Thursday, August 4, 2011

Drone Warfare: An Introduction

Unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly known as drones, play an increasingly large role in today’s U.S. military. In a multi-part series, I will look at U.S. capabilities, implications on the military’s future, and the problems created by heavy reliance on drones. Today’s post is a brief overview of U.S. unmanned capabilities and areas of operation.

Origins and Areas of Operation
            How It Started
Small reconnaissance drones have been used by the U.S. military and CIA since the 1980s. The Predator was initially conceived as a reconnaissance drone, and it became operational in 1995. Testing was under way as soon as 2000 to arm Predator drones with laser-guided Hellfire missiles; the likely goal was to target Osama bin Laden. The first armed Predator took flight in October 2001 in Afghanistan, the beginning of the drone warfare era. The drone program has since expanded at an incredible rate, due to the fact that drones can target hard-to-find enemies with no risk to U.S. pilots.

Who’s In Charge
There are distinct drone programs right now, run by the military and the CIA. The military’s drone program operates in Iraq and Afghanistan, targeting enemy combatants as an extension of ongoing fighting there. The CIA’s drone program is clouded in secrecy (and may be illegal under international law), targeting suspected terrorists across the globe in friendly and hostile countries alike. The CIA drone program is highly covert, leaving its true scope unknown.

Where and When
The United States is currently operating weaponized drones in six different countries. The beginning date is listed for each theater along with the name of the country:

‘Drone War’ in Pakistan
Since 2004, the CIA has conducted 265 confirmed drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The program has accelerated under President Obama, with all but 42 of the strikes occurring since 2009. Focusing primarily on the tribal areas of North and South Waziristan, the strikes provide the only proven method for killing militants and terrorists who reside in Pakistan. There has been controversy and debate, however, over the number of civilian deaths resulting from drone strikes, estimated by the New America Foundation to be around 20% from 2004 until now. The implications of civilian casualties will be discussed in more detail in subsequent posts.

Active Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)
The U.S. has a variety of drones currently in service. Here is a brief overview of a selected few unmanned aircraft. All specifications courtesy of the US Air Force and accessible here.

            Surveillance Platforms
MQ-4/RQ-4 Global Hawk – The Global Hawk is the surveillance plane of the future, eventually destined to replace the U2 spy plane. This high-altitude platform for surveillance and security is in use with both the Navy and Air Force.
Number of active planes: 10
Wingspan: 130.9 ft
Top Speed: 357 mph
Altitude Ceiling: 60,000 ft

RQ-170 Sentinel – The Sentinel is a UAV developed for the Air Force by Lockheed Martin. It is currently active in use over Afghanistan and provided visual intelligence in the May raid on Bin Laden’s Pakistan compound. Little is otherwise known about the Sentinel.
Number of active planes: unknown
Wingspan: approximately 66 ft
Top Speed: unknown
Altitude Ceiling: 50,000 ft (estimate)

RQ-11 Raven – The Raven is a hand-launched unmanned surveillance plane and has seen extensive use in both Afghanistan and Iraq. At 38 inches long with a 5 foot wingspan, the Raven has proven ideal for reconnaissance and intelligence at the battalion level. By providing over-the-horizon views of hotspots, the Raven has proven invaluable. Its effective range is around 6.2 miles.
Number of active planes: over 13,000 built
Wingspan: 5 ft
Top Speed: 50 mph
Operating Altitude: 100-500 ft

Weaponized Platforms
MQ-1 Predator – The Predator has been in use as a surveillance craft since 1995. It was first weaponized in Afghanistan in October 2001, armed with 2 Hellfire laser-guided missiles on its wingtips. The Predator has been the central weapons platform for the military for the last decade.
Number of active planes: 138 
Wingspan: 55 ft 
Top Speed: 135 mph 
Operating Altitude: Up to 25,000 ft
Weapons: Two laser-guided AGM-114 Hellfire  missiles

MQ-9 Reaper – Nicknamed the Predator B, the Reaper is the next generation of weaponized drone. In comparison with the Predator, the Reaper can fly twice as high and twice as fast, and it can hold laser-guided bombs as well as Hellfire missiles.
Number of active planes: 48
Wingspan: 66 ft
Top Speed: 230 mph
Operating Altitude: Up to 505,000 ft
Weapons: Combination of AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, GBU-12 Paveway II and GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions

Coming up next, the implications of drone warfare for national security policy and the U.S. military.

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