Unmanned drone attacks and shape-shifting robots: War's remote-control future
The Pentagon already includes unmanned drone attacks in its arsenal. Next up: housefly-sized surveillance craft, shape-changing 'chemical robots,' and tracking agents sprayed from the sky. What does it mean to have soldiers so far removed from the battlefield?
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Since first being introduced in Iraq and Afghanistan, their numbers have grown from 167 in 2002 to more than 7,000 today. The US Air Force is now recruiting more UAV pilots than traditional ones.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures War by remote control
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"The demand has just absolutely skyrocketed," says the commander of the Air Force's 451st Operations Group, which runs Predator and Reaper operations in Kandahar.
As their numbers have grown, so has the sophistication with which the military uses them. The earliest drones operated more as independent assets – as aerial eyes that sent back intelligence and dropped their bombs. But today the unmanned aircraft are integrated into almost every operation on the ground, acting as advanced scouts and omniscient surveyors of battle zones. They monitor the precise movements of insurgents and kill enemy leaders. They conduct "virtual lineups," zooming in powerful cameras to help determine whether a suspected insurgent may have carried out a particular attack.
"A lot of the ground commanders won't execute a mission without us," says the Air Force's commander of the 62nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron in Afghanistan.
Robots, too, have become a far more pervasive presence on America's fields of battle. Remote-control machines that move about on wheels and tracks scour for roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Soldiers in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan carry hand-held drones in backpacks, which they assemble and throw into the air to scope out terrain and check for enemy fighters. In the past 10 years, the Pentagon's use of robots has grown from zero to some 12,000 in war zones today.
Part of the exponential rise in the use of UAVs and robots stems from a confluence of events: improvements in technology and America's prolonged involvement in two simultaneous wars.
There is, too, the prospect of more money for military contractors eyeing a downturn in future defense budgets. Today, the amount of money being spent on research for military robotics surpasses the budget of the National Science Foundation, which, at $6.9 billion a year, funds nearly one-quarter of all federally supported scientific research at the nation's universities.
Military officials also see in the new technologies the possibility of savings in an era of shrinking budgets. Deploying forces overseas can now cost as much as $1 million a year per soldier.
Yet the biggest allure of the new high-tech armaments may be something as old as conflict itself: the desire to reduce the number of casualties on the battlefield and gain a strategic advantage over the enemy. As Lt. Gen. Richard Lynch, a commander in Iraq, observed at a conference on military robotics in Washington earlier this year: "When I look at the 153 soldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice [under my command], I know that 80 percent of them were put in a situation where we could have placed an unmanned system in the same job."
Drones, in particular, seem the epitome of risk-free warfare for the nation using them – there are, after all, no pilots to shoot down. Moreover, the people who run them are often nowhere near the field of battle. Some 90 percent of the UAV operations over Afghanistan are flown by people in trailers in the deserts of Nevada. In Kandahar, soldiers help the planes take off and land and then hand over controls to the airmen in the US.
"We want to minimize the [human] footprint as much as possible," says the 451st Operations Group commander at the Kandahar airfield, where the effects of being close to the war are clearly visible: The plywood walls of the tactical operations center are lined with framed bits of jagged metal from mortars that have fallen on the airfield over the years.