(1) The first armed drones were created to get Osama bin Laden. In 1998 the Clinton administration shut down an operation to kill the al-Qaeda leader with cruise missiles after collateral damage and intelligence failings. In 2000 and 2001, the U.S. Air Force reconfigured a Hellfire anti-tank missile to fit onto a Predator surveillance drone. One week before the 9/11 attacks, the NSC agreed the armed Predator was not ready to be deployed. The first known killing by armed drones occurred in November 2001, when a Predator killed Mohammed Atef, a top al-Qaeda military commander, in Afghanistan.
(2) Drones tend to crash: as of July 2010, the Air Force had identified 79 drone accidents costing at least $1 million each. The primary reasons for the crashes: bad weather, loss or disruption of communications links, and “human error factors”.
(3) Drones are coming to America. The militarization of U.S. airspace is already fast under way, with Federal Aviation Administration legislation paving the way for drones to be flown across American airspace.
(4) The scope of U.S. military drone missions is expanding…all kinds of drones now exist to perform a variety of drones (often taking inspiration from science fiction). For example, the US State Department is flying a small fleet of surveillance drones over Iraq to protect the Embassy.
(5) …But not as fast as civilian uses.
Safety inspectors used drones at Japan’s crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to survey the damage after last year’s tsunami. Archaeologists in Russia are using small drones with infrared cameras to construct a 3-D model of ancient burial mounds. Environmental activists use the Osprey drone to track and monitor Japanese whaling ships. Photographers are developing a celebrity-seeking paparazzi drone. GALE drones will soon fly into hurricanes to more accurately monitor a storm’s strength. And Boeing engineers have joined forces with MIT students to build an iPhone app that can control a drone from up to 3,000 miles away. Last summer, using a laser 3-D printer, University of Southampton engineers built a nearly silent drone that can be assembled by hand in minutes.
(6) Most military drones don’t bomb, and are used for surveillance instead.
(7) Attack drones require more boots on the ground. Most unmanned aircraft flown by the U.S. military require not just a ground-based “pilot,” but also a platoon of surveillance analysts (approximately 19 per drone), sensor operators, and a maintenance crew. Some 168 people are required to keep a Predator drone aloft — and 180 for its larger cousin, the Reaper — compared with roughly 100 people for an F-16 fighter jet. To keep up with the demand, the Air Force has trained more drone operators than pilots for the past two years. The upside is that, according to the Congressional Budget Office, drones “are usually less expensive than manned aircraft” ($15 million for a Global Hawk versus about $55 million for a new F-16), though costly sensors and excessive crashes can negate the difference.
(8) Drones are becoming a lethal weapon of choice, but nobody’s in charge. Over the past decade, there have been some 300 drone strikes outside the battlefields of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. Of these attacks, 95 percent occurred in Pakistan, with the rest in Yemen and Somalia; cumulatively, they have killed more than 2,000 suspected militants and an unknown number of civilians. There are believed to be multiple drone-target “kill lists” among government agencies. The 2011 book Top Secret America revealed “three separate ‘kill lists’ of individuals” kept by the National Security Council, the CIA, and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command. In Yemen, the Pentagon is the lead executive authority for some drone strikes (which are reported to the congressional armed services committees), while the CIA is in charge for others (reported to the intelligence committees). As for the Obama administration’s claimed power to assassinate U.S. citizens, such as Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, the Justice Department refuses to declassify the memo that provided the legal authority to kill him with a drone. So, although 85 percent of non-battlefield drone strikes have occurred under Obama, we have little understanding of their use.
(9) Other countries are catching up to the United States. As with most military programs, the United States is far and away the leader in developing drone technology, and the country is projected to account for 77 percent of drone R&D and 69 percent of procurement in the coming decade. Nevertheless, estimates of how many other countries have at least some drone capability now range from 44 to 70, for an estimated 680 drone programs around the world, up greatly from 195 in 2005. China is escalating its drone program, with at least 25 types of systems in development. Iran has also touted its program, including the armed “Ambassador of Death” drone, which President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad unveiled by declaring: “Its main message is peace and friendship.”
(10) The drone future is already here. The Pentagon now boasts a fleet of approximately 7,500 drones, up from just 50 a decade ago. According to a congressional report, “manned aircraft have gone from 95% of all [Defense Department] aircraft in 2005 to 69% today.” Over the next decade, the Pentagon expects the number of “multirole” drones — ones that can both spy and strike — to nearly quadruple, to 536. In 2011, the Teal Group consulting firm estimated that worldwide spending on unmanned aerial vehicles will nearly double over the next decade from $5.9 billion to $11.3 billion annually. In the future, drones are projected to: hover just behind infantry soldiers to watch their backs; carry airborne lasers to intercept ballistic missiles; perform aerial refueling; and conduct long-range strategic bombing missions. Given that drones will become cheaper, smaller, faster, stealthier, more lethal, and more autonomous, it is harder to imagine what they won’t do than what they will. Whatever limits drones face will be imposed by us humans — not technology.