The world of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) expands by the minute, growing in complexity, range, payload, and specification.
Not all drones are built to kill: at their smallest, micro UAVs designed like flies can theoretically execute complex and increasingly undetectable intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions. Surveillance and reconnaissance capability is essential to UAV technology, but particularly for drones capable of carrying and deploying weapons.
The Latest news on drones? Suspected US drone strike kills 17 in Pakistan's tribal region (CNN Jan. 6).
(A predator UAV)
Know Your Acronyms
Military terminology is rife with acronyms, and drone warfare proves no different. To distinguish between various types of technology and specify certain capabilities, here’s the shorthand you’ll need to know (Courtesy of the Airforce):
- RPA = remotely piloted aircraft (e.g. the MQ-9 Reaper)
- ISR = intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance
- UAS = Unmanned Aircraft System, composed of multiple sensor/weapon-equipped aircraft, ground control station (GCS), Predator Primary Satellite Link (PPSL); crew include a rated pilot, an enlisted aircrew member to operate sensors and weapons, and a mission coordinator “when required.”
(A reaper UAV)
The Kill Chain
The objective of weapons-capable unmanned aircraft on a hunter/killer mission is to execute what the military refers to as “the kill chain”: find, fix, track, target, execute, and assess. Drones like the reaper and predator can use their surveillance technology to perform additional intelligence and support functions in addition to hunt/kill missions.
Timing is Everything
Targets tell you a lot about the nature of how hunt/kill missions are executed today. Targets of high value and on the move present the most attractive target for drone operators; time is a factor, and accessing the target through other means may be difficult given the available window of opportunity. Reaper and predator drones have extended "loiter" capability and carry weapons with ranges of several thousand kilometers, allowing their operators to significantly shorten the time from initial find to the strike and assessment. That rapid process presents one of the great challenges in drone warfare as well: From identification to situation assessment to making the final call on a strike, remote-operated aircraft make split-second decisions appear necessary when they may be premature or disproportionate given risk to civilians on the ground. As remote surveillance is not optimal for estimating numbers killed and injured after the fact, it is difficult to assess whether the weapons-capable drone is "the thinking man’s weapon," or if the consequences extend too far into civilian life.
Which is deadliest of them all?
In terms of capability, the world’s deadliest drones are still on the whiteboard. Demonstration models built by Boeing, Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems and others purport to enhance munitions capacity, loiter time, stealth, and even aerial combat capacity. All of these functions would make next generation drones more resilient in hostile air space, decreasing the need for manned aircraft and potentially lowering current barriers against hunt/kill missions.
But for number of kills acknowledged and estimated today, the predator and reaper systems hold the lion’s share. Deployments have increased significantly under President Obama, who has authorized six times more drone strikes than President George W. Bush and killed hundreds of alleged low-level militants as well as high-level operatives. A study of casualties due to drone strikes in Pakistan, carried out by the Washington, D.C.-based New America Foundation, concluded that civilian and unknown person fatalities have been proportionally declining in Pakistan over the last four years. Many organizations continue to call for increased transparency in civilian casualty reports, both from drone strikes and in war zones across the world.
Graph source: New America Foundation; data last updated Jan. 3, 2013.
Want to learn more? Check out this excellent backgrounder by PBS, and click through the links above for technical and policy-related deep dives. Wired's Danger Room blog is the go-to for daily updates on the world of tech and warfare.