Remote-controlled drones, which have been employed to conduct surveillance and missile strikes in Iraq, are increasingly being used to kill insurgents in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Is this the future of warfare?

What are drones?

They are heavily armed flying robots—planes without pilots. Drones constitute a class of unmanned aerial vehicles, known as UAVs, ranging from surveillance craft small enough to fit in your hand to Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk, which has the wingspan of a Boeing 737 and is slated to supplant the U-2 as the nation’s pre-eminent spy plane. The best-known U.S. military drone is the Predator, a 27-foot-long aircraft made of lightweight graphite and carbon fiber, which is used extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan, and increasingly in Pakistan. “The key thing in a UAV,” says Damian Kemp, an editor at Jane’s Defence Weekly, “is it does missions that are dull, dirty, and dangerous.”

Have drones been effective?
Enormously so. In the past six months, Predators operating in the tribal regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan have been credited with helping to capture or kill nearly half the terrorists on a list of 20 “high-value targets,” and some U.S analysts believe al Qaida has been seriously crippled as a result. The dead include Khalid Habib, reputed to be al Qaida’s third-ranking member; Abu Khabab al-Masri, who ran the organization’s chemical and biological weapons efforts; and Abu al-Hassan al-Rimi, who led the group’s operations against coalition forces in Afghanistan. Thanks to the drones, CIA Director Michael Hayden said recently, “a significant fraction of the al Qaida leadership in that part of the world has been taken off the battlefield in a compressed time period.’’ The most desirable target, of course, is Osama bin Laden, but thus far, he has eluded detection.

How do drones operate?
Predators can stay aloft for up to 40 hours at a time and, unlike a human pilot, they require no sleep. Employing high-powered zoom cameras, infrared sensors, and radar, they are capable of capturing still and video images day or night, in any weather, and transmitting them in real time to commanders on the ground and to remote pilots back in the U.S. (See below.) Flying at altitudes up to 25,000 feet, the Predator’s quiet engine is extremely difficult to detect from the ground. Yet its video is so powerful, it can distinguish a person’s facial features from five miles up. Each Predator carries two laser-guided Hellfire missiles.

Are drones new?
No. Israel has been using them since the 1970s for surveillance and missile attacks. In the U.S., the Pentagon’s bureaucracy resisted drones until they were used for surveillance in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. After 9/11, drones were deployed in Afghanistan and armed with missiles. Today, there are more than 5,000 drones in the U.S. military, and daily drone missions in Iraq and Afghanistan have nearly tripled in the past two years.

Do drones have drawbacks?
Sometimes, drones and their remote operators make mistakes and kill the wrong people. Last fall, a Predator fired a missile into a wedding party in Afghanistan, killing at least 30 civilians, including children. Americans “bombard us, they hate us, they kill us,” an Afghan named Yakhakhan said after losing several family members in the strike. In the past few months, women and children have been killed in the more than three-dozen U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan— raising fears of a political backlash against the U.S.
What happens during a strike?
Silence ... followed by a powerful explosion and sudden death. “It’s not like any other plane,” an unnamed militant in Gaza tells the Associated Press. “You don’t see the missile leaving. It’s very quiet.” The prospect of drones hovering overhead has so unnerved al Qaida and Taliban leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a recent intelligence report said, that some sleep under trees at night rather than risk a drone attack on their homes. A reporter who was allowed to watch video of a drone strike described seeing men outside a large building. “In an instant,” Sara Carter writes in The Washington Times, “the men on the ground and the building disappeared in an explosion of brilliant white light.”

Are there nonmilitary applications?
Yes. Drones are being used to monitor forest fires, volcanoes, and weather. The federal government also has been employing drones for surveillance along the Canadian and Mexican borders, and it reports that between 2005 and 2008, drone flights helped to interdict 20,000 pounds of drugs, leading to 4,000 arrests. Police departments in Houston, Miami, and other cities have expressed interest in using drones for surveillance. But the Federal Aviation Administration is in no hurry to increase congestion in civilian airspace—especially with pilotless planes. Human pilots, a federal report notes, have a distinct edge in “seeing and avoiding other aircraft.”

What is the future of drones?
The possibilities are vast. Engineers are working to make drones self-sufficient, so they can repair themselves if disabled. Drones are also becoming increasingly deadly. There are now 28 Reapers, the successor to the Predator, in the U.S. Air Force. Each is capable of flying at 50,000 feet, carrying up to 14 Hellfire missiles, and using infrared sensors to distinguish the “heat signatures” of rocket launchers, anti-aircraft guns, and other firepower on the ground. The Government Accountability Office envisions a future in which drones can remain aloft for months, using fuel cells or airborne refueling. “These systems today are very much Model T Fords,” says defense analyst P.W. Singer. “These things will only get more advanced.”

Mission control
Armchair pilots at Creech Air Force Base outside Las Vegas are capable of operating up to four drones at once, allowing the pilots to “fly” missions in Iraq and Afghanistan on the same day. Working with sensor operators at computer consoles, they control drones halfway across the world and communicate with commanders on the ground. When a possible target is identified, commanders in Iraq or Afghanistan decide whether to attack. At a secret site in the Persian Gulf, giant, cinema-size monitors display continuous video feeds from drone cameras. Once an attack has been ordered, it takes up to 17 steps for a pilot to fire a missile. It’s challenging work, but it doesn’t require leaving the office. “Believe it or not,” said an officer during a tour of the Nevada facility, “behind this door is Afghanistan.”