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SILENT, swift and lethal ... they are the hunter-killers which are about to rewrite the rules of war.

When Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon speaks in the Commons this afternoon about Britain's planned contribution to the expected US attacks on Iraq, he will be talking about conventional weapons systems.

But the reality is that warfare is about to change for ever.

Unmanned planes with electronic 'brains' will soon be able to recognise enemy targets and then decide how and when to strike - without human intervention.

It sounds like science fiction, but it is increasingly becoming science fact.

One was used by America earlier this month to assassinate six suspected al-Qaeda terrorists in Yemen.

A Hellfire missile was launched from an unmanned US Predator drone, while real-time video footage of the attack was sent back to a Special Forces officer on the ground.

Miniature drones which can hunt in packs of up to 300 are already in development and a tiny robotic reconnaissance plane the size of a fly will be completed next year.

But although the dawning of robotic warfare could possibly end civilian "collateral damage" with the right technology, it will force less-advanced countries to change tactics - and take their wars to our towns and cities.

Clifford Beal, editor of Jane's Defence Weekly, says: "We are at the dawn of the age of robotic warfare, where machines and not men will be fighting the wars of the future.

"In the next five years, humans will be taken out of the equation completely and machines clever enough to recognise and destroy enemy targets will be deployed on to the battlefield.

"The weakest link in the robotic-warfare loop has always been the human so, as the technology develops, their role will be diminished and handed over to machines which can process information far more quickly.

"Countries like the US will have such advanced weapons that it will become almost an act of national suicide to meet them on the open battlefield.

"It means enemies will have to take their wars to the home front of their foes and use sleeper agents or 'cyber-warfare'."

US firms, research centres and government agencies are pouring billions of dollars into the development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Models in development range from the paper clip-sized RoboFly being developed by the US military for search missions, to 31-inch drones which can be dropped from the back of an aircraft and scour battlefields looking for targets. The attraction to armies is obvious - not only are the machines cheaper and lighter, they all-but eliminate the risk of their personnel being killed on the battlefield.

Professor Martin Edmonds, Director of the Centre for Defence and International Security Studies at Lancaster University, says: "Soon America won't even need to deploy soldiers on to the battlefield - machines will be capable of doing all the fighting for them. …