As drones multiply in Iraq and Afghanistan, so do their uses

The Pentagon's embrace of drones in Iraq and Afghanistan has created demand for them among commanders on the ground, changing the face of situational awareness.

Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times/MCT/Newscom
A Reaper drone aircraft lands during a training program at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. U.S. commanders in Afghanistan and Iraq have demanded an increase in number of drone aircraft in the next three years.

The Air Force will expand the number of unmanned drone aircraft flying over the skies of Afghanistan and Iraq in the next three years, as a result of commanders' demand for digital images useful in hunting down enemy forces.

By 2011, the Air Force will be flying as many as 50 drones, or combat air patrols in the war zones, and by 2013 that number will jump to 65, say Air Force officials. Currently there are 40.

The appetite for drone aircraft stems not only from the planes' ability to conduct airstrikes on terrorist targets and provide surveillance imagery for intelligence experts to hunt insurgents or those who plant roadside bombs, but also from unexpected uses.

Drone aircraft, also known as “unmanned aerial vehicles,” are popular among commanders who want to know more about a specific area in Afghanistan or Iraq in which they are operating. By capturing images, the drones help soldiers determine how many houses there have power, for example, or where roads are, and other “quality of life” data.

The imagery can be used, for instance, to show what farmers are growing, and whether their activity is above-board or illegal, notes one intelligence officer.

“For Afghanistan, for example, every day we’re analyzing imagery that includes the need to distinguish between normal agriculture and poppy production, and in Iraq to distinguish between plastics production or concrete batching and homemade explosives production,” says the officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could speak freely about intelligence matters.

Air Force Secretary Michael Donley acknowledged that his service is shifting toward increasing use of drones, which are must-haves for many commanders.

“One thing that has happened in these conflicts that I think is a little bit irreversible is the expectation of combatant commanders for situational awareness 24/7/365; that appetite has been established and I do not see that changing,” said Secretary Donley on Tuesday.

The Air Force counts each drone mission as what's known as a "combat air patrol." Each patrol, or "CAP," actually requires two more drones to allow the service to maintain continuous coverage: while one drone is flying, one more is being prepared to fly and one more has just returned from a mission.

Just a few years ago, drones occupied only a fraction of the airspace over Iraq and Afghanistan, much to the chagrin of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who wanted to institutionalize the capability within the Pentagon and the Air Force, in particular. Mr. Gates at one point said it was like “pulling teeth” to get the Air Force to respond to the demand of today’s wars and to field platforms such as drones. Now, planes like the MQ-1 Predator or the MQ-9 Reaper are far more ubiquitous, and the demand for their imagery isn’t going away.

The Air Force is moving in the right direction, says one expert.

“The availability of surveillance drones and attack drones has grown by leaps and bounds over the last few years,” says Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, a public policy group. Mr. Thompson says that despite the demand, drones will have “saturated” the airspace in the coming years.

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