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Briefing: Aerial drones as weapons of war

They have been used to attack militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But are their benefits outweighed by backlash on the ground?

By Correspondent / May 22, 2009

A MQ-9 Reaper drone at a USAF base in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

SIPA Photo


What is a drone?

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Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are remote-controlled aircraft that usually carry cameras to gather intelligence and sometimes missiles to kill.

They range in size from the five-pound Raven, which is launched by an infantryman the way a child throws a paper airplane and costs $25,000 (though a full "system" consisting of three of the planes, a ground control station, and imaging equipment goes for $250,000), to the Reaper, which has a wingspan of 66 feet and is equipped with Hellfire missiles and 500-pound bombs and has a price tag of $17 million.

Though the Navy flew unmanned planes during World War II, the technology didn't catch on until the 2002 invasion of Afghanistan. Then, the US only had a handful of them. Today, there are 7,000 of them in the US arsenal.

What are they good for?

They're particularly useful in theaters like Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan, where rough terrain and hostile locals make on-the-ground intelligence gathering even tougher than normal. The key to their success is the cameras they carry – and the images they transmit instantly to infantry commanders.

Most drones spend their days looking for improvised explosive devices along roads, flying over villages that troops may be planning to pass through, or watching houses thought to be used by militants.

Most famous are the Predators and Reapers – the missile-wielding planes that have been used to attack militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan and whose pilots are often a world away, on bases in Arizona and Nevada.

Drones' great advantage is that they keep pilots and soldiers out of harm's way. They are also much cheaper to fly than conventional planes.

"Unmanned systems are used for jobs that meet one of the three D's: dull, dirty, or dangerous," says Peter Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and author of "Wired for War," which considers the ethical and strategic implications of the burgeoning use of UAVs and other military robots.

"The most important 'D' in my mind is 'dangerous,' " he continues. "As a commander of one of these units told me, he likes them because he doesn't have to worry about writing a letter to someone's mother."

Are they helping the US military?

The lethal UAVs work as advertised. "By one count, 11 out of the top 20 [Al Qaeda] leaders we have killed have been killed by robotics, not by boots on the ground," Mr. Singer says.