One moment there was the hum of a motor in the sky above. The next, on a recent morning in Afghanistan's Helmand province, a missile blasted a home, killing 13 people. Days later, the same increasingly familiar mechanical whine preceded a two-missile salvo that slammed into a compound in Degan village in the North Waziristan tribal area of Pakistan, killing three.
What were once unacknowledged, relatively infrequent targeted killings of suspected militants or terrorists in the George W Bush years have become commonplace under the Barack Obama administration. And since a devastating December 30 suicide attack by a Jordanian double agent on a Central Intelligence Agency forward operating base in Afghanistan, unmanned aerial drones have been hunting humans in the AfPak war zone at a record pace.
In Pakistan, an "unprecedented number" of strikes - which have killed armed guerrillas and civilians alike - have led to more fear, anger and outrage in the tribal areas, as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), with help from the United States Air Force, wages the most public "secret" war of modern times.
In neighboring Afghanistan, unmanned aircraft, for years in short supply and tasked primarily with surveillance missions, have increasingly been used to assassinate suspected militants as part of an aerial surge that has significantly outpaced the highly publicized "surge" of ground forces now underway. And yet, unprecedented as it may be in size and scope, the present ramping up of the drone war is only the opening salvo in a planned 40-year Pentagon surge to create fleets of ultra-advanced, heavily-armed, increasingly autonomous, all-seeing, hypersonic unmanned aerial systems (UAS).
Drones are the hot weapons of the moment and the upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review - a soon-to-be-released four-year outline of Department of Defense strategies, capabilities and priorities to fight current wars and counter future threats - is already known to reflect this focus. As the Washington Post recently reported, "The pilotless drones used for surveillance and attack missions in Afghanistan and Pakistan are a priority, with the goals of speeding up the purchase of new Reaper drones and expanding Predator and Reaper drone flights through 2013."
The MQ-1 Predator - first used in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s - and its newer, larger and more deadly cousin, the MQ-9 Reaper, are now firing missiles and dropping bombs at an unprecedented pace. In 2008, there were reportedly between 27 and 36 US drone attacks as part of the CIA's covert war in Pakistan. In 2009, there were 45 to 53 such strikes. In the first 18 days of January 2010, there had already been 11 of them.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the US Air Force has instituted a much-publicized decrease in piloted air strikes to cut down on civilian casualties as part of Afghan war commander General Stanley McChrystal's counter-insurgency strategy. At the same time, however, air UAS attacks have increased to record levels.
The air force has created an interconnected global command-and-control system to carry out its robot war in Afghanistan (and as Noah Shachtman of Wired's Danger Room blog has reported, to assist the CIA in its drone strikes in Pakistan as well). Evidence of this can be found at high-tech US bases around the world where drone pilots and other personnel control the planes themselves and the data streaming back from them.
These sites include a converted medical warehouse at al-Udeid Air Base, a billion-dollar facility in the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar where the air force secretly oversees its ongoing drone wars; Kandahar and Jalalabad air fields in Afghanistan, where the drones are physically based; the global operations center at Nevada's Creech air base, where the air force's "pilots" fly drones by remote control from thousands of kilometers away; and - perhaps most importantly - at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, a 12-square-mile (32 square kilometers) facility in Dayton, Ohio, named after the two local brothers who invented powered flight in 1903. This is where the bills for the current drone surge - as well as limited numbers of strikes in Yemen and Somalia - come due and are, quite literally, paid.
In the waning days of December 2009, in fact, the Pentagon cut two sizeable checks to ensure that unmanned operations involving the MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper would continue full speed ahead in 2010. The 703rd Aeronautical Systems Squadron based at Wright-Patterson signed a $38 million contract with defense giant Raytheon for logistics support for the targeting systems of both drones. At the same time, the squadron inked a deal worth $266 million with mega-defense contractor General Atomics, which makes the Predator and Reaper drones, to provide management services, logistics support, repairs, software maintenance and other functions for both drone programs. Both deals essentially ensure that, in the years ahead, the stunning increase in drone operations will continue.
These contracts, however, are only initial down payments on an enduring drone surge designed to carry US unmanned aerial operations forward, ultimately for decades.
Drone surge: The longer view
In 2004, the air force could put a total of only five drone combat air patrols (CAPs) - each consisting of four air vehicles - in the skies over American war zones at any one time. By 2009, that number was 38, a 660% increase according to the air force. Similarly, between 2001 and 2008, hours of surveillance coverage for US Central Command, encompassing both the Iraqi and Afghan war zones, as well as Pakistan and Yemen, showed a massive spike of 1,431%.
In the meantime, flight hours have gone through the roof. In 2004, for example, Reapers, just beginning to soar, flew 71 hours in total, according to air force documents. In 2006, that number had risen to 3,123 hours; and last year, 25,391 hours. This year, the air force projects that the combined flight hours of all its drones - Predators, Reapers and unarmed RQ-4 Global Hawks - will exceed 250,000 hours, about the total number of hours flown by all air force drones from 1995-2007. In 2011, the 300,000 hour-a-year barrier is expected to be crossed for the first time, and after that the sky's the limit.
More flight time will, undoubtedly, mean more killing. According to Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann of the Washington-based think-tank the New America Foundation, in the George W Bush years, from 2006 into 2009, there were 41 drone strikes in Pakistan which killed 454 militants and civilians. Last year, under the Barack Obama administration, there were 42 strikes that left 453 people dead. A recent report by the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, an Islamabad-based independent research organization that tracks security issues, claimed an even larger number, 667 people - most of them civilians - were killed by US drone strikes last year.
While assisting the CIA's drone operations in the Pakistani tribal borderlands, the air force has been increasing its own unmanned aerial hunter-killer missions. In 2007 and 2008, for example, air force Predators and Reapers fired missiles during 244 missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, while all the US armed services have pursued unmanned aerial warfare, the air force has outpaced each of them.
From 2001, when armed drone operations began, until the spring of 2009, the air force had fired 703 Hellfire missiles and dropped 132 GBU-12s (250-kilogram laser-guided bombs) in combat operations. The army, by comparison, launched just two Hellfire missiles and two smaller GBU-44 Viper Strike munitions in the same time period. The disparity should only grow, since the army's drones remain predominantly small surveillance aircraft, while in 2009 the air force shifted all outstanding orders for the medium-sized Predator to the even more formidable Reaper, which is not only twice as fast but has 600% more payload capacity, meaning more space for bombs and missiles.
In addition, the more heavily-armed Reapers, which can now loiter over an area for 10 to 14 hours without refueling, will be able to spot and track ever more targets via an increasingly sophisticated video monitoring system. According to air force Lieutenant General David Deptula, deputy chief of staff for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance, the first three "Gorgon Stare pods" - new wide-area sensors that provide surveillance capabilities over large swathes of territory - will be installed on Reapers operating in Afghanistan this spring.
A technology not available for the older Predator, Gorgon Stare will allow 10 operators to view 10 video feeds from a single drone at the same time. Back at a distant base, a "pilot" will stare at a tiled screen with a composite picture of the streaming battlefield video, even as field commanders analyze a portion of the digital picture, panning, zooming and tilting the image to meet their needs.
A more advanced set of "pods", scheduled to be deployed for the first time this autumn, will allow 30 operators to view 30 video images simultaneously. In other words, via video feeds from a single Reaper drone, operators could theoretically track 30 different people heading in 30 directions from a single Afghan compound. The generation of sensors expected to come online in late 2011 promises 65 such feeds, according to air force documents, a more than 6,000% increase in effectiveness over the Predator's video system. The air force is, however, already overwhelmed just by drone video currently being sent back from the war zones and, in the years ahead, risks "drowning in data", according to Deptula.
The 40-year plan
When it comes to the drone surge, the years 2011-2013 are just the near horizon. While, like the army, the navy is working on its own future drone warfare capacity - in the air as well as on and even under the water - the air force is involved in striking levels of futuristic planning for robotic war. It envisions a future previously imagined only in science-fiction movies like the Terminator series.
In translation, that means the air force will quite literally be flooded with video information from future battlefields; and every "advance" of this sort means bulking up the global network of facilities, systems and personnel capable of receiving, monitoring and interpreting the data streaming in from distant digital eyes. All of it is specifically geared toward "target location", that is, pin-pointing people on one side of the world so that Americans on the other side can watch, track and, in many cases, kill them.
In addition to enhanced sensors and systems like ARGUS-IR, the air force has a long-term vision for drone warfare that is barely beginning to be realized. Predators and Reapers have already been joined in Afghanistan by a newer, formerly secret drone, a "low observable unmanned aircraft system" first spotted in 2007 and dubbed the "Beast of Kandahar" before observers were sure what it actually was. It is now known to be a Lockheed Martin-manufactured unmanned aerial vehicle, the RQ-170 - a drone which the air force blandly notes was designed to "directly support combatant commander needs for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to locate targets". According to military sources, the sleek, stealthy surveillance craft has been designated to replace the antique Lockheed U-2 spy plane, which has been in use since the 1950s.
In the coming years, the RQ-170 is slated to be joined in the skies of America's "next wars" by a fleet of drones with ever newer, more sophisticated capabilities and destructive powers. Looking into the post-2011 future, Deptula sees the most essential need, according to an Aviation Week report, as "long-range [reconnaissance and] precision strike" - that is, more eyes in far off skies and more lethality. He added, "We cannot move into a future without a platform that allows [us] to project power long distances and to meet advanced threats in a fashion that gives us an advantage that no other nation has."
This means bigger, badder, faster drones - armed to the teeth - with sensor systems to monitor wide swathes of territory and the ability to loiter overhead for days on end waiting for human targets to appear and, in due course, be vaporized by high-powered munitions. It's a future built on advanced technologies designed to make targeted killings - remote-controlled assassinations - ever more effortless.
Over the horizon and deep into what was, until recently, only a silver-screen fantasy, the air force envisions a wide array of unmanned aircraft, from tiny insect-like robots to enormous "tanker size" pilotless planes. Each will be slated to take over specific war-making functions (or so air force dreamers imagine). Those nano-sized drones, for instance, are set to specialize in indoor reconnaissance - they're small enough to fly through windows or down ventilation shafts - and carry out lethal attacks, undertake computer-disabling cyber-attacks, and swarm, as would a group of angry bees, of their own volition. Slightly larger micro-sized Small Tactical Unmanned Aircraft Systems (STUAS) are supposed to act as "transformers" - altering their form to allow for flying, crawling and non-visual sensing capabilities. They might fill sentry, counter-drone, surveillance and lethal attack roles.
Additionally, the air force envisions small and medium "fighter-sized" drones with lethal combat capabilities that would put the current UAS air fleet to shame. Today's medium-sized Reapers are set to be replaced by next generation MQ-Ma drones that will be "networked, capable of partial autonomy, all-weather and modular with capabilities supporting electronic warfare [EW], CAS [close air support], strike and multi-INT [multiple intelligence] ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] missions' platforms".
The language may not be elegant, much less comprehensible, but if these future fighter aircraft actually come online they will not only send today's remaining Top Gun pilots to the showers, but may even sideline tomorrow's drone human operators, who, if all goes as planned, will have ever fewer duties. Unlike today's drones, which must take off and land with human guidance, the MQ-Mas will be automated and drone operators will simply be there to monitor the aircraft.
Next up will be the MQ-Mb, theoretically capable of taking over even more roles once assigned to traditional fighter-bombers and spy planes, including the suppression of enemy air defenses, bombing and strafing of ground targets and surveillance missions. These will also be designed to fly more autonomously and be better linked in to other drone "platforms" for cooperative missions involving many aircraft under the command of a single "pilot". Imagine, for instance, one operator overseeing a single command drone that holds sway over a small squadron of autonomous drones carrying out a coordinated air attack on clusters of people in some far off land, incinerating them in small groups across a village, town or city.
Finally, perhaps 30 to 40 years from now, the MQ-Mc drone would incorporate all of the advances of the MQ-M line, while being capable of everything from dog-fighting to missile defense. With such new technology will come new policies and new doctrines. In the years ahead, the air force intends to make drone-related policy decisions on everything from treaty obligations to automatic target engagement - robotic killing without a human in the loop. The latter extremely controversial development is already envisioned as a possible post-2025 reality.
2047: What's old is new again
The year 2047 is the target date for the air force's Holy Grail, the capstone for its long-term plan to turn the skies over to war-fighting drones. In 2047, the air force intends to rule the skies with MQ-Mc drones and "special" super-fast, hypersonic drones for which neither viable technology nor any enemies with any comparable programs or capabilities yet exist. Despite this, the air force is intent on making these super-fast hunter-killer systems a reality by 2047. "Propulsion technology and materials that can withstand the extreme heat will likely take 20 years to develop. This technology will be the next generation air game-changer. Therefore the prioritization of the funding for the specific technology development should not wait until the emergence of a critical COCOM [combatant command] need," says the air force's 2009-2047 UAS "Flight Plan".
If anything close to the air force's dreams comes to fruition, the "game" will indeed be radically changed. By 2047, there's no telling how many drones will be circling over how many heads in how many places across the planet. There's no telling how many millions or billions of flight hours will have been flown, or how many people, in how many countries, will have been killed by remote-controlled, bomb-dropping, missile-firing, judge-jury-and-executioner drone systems.
There's only one given. If the US still exists in its present form, is still solvent and still has a functioning Pentagon of the present sort, a new plan will already be well underway to create the war-making technologies of 2087. By then, in ever more places, people will be living with the sort of drone war that now worries only those in places like Degan village. Ever more people will know that unmanned aerial systems packed with missiles and bombs are loitering in their skies. By then, there undoubtedly won't even be that lawnmower-engine sound indicating that a missile may soon plow into your neighbor's home.
For the air force, such a prospect is the stuff of dreams, a bright future for unmanned, hypersonic lethality; for the rest of the planet, it's a potential nightmare from which there may be no waking.