell” all on you the taxpayer’s dime.

    No, but because since WWII domination of the air has been the American “ace in the hole” when it comes to our live wars and in preventing other wars. But now,the drones will level the air power playing field for our enemies.

    It is hard to over estimate the skill and bravery of American Aviators. Aviation plays to the American spirit. And no other modern nation has been able to afford to train and maintain their pilot’s skill sets to nearly the standard of the United States of America. In addition no other nation(including the Soviet Union) could afford the capital costs of staying up with America in the quality of our “warbirds”.

    Our enemies will shortly be able to field swarms of extremely low cost drones at 10% of the expense of our current manned fighter aircraft. They won’t need hughly expensive squadrons of swaggering fighter pilots. Just a room full of computer geeks(who will be a lot cheaper to train and maintain…plus they won’t need to be them it’ll just be a computer game).

    Just as we are now systematically decaptating(assassinating) the AQ and Taliban leadership on the cheap with our Predators in Pakistan. Soon,the other side will have the same option against our leadership elites. The Secret Service’s job is about to get a lot harder for instance.

    For the price of one our F-22 an enemy can put up 30 or so drones. The F-22 can’t carry enough weapons to shoot them all down. The enemies drones win. Prepare to say,”good bye” to American air superioty as any kind of a given.
    FM reply: Thank you for posting this. It’s always valuable to hear from folks with first-person experience.

  2. I really can’t see our present enemies fielding drones in the foreseeable future. First, such weapons do require a certain degree of sophisticated technology and manufacturing facilities; second, they already have much cheaper weapons that are just as effective: explosives delivered by truck or on foot. And, if we judge by recent events, a far better counter-espionage and covert operations branch than our own. I could certainly see China and Russia developing their own fleets of unmanned drones. Though these could play a role in proxy wars in which the U.S. might foolishily involve itself, the Homeland is not likely to come under bombardment from those quarters as long as Van Creveld’s Postulate holds true (nuclear powers don’t fight other nuclear powers).

    I worry more about the hatred that we are cultivating amongst the “target peoples” of the world. There is no weapon more deadly than the human mind, and no motivation greater than long-festering hatred leavened with religion. Sooner rather than later, that hatred will find expression in another spectacular low-tech strike against the Homeland. When they are not “connecting dots” or finding “red flags that were missed”, the survivors will profess their bafflement about why anyone would do such a thing. The conclusion will be, of course, “those people are crazy”.
    FM reply: Why can our enemies not build UAVs. The technology for a simple UAV is today within the reach of even modest nation-states, and will become more so over time.

  3. From #2: “I really can’t see our present enemies fielding drones in the foreseeable future.”

    Why not? (wikipedia: “List of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles“) Actually, a whole bunch of countries already have ’em. From the Iranians to the Chinese to the Mexicans.

  4. Kids are already making these things out of remote controlled toys and mobile phones . Maybe in Walmart , in pink or purple , next Christmas . ” The enemy ” wont need their own drones . They’ll just hack into yours .

  5. Also , I’d guess a lot of very intelligent scientific people , would abhor war and killing .
    But they might have no scruples about shooting down drones . There might be some better brains working on defence , than are available to work on aggression .

  6. Agree with #3 above. In fact, if Wikipedia is to be trusted, drone technology has already made the leap to nonstate actors–Hezbollah has UAVs of their own in Lebanon: The Mirsad-1.

  7. Drones have other purposes, according to Bruce Schneier:

    This seems like a bad idea:

    Police in the UK are planning to use unmanned spy drones, controversially deployed in Afghanistan, for the “routine” monitoring of antisocial motorists, protesters, agricultural thieves and fly-tippers, in a significant expansion of covert state surveillance.

    Once again, laws and technologies deployed against terrorism are used against much more mundane crimes.

  8. The article makes it seem as if US enemies would build drones only as a response to US use of them. I think this view is simplistic. US enemies would build them regardless. It’s not a choice of we build them and everyone else does, or we don’t build them and the world will not. That is naive.

    Yes, eventually US enemies will build drones. After which, we will hopefully have a more technologically advanced answer. That’s been the way of warfare from time immortal. Nothing is new, just because we are using drones.

    It should be noted though that cruise missiles and stinger missiles (portable surface to air missiles) and similar technologies have been around since the 80s. I am not aware of either of those technologies having been used against us. Further, only our allies or sophisticated perceived foes have developed rival technologies. Any other enemy of the US have been able to only acquire US versions of these types of weapons.

    As an interesting and mildly humorous sub-line, Hamas apparently acquired a stinger and attempted to use it against an Israeli Apache helicopter. The missile missed the Apache, and struck a Hamas machine gun placement. Hamas has since sworn off use of the missiles. Story gathered from:

    And still,

  9. I’ve long predicted that cheaper much smaller drones (similar to RC toy planes, but loaded with cheap computer components and plastique shaped charges) will be used by insurgents worldwide, and, eventually by American gangs, particularly drug gangs. Ditto for IEDs.

    If you think the drug wars in Mexico have gotten harsh, what with the cartels cutting off peoples’ heads and tossing into bowling alleys, wait till you see what the gangs do with targeted assassination drones and IEDs. U.S. police will find themselves rolling down the street in their police cars and suddenly blowing up. DEA officials will get blown away by assassination drones in mid-press-conference on national TV.

  10. I think we’ve got to distinguish between two possible scenarios in which UAVs can come into play.

    The first is the way we are using them now against the simple (but deadly) folk in the Af-Pak war. In such an asymmetrical case, our opponents are not going to bother with deploying UAVs because they would simply be destroyed, and they have better alternatives. The missile-carrying variety of UAV is both large enough to be conspicuous and too slow to avoid destruction by forces armed with shoulder-fired AA rockets, let alone fighter planes armed with air-to-air missiles. In the Af-Pak war, we will continue to be the only side deploying hunter-killer UAVs, simply because we do control the skies, and our enemies lack effective anti-aircraft defenses. And, as Martin van Creveld has observed, their use will continue to make us look like bullies, while suicide bombers will continue to look like martyrs. A damned dumb way to fight a war.

    A very different set of conditions would come into play should the U.S. become involved in a war with China, or any country that has a degree of technical sophistication and manufacturing capability. Even Iran might belong to this class of combatant. In such a case, it would be possible for our enemy to churn out very large numbers of attack and recon UAVs, together with the electronic infrastructure necessary to control them effectively. Quantity—made possible by the relative cheapness of the UAV—is of the essence here. An enemy—especially one with a large manufacturing capacity—could possibly inundate our anti-aircraft capabilities with sheer numbers of UAVs.

    I think it is the second scenario that Highlander was suggesting, and I do believe that it should be taken seriously.

  11. Burke G Sheppard

    Highlander is quite correct that UAVs will undermine and devalue American air superiority. So will the decining cost of computing power, which will allow other countries to field low cost flight simulators to train their fighter pilots as well as we train ours. The military had better be thinking hard about beefing up out battlefield air defenses, because we cannot for very much longer count on American ground troops retaining their decades long invulnerability to air attack.

  12. I agree with Sheppard (and Highlander). War is always full of surprises. The moment we get used to fighting low-tech tribesmen, we may get ourselves into a fray with a power that has much more technical and industrial capacity than our present adversaries. The inability to adjust quickly to changed circumstances is probably the U.S. military’s most serious weakness.

    I haven’t seen any images of U.S. soldiers carrying around shoulder-launched AA missiles lately. Of course, that makes sense—they’re not much use against suicide bombers or tribesmen armed with AKs and RPGs. However, do we have such equipment in reserve? Do our soldiers receive training in their use? Perhaps someone more knowledgeable than I could comment on the state of US anti-aircraft capabilities and readiness, should they suddenly become needed.

    Also, what use are our high-tech air superiority fighters against UAVs? At best, they’re overkill. But how well would they deal with “drone wave” attacks? My intuition is that many cheap ground to air missiles would be better than the few super-sophisticated fighters we can afford.

  13. #10 So the next stage might be the gov/others trying to prohibit/jam/destroy wired and wireless communications available to the masses . Wow.

  14. >It is hard to over estimate the skill and bravery of American Aviators

    It is certainly hard to overestimate the size of their egos.

    A lot of the talk about drones is just enthusiastic nonsense. The contractors encourage it because they just love the idea of a paradigm shift that obsoletes existing products.

    An example is the smaller cheaper idea – It’s been a very long time since military aircraft were seized around carrying the pilot. UAVs doing the same mission will be no smaller then the equivalent manned aircraft because a man and his air conditioner free up much weight or space.

    Small is an issue because it is synonymous with price in the aircraft industry. But the price of the aircraft is already dominated by the cost of electronics and with UAVs that is going to go up. Third world nations with cheap labor aren’t going to build cheap UAVs to swarm our expensive manned aircraft if anything they are going to build cheap manned aircraft to swarm our expensive UAVs.

    The western UAV programs are all about fighting the long war in the third world without the political cost of getting any pilots killed. It has to be remembered that the USAF waited 5 weeks before conducting bombing operation in Afghanistan because it didn’t have enough search and rescue coverage – just in case a pilot got shot down by Afghanistan’s non-existent air defenses.

    The high end future of air warfare and unmanned systems the sort that China will build can be much better viewed in the advances of Russian Sam and cruise missile systems.

  15. People keep dismissing my predictions of cheap remote control assassination drones as outlandish — yet here’s an article about a $17 device that turns any remote control plane into a bomb delivery system. $17 is high and will drop exponentially. At the same time, the current weapon delivery model is crude, and will vastly improve in the next few years and Moore’s law drives down the cost of the electronics and increases the capabilities of the shaped charges, homebrew flechettes, etc. used in these things. So as the cost plummets, the accuracy and lethality of these things skyrockets. And it’s going to happen fast.

    Americans had better rethink their military procurement system.
    FM reply: People dismiss it because the military implications of almost every new technology are considered outlandish if not impossible. Two years ago pilots dismissed UAV’s a minor tools, as Admirals in the 1920s dismissed airplanes. Now they acknowledge UAVs are significant, but certainly not useful beyond the range of tasks performed by manned aircraft.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: