Every war produces its breakthrough in military technology, and the contributions of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan to the science of warfare may well be the unmanned aerial vehicle.
Pentagon figures obtained by the Associated Press show that the military’s use of drones more than doubled over the past year, and an even more aggressive use of UAVs is expected. All told, the AP reported, the drones have flown more than 500,000 hours, mostly in Iraq and mostly in the last year.
The Pentagon relies on four main systems: The high-flying snooper, the Global Hawk, with a wingspan of 116 feet; the lethal Predator, armed with Hellfire missiles, with a wingspan of 48 feet depending on the model; the smaller Shadow, with a wingspan of 12.3 feet for battlefield reconnaissance; and the relatively tiny — wingspan of 5 feet — Raven that soldiers hand-launch for tactical intelligence.
Both the CIA and the military have made extensive use of the Predator in Afghanistan, and it may be that when we finally get Osama bin Laden it will be a Predator that does it.
Military reliance on the increasingly sophisticated drones has grown so that the Air Force has been taking pilots out of manned aircraft to remotely pilot the unmanned craft. The ability to monitor a battlefield and even fight from a safe distance — even from bases in the United States — has long been a dream of military planners.
And writers of science fiction have long envisioned robo-soldiers and robo-vehicles stomping across the battlefields of the future. It may be a small jest of the gods of war that when robot combat finally arrived in the early 21st century it was first fought by what are basically glorified model airplanes flown from what are basically video-game consoles.