Magazine article National Defense

Controversies Do Little to Temper U.S. Employment of Armed Aerial Drones

Magazine article National Defense

Controversies Do Little to Temper U.S. Employment of Armed Aerial Drones

Article excerpt

Much has been made about the United States' use of drones to target alleged terrorists within and beyond the Afghanistan warzone. The government has complained of information leaks about the secret program, critics have said the strikes kill more civilians than militants and analysts have surmised what the escalation of lethal drone attacks means for the future of warfare.

Despite the swirling controversies, it appears weaponized drones are here to stay.

"I think this is the future," said Clinton Watts, a senior fellow at The George Washington University's Homeland Security Policy Institute.

Critics have described the so-called "drone war" as a symptom of the failure of U.S. strategy on the ground in Afghanistan and caution that the tactic should not he elevated to an overarching strategy. But strikes already have been reported in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. And with the war in Iraq over and the one in Afghanistan winding down, the fight against terrorists will become more decentralized, leaving experts to ponder where the United States will next employ its armed drones.

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Watts has been a champion of using drone strikes in tandem with special operations to quell terrorist threats. He co-authored a brief last summer calling for an immediate ramp-up of special operations forces and drone strikes in Yemen to cripple al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. The group's foreign operations unit led by American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki posed the greatest threat, stated the June 2011 brief.

Three months later, Awlaki was killed by a U.S. drone attack.

"It's the most effective tool we have in a counterterrorism context," Watts told National Defense.

The unmanned aerial vehicle has been revolutionary for the U.S. military, first for its surveillance attributes and more recently for its ability to strike high-value targets without putting troops in danger. Armed drones have, along with capture-kill special operations, become the preferred method for eliminating militants.

The fascination with remote controlled systems around the world is sending shockwaves throughout industry as the rest of the world plays catch-up with the United States. A study released in April by the Teal Group projects worldwide spending on drones to double over the next 10 years.

"UAVs have proved their value in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan and will continue to he a high priority for militaries in the United States and worldwide," said Philip Finnegan, director of corporate analysis and co-writer of the study.

Most of the research, development and procurement will take place in the United States. And hunter-killer drones, such as the MQ-9 Reaper, will proliferate, the report stated.

Armed MQ-1 Predators and Reapers have changed the nature of air combat in peace-keeping operations against insurgent forces, the Teal Group report stated. The value of their dual surveillance and strike functions has been reflected in Air Force inventory requirements for the Predator and Reaper. In 2004, the service maintained five simultaneous Predator combat air patrols. That has increased ten-fold since then.

The majority of drones are used strictly for gathering intelligence, but there is a push to arm more systems.

Textron Systems' AAI has provided to the Army and Marine Corps about 150 RQ-7 Shadow systems, some of which are being used by special forces. The company is under contract to weaponize the Shadow for the Marine Corps. The first of these armed drones could be fielded early next year. The Army is administering the program, watching closely from the sidelines and may eventually decide to strap weapons on its Shadows, which can carry a 25-pound bomb under each wing. The program's weapon of choice is currently classified.

AAI's work with the Marine Corps has coincided with an effort across industry to make lighter weapons for unmanned aircraft that are smaller than the Hellfire-carrying Predators and Reapers most associated with precision strikes. …

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