National Security & Defense

By the Drones’ Eerie Light

MQ-9 Reaper drone (Photo: Staff Sergeant John Bainter/USAF)
Credit Obama with ushering in a revolution in warfare: the stepped-up use of unmanned aerial vehicles.

It’s not often that President Obama does something right, least of all in the defense realm. But his presidency is going to be remembered as one that oversaw an important revolution in warfighting, one that has the potential to restore American military prowess in ways we can’t yet grasp.

The proof came with the unmanned-aerial-vehicle (UAV) strike on Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammed Mansour last week, in which multiple drones were used to track and then destroy Mansour’s car before it entered the densely populated city of Quetta, Pakistan, where a drone strike would been a more difficult and messier affair.

It’s just one of the more than 500 unmanned air strikes Obama has ordered since taking office — compared with just 52 under George W. Bush.

In March, however, Pentagon masterminds raised the UAV game to a significant new level. A raid on a training camp belonging to Somalia’s al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabab at Raso, 120 miles north of Mogadishu, used multiple unmanned aircraft to blow up no less than 150 jihadi fighters (manned aircraft were also involved). It might not be the first time a drone “squadron” has been involved in an attack on terrorist forces; the Pentagon isn’t letting on. But it does mark a turning point, not just in the war on terror but in how America can envision the future of airpower in more conventional conflicts as well.

We are on the verge of using drones in a sustained air campaign, the type of battle that was typical in World War II and in Korea.

In short, we are on the verge of using drones in a sustained air campaign, the type of battle that was typical in World War II and in Korea, when waves of aircraft provided support for advancing ground troops. But this time the ground troops don’t have to be American and the aircraft are all unmanned.

The advantages are obvious, particularly in conflicts like the current one against ISIS or even in Afghanistan, where American troops for political reasons can’t be thick on the ground, and where you don’t want to put American pilots and aviators in danger of death or capture, or both, in case their aircraft gets shot down (think of the Jordanian pilot ISIS captured and literally roasted alive).

The plan is simple. First, reconnaissance drones such as Global Hawks and Sentinels alongside armed drones, such as Predators and Reapers, enter the battle space 30 or 40 at a time.   

Second, U.S. Special Operations teams together with the Global Hawks and the Sentinels search out and identify suitable targets in enemy areas.

Third, since ISIS and the Taliban lack any sophisticated air-defense system, dozens of armed drones swarm in to strike those targets at will — and do so without letup, day and night. A single Reaper can carry up to 16 Hellfire missiles, while a sufficiently large UAV fleet can easily carry out 250 strikes every 24 hours, equaling or even surpassing the tempo and intensity of the air campaign America sustained over Afghanistan in 2001.

Finally, as the enemy is steadily degraded by these unrelenting unmanned strikes, indigenous security forces with American advisers move in and take cleared ground. Then Special Operations forces help the next echelon of reconnaissance drones pick out brand-new enemy concentrations, even as the UAV strike fleet rearms for battle. And the cycle begins again.

This is the workable solution to the calls for more airstrikes in Afghanistan to reverse the Taliban’s recent successes; it would also be a way to clear the battlefield of ISIS in Iraq. This approach takes full advantage of the UAV’s round-the-clock situational awareness, its long flight time (a fully armed Reaper can stay aloft up to 40 hours compared with two hours for a typical F-16 sortie), its capacity for sudden precise strikes and maneuvers (again, limiting unwanted casualties), and the fact that it’s entirely expendable if it crashes or gets shot down. Meanwhile the drones’ operators at U.S. bases are safe far from the battlefield. Eventually the cycle can be upgraded to deal with advanced air-defense systems, so that even Russian and Chinese surface-to-air missiles won’t be able to stop America’s drone fleet from having free reign over the battlefield.

And far from being an armchair strategist’s pipedream, the drone strike at Raso proves that the future of unmanned airpower is already here.  

There will be plenty for future historians to criticize about this president. But they’ll also point to two major technological revolutions that took place under his watch: hydraulic fracking and use of the armed UAV, which combined to make America more prosperous and more secure.

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