Much has been made of the rising use of American drones — both as a weapon in the counter-terrorism fight abroad and in support of law enforcement and border integrity at home. References to science fiction-run-amok quickly come to mind (HAL 9000 of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the namesake Terminator, EDI of Stealth), and the unsettling idea that these powerful machines could take over and supplant people at the top of the evolutionary chain is somewhat understandable.

Putting fantasy and fear-mongering aside, the real controversial issues have little to do with the puppet and everything to do with the puppet master — the guy who’s pulling the strings on this mechanical Maverick. Republicans find themselves in the ironic position of decrying the efforts of a Democrat president aggressively pursuing and killing terrorists without a land-based invasion; at the same time, Democrats defend a self-justifying extra-legal program that uses the same sleight of hand that gave us special rendition and waterboarding. However, we’re a collection of bi-partisan menschen from both sides of the aisle, so this particular story delves not into Geppetto, but rather Pinocchio, to examine a tool being used more tenaciously against our enemies every day.

“Drone” inherently calls forth the image of a terrifying, militarized killing machine, but not all of these ominous over-watchers are used for security or even war. For example, monitoring weather and volcanic activity has long relied on manned flights that test the endurance and safety of the flight crews. A force of Global Hawks — drones the size of 727s operated by the United States Air Force — was used to observe the damage wrought by the tsunami in Japan and the earthquake in Haiti, keeping pilots out of danger while still providing data that aided survivors.

However, the main role of Global Hawks and other U.S. drones has indeed involved cruising over the battlefield. Known by various names depending on Department of Defense or service fashion, remotely piloted vehicle (RPV), unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or unmanned aerial system (UAS) drones first saw military use during Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm. Since then, their numbers and use have expanded explosively. The machines offer longer loiter (or on-station) times at a lower system cost than manned aircraft, while eliminating danger to a flight crew (they are controlled using either satellite communications or UHF line-of-sight channels that remote operators use to “fly” the crafts or control sensors and weapons).

Removing risk has led to one of the ironies of remote piloting: aircrews are even more removed from the dangers and humanity of their impact on the battlefield. However, UAV pilots located inside climate-controlled vans in Nevada are still eligible for the Bronze Star, a medal given for performance in combat. Marines and soldiers who have earned theirs on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan, at great personal risk, find this especially grating, even insulting. So, even within the military, the use of drones is a study in contrasts — a duality that can be used to understand the bigger picture of drones, as well.

ISR vs. HK

Drones come in two flavors: Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets that look and listen (Global Hawk, Raven, Wasp), and hunter-killer or light attack assets that carry munitions and actively engage the enemy by lethal means (Reaper and Predator). The sensors aboard drones range from day/night cameras for still and video photography in real-time, to other parts of the electro-magnetic spectrum, including infrared and radio frequencies. A hunter-killer drone can, and often does, perform ISR tasks, especially “fixing” or determining the precise location of the target. ISR assets work best to find and fix targets when they “cross-cue”, or work in concert to pass detection, geolocation and targeting information to another sensor without human intervention. Certain assets are better for sweeping through a broad area to find a target, but given rules of engagement and the high threshold for reducing civilian casualties, or “CIVCAS”, fixing a target for engagement will almost always require “eyes on” or full motion video before a shot is fired. This has given rise to the term “Predator Porn”, the collection of videos cataloging the last few seconds of life before a Hellfire missile abruptly ends it.

Drones are a great tool for developing a picture of human networks and patterns, turning a broadly cast net in to a noose for a particular target.

MQ-1 Predators and the newer MQ-9 Reaper are the primary hunter-killer drones operated by the United States Air Force and other government agencies. Hellfire missiles are preferred because the weapon is precise and carries a small, 100-pound warhead capable of effectively engaging moving vehicles with small risk of collateral damage, though other munitions, such as laser-guided bombs or Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), are available. In short: be very careful hitchhiking in the tourist hot-spots of Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Yemen.

RQ-4 Global Hawk MQ-9 Reaper MQ-1 Predator RQ-11 Raven Wasp III
Primary Function High-altitude, long-endurance ISR Remotely piloted hunter/killer Remotely piloted hunter/killer Low-altitude ISR Low-altitude ISR
Power Plant Turbofan engine Turboprop engine 4-cylinder engine Electric Motor Electric Motor
Thrust 7,600 pounds 900 shaft HP 115 HP N/A N/A
Wingspan 131 feet 66 feet 55 feet 4.5 feet 28.5 inches
Length 47.6 feet 36 feet 27 feet 3 feet 10 inches
Weight 14,950 pounds 4,900 pounds 1,130 pounds 4.2 pounds 1 pound
Max Takeoff Weight 32,250 pounds 10,500 pounds 2,250 pounds (Control unit) 17 lbs (Control unit) 13 lbs
Fuel Capacity 17,300 pounds 4,000 pounds 665 pounds Li-Ion batteries Li-Ion batteries
Payload 3,000 pounds 3,750 pounds 450 pounds N/A N/A
Speed 310 knots ~230 miles per hour Cruise speed ~ 84 mph, up to 135 mph 30-60 mph 20-40 mph
Range 8,700 nautical miles 1,000 nautical miles 770 miles 5-7.5 miles; 60-90 minutes 3 miles; 45 minutes
Ceiling 60,000 feet 50,000 feet 25,000 feet 100-500 feet above ground level 150-500+ feet above ground level
Armament Various sensors Hellfire missiles, JDAM, laser-guided 500 lbs bombs Two Hellfire missiles High-res, day/night camera and thermal imager Hi-res, day/night camera
Crew 3 (remote) 2 (remote) 2 (remote) 1 2

Tactical vs. Theatre Level Tasks

The Marine or soldier on the ground competes for UAV support with the various intelligence collection requirements up the chain. Even with thousands of drones in use, there are never enough resources to cover all the requirements, and drone availability is prioritized against campaign goals and objectives.

In Afghanistan, this often means special operations forces on the ground have their pick of UAVs available to help with finding, fixing, and finishing individuals on the Joint Prioritized Effects List, or JPEL. This euphemistically-named list consists of Taliban or al-Qaida members to be killed or captured — and is sort of a high-stakes game of “whack-a-mole”, because there is always someone else to replace those successfully targeted. You can’t kill your way to victory in a counter-insurgency fight; the true path lies in finding the underlying reason for a disaffected populace. However, some folks just need killing, and for those malign actors whose removal from the battlefield reduces obstacles to success, drones are a great tool for developing a picture of human networks and patterns, turning a broadly cast net in to a noose for a particular target.

Regular infantry units — Marine and Army battalions and their subordinate units (companies, platoons) — use ISR for security over-watch during conventional operations or patrols to eliminate surprise and/or ambush by the enemy and to find and maintain contact with their foe. Again, the competition for limited resources means UAV coverage may only consist of an hour or two — this on patrols that can last over eight hours, during which enemy contact can occur at any time. Troops in a fire-fight have a higher priority for re-tasking drone assets, but travel time from station to overhead can mean the fight’s over by the time a Predator or Reaper arrives. The immediate needs of the infantryman drives another divergent trend: UAVs pushing the size spectrum in both directions.

There are drones under development that have a 400-foot wingspan and the ability to remain aloft for five years.

Bigger vs. Smaller

The first UAV used in DESERT STORM was the Pioneer, purchased from Israel, with a range of 115 miles. The previously mentioned Global Hawk (you know, the beast that’s the size of a 727) flies above 60,000 feet and can loiter for approximately 30 hours; there are drones under development that have a 400-foot wingspan and the ability to remain aloft for five years. Border security, tracking ships, or a persistent video stare to monitor a natural disaster or climate change will all benefit from the extended loiter times.

These largest drones take off and land like an airplane, and some are capable of doing so without the aid of a remote pilot. The smallest, like the RQ-11 Raven or Wasp III, are hand-launched like a paper airplane. Since the unit carries the drone with them and has control over its use, there’s no delays or negotiation for priority. At about four pounds with a day/night video camera, the Raven gives small units, infantry companies and platoons the a tool they can carry to see over the next hill without risking lives. However, fighting in an urban environment often requires knowing what’s in the next room, or around the next corner; this calls for even smaller tools. UAVs designed to simulate insect flight patterns, so-called “micro UAVs”, will allow such advanced warning. Prior to entering a building, soldiers and law enforcement personnel will be able to reconnoiter the interior for any potential threats.

The advantages of drones aren’t lost on military or law enforcement, and especially not on the adversaries either face. The Department of Homeland Security operates several drones, and a number of municipal police departments use them, or are in the process of procuring them. The recent downing of a suspected Hezbollah drone by Israeli forces suggest we’ll see them used against us on the next battlefield. Trans-national criminal networks certainly have the wherewithal to procure and operate drones that surveil the forces arrayed to catch them. In this way, the greatest risk that drones present to our nation is that the eventual ubiquity of their use will chip away at the United States’ relative advantage. Drones present a new arms race — one with moral and political implications hotly debated within our own country. Worry about that, not enslavement at the merciless wheels of your Roomba.

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