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18 March 2012

The Era of Robotic Warfare : 30% of All US Military Aircraft are Drones

 Some herald it as the cure for terrorism, others deride it as mindless video game warfare, but few doubt that the American era of drone warfare has arrived. From short range surveillance craft like the Raven to missile packing hunter-killers like the infamous Predator, the US military is awash with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). According to a recent report from the Congressional Research Service, nearly one in three US warplanes are drones…and those machines are changing the way the world wages war. US soldiers in Afghanistan rely more and more upon intelligence gathered from drones, and President Obama recently lauded the precision and success of deadly drone-strikes against top terrorist targets in Pakistan. Meanwhile all advanced militaries in the world, from Israel to Russia, seem to be improving their own drone capabilities.

Yet with this surge in robotic craft come rising concerns over the ethics, and liabilities, of UAVs. The rise of drones seems unstoppable, but will this shift in tactics improve or deepen the ravages of war?
Wired’s Danger Room broke the Congressional Report Service story earlier this month, calling out some of the most enlightening figures from the 50 pages study (mirrored here). About 31% of US aircraft are unmanned. That represents an amazing change over the past few years as such UAVs only represented 5% of the US total in 2005. Of course, the vast majority of these drone craft are relatively small, able to be launched by hand. The most prolific is the Army’s Raven, with 2200 on order and 1300 delivered. The most widely discussed, and feared, drones are the Predators and Reapers, which can carry heavy ordinance (including hellfire missiles) and are often operated remotely by human pilots stationed in the US. However, CRS reports that there are only about 160 Predator and Reapers in service.

Why is the population of drones rising exponentially in the US military? Again, the CRS numbers are very revealing. While representing more than 30% of the total aircraft flown, drones account for just 8% of the warplane budget. Nearly forty Predator and Reaper drones have crashed in Afghanistan and Iraq (with the loss of small UAVs like the Raven being considerably higher), yet the accident rate for Predators has dropped significantly in the past few years falling from 20 cases per 100,000 hours in 2005 to just 7.5/100k in 2009. That accident rate puts the Predator (and Reaper) on par with the F-16! And pilot lives are never lost in a drone crash. On a case by case basis, individual UAVs may or may not be more cost effective than manned planes for a particular mission, but as a whole they seem to be a better investment. In fact, the US is on track to spend $26 billion on drone R&D between 2001 and 2013. A small fraction of the total US military budget, but possibly the investment that may yield the highest dividends.
No new technology can be borne into battle, however, without carrying with it some new dangers as well. Critics of the reliance on drones point to two large security risks, both in the handling of data. First, most aerial drones are not used directly as weapons, but as mobile platforms for intelligence gathering. Even the Predator comes packed with cameras to observe its surroundings in high definition and at high speeds. With the surge in the use of UAVs has come a tidal wave of video and sensor information, much of it streamed to remote locations far from the point of operation. There have already been a few well-reported cases of insurgents tapping into that data stream for use against US troops. Such risks are likely to increase as technology-use among opposition forces improves.
Second, whether a drone is operating under its own programming or being remotely piloted by a human, they are open to receive control commands. The possibility of drones being hacked is very real, and some claim that the recent capture of an RQ-170 spy drone in Iran was accomplished through such hijacking techniques. Whether or not that’s the case, UAVs are clearly susceptible to inflight theft in ways that manned vehicles simply are not.


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