Every day in Iraq and Afghanistan, dozens Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVS) hover in the skies stalking their enemy. Some simply snap pictures; others carry out far more deadly missions. But cumulatively they are opening a new high tech chapter in the way America wages war.
Duke of Wellington, conqueror of Napoleon at Waterloo and a savvy tactician once noted, "The whole art of war consists of getting at what is on the other side of the hill."
However, the changing face of war is not merely in defeating the enemy -- it’s also in minimizing civilian casualties. Lt. Col. Scott Williams leads a group of Apache helicopters which blow up buildings or "service targets" in military speak with Hellfire missiles.
Last week in Sadr City, one of the most dangerous cities in Iraq, insurgents fired rockets at the U.S. protected Green Zone. A UAV spotted the rocket militia in an apartment block. Williams’ team moved in for the kill. Then, the UAV spotted children running into and out of the building, playing.
The strike was called off, and the children who would likely have been killed were safe. The Apaches instead rained fire down on the rocket launch site that the militia had mostly deserted, killing a few remaining members.
The Iraq and Afghanistan wars consist largely of raiding insurgent houses and tracking armed militias. UAVs, including the ultra-small model airplane size Raven, are invaluable in finding the enemy, checking for civilians in the line of fire, and assessing the enemy's combat readiness. The Army is even using the drones to look for disturbed Earth to detect Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), a leading cause of war casualties. Hundreds of the drones are patrolling Iraq at any given time. Last month alone, the fleet of drones logged 46,450 hours.
GPS and satellite imagery also offer valuable battlefield information, but can only get so close. The UAVs can do an unprecedented level of tracking, including in locations too dangerous to send soldiers. Some of the drones such as the Predator can send images as far as Germany or Nevada for expert analysis. And commanders are realizing their utility; Lt. Col. Paul V. Marnon, a battalion commander for the 3CAB and Apache commander states, "We can see into an alleyway, see teams organizing an attack."
The UAV revolution has occurred in the last five years. When the devices were first deployed in Iraq at the start of the invasion, they were scoffed at as toys. Now, Marnon says 90 percent of his teams' kills are assisted by UAVs.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates is frustrated that the U.S. can't deploy UAVs fast enough. Said Gates in a recent speech, "I've been wrestling for months to get more intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets into the theater. Because people were stuck in the old ways of doing things, it's been like pulling teeth."
With his commanders frantically requesting UAV support, Gates pushed through a $240 million boost in spending on reconnaissance surveillance craft. This will include manned fly overs by civilian contractors as a stop-gap measure.
The UAVs have been around for a long time and are just now starting to earn their dues. In the past, manned aircraft always stole the attention and funding. The drone was born at the Van Nuys plant of the Radioplane Co. in the U.S. The plant in 1944 developed radio controlled drones for surveillance. From there the drones were sullied into a number of unglamorous purposes including target practice and as decoys.
In 1960, a Japanese-American put a camera on the drones. After the U2 spy plane crash and the Cuban missile crisis, the government finally took notice. Ryan-Teledyne deployed over 1,000 of its Firebee drones to Vietnam, taking pictures and jamming radar. After the war, though, the drones program took a nose dive.
The Army launched a massive program to develop an advanced drone known as Aquila, but in the end the incredibly expensive device was so loaded it could hardly fly and regularly crashed. The drones cost $3 million each and the total program totaled to $1 billion.
The Israelis developed cheaper, lighter drones known as the Pioneer which helped in the first Gulf War. An enemy unit even surrendered to the drone, a first. However, the drones were too noisy and warned the enemy of their approach.
When trying to design more efficient models, former CIA commander Jim Woosley approached the Air Force and they told him it would cost $500 million and six years. He found instead a brilliant Israel Expert formerly working for the Pentagon named Abe Karem, who offered to design his drone in 6 months for only $5 million.
The resulting drone was incredibly useful and won quick support. Named the Gnat, it shot impressive video. Soon a modified version, the Predator was equipped with missiles, adding assault to its repertoire. Many improvements helped to save the Predator from possibly being a dud. GPS was added. The Hellfire missile, previously made to shoot up over trees, was modified to shoot down, and had a sheathing added which scattered into razor blades, killing enemies and optimally destroying unarmored vehicles. On November 5, 2003, one of the modified missiles hit an SUV filled with Al Qaeda operatives, leaving the vehicle's oil pan as the only identifiable remains.
Now a new heavier duty, lesser-known model known as the Reaper, is on duty in Iraq. It has four Hellfire missiles aboard and two 500-lb bombs. The various armed drones are piloted remotely from Nevada and California, allowing pilots to live normal civilian lives and stay at home with their families when the work day is done -- after killing some terrorists. Many of the smaller drones, which make up much of the 1,500 drones in Iraq and Afghanistan, are piloted by Marines and soldiers on the battlefront, though.
The drones are battery powered and made of Styrofoam protected in a Kevlar coat. They weigh only 5 lbs and cost only $35,000 to produce. They can easily be launched with a flick of the wrist, just like the average model plane. Special certification is needed to fly larger craft; Sgt. Chris Hermann, 24, is among those certified and he flies them from a padded chair safe in a U.S. military base in the Green Zone. He states, "Yeah, middle of the desert, aircon and a padded seat, there are worse jobs in Iraq. We all joke about it. A monkey can do this job, this bird flies itself, it lands itself."
On bad weather days, Hermann and his buddies stay inside and play Battlefield 2, Call of Duty 4 or The Underground. He says the drone is like an Atari game -- really basic. The drones have been invaluable in coordinating airstrikes. Insurgents have learned to fear the buzz of the drones, which can't always be heard until they're nearby. Unfortunately, the drones have also led to airstrikes that have killed civilians. In a sort of grimly ironic jest, Iraqi mothers now warn their children, "Obey or the 'buzz' will come after you."
With more drones and better technology, though, the armed forces are working to reduce civilian casualties. However, many remain skeptical about efforts such as Northrop-Grumman's $635 million contract to build an unmanned X-47B bomber for the Navy. And with upcoming debate over fully autonomous killing war robots, both in the sky and on the ground that should be technically feasible within a couple decades, the issue is sure to remain.
However, whether you support or oppose them, the UAVs have had an undeniable effect on the war. And largely they have helped to give the U.S. soldiers an edge over a shadowy civilian army that would otherwise have them at a disadvantage.