• UAVs have played a major role in the Global War on Terror, from combat to reconnaissance missions
• Competition between the US Army and Air Force over control of UAVs will continue in the near-term
• UAVs will not replace US ground troops in the long-term, but UAVs will become a major factor in the future of the United States armed forces
Since the beginning of 2007, the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) has dramatically increased. The United States armed forces have grown to rely on these machines to watch, hunt and target insurgents, mainly in Iraq. UAV use has soared to over 500,000 hours, most of the hours coming since January 2007, when the use of UAVs doubled. The increase is significant, but the US hopes to use UAVs even more in the future.
An Upsurge Against Insurgents
The increased use of UAVs coincided with the recent US troop “surge” in Iraq, and an increase in availability of UAV models. Regardless, when some ground forces return home later this year, UAVs will continue to fight on. This means Air Force pilots and National Guard troops will be relied on more to continue the operations. Already, 120 Air Force pilots have transferred from the cockpit to staff UAVs. This trend will continue throughout the long-term as more pilots will make the transition to controlling UAVs.
UAVs have been extremely beneficial to American troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. UAVs have allowed US forces to view enemy positions in some of the roughest terrain in the world. Perhaps the greatest benefit of UAVs is that, unlike their human counterparts, drones can remain in the field without food and water for long periods of time. This means Americans soldiers can conserve their energy for combat and keep the pressure on the terrorists.
Rise of the Machines
The most used and effective UAVs used by the US military are Predators, Global Hawks, Shadows and Ravens. The Predator remains the Pentagon’s top hunter-killer, as recently as November 2007, a Predator killed three insurgents firing mortars at US troops. The Global Hawk, and the less expensive Raven, provide combat troops with real time surveillance. The smaller Shadow offers similar performance to the Global Hawk and Raven. The Raven, however, has quickly become the US Army’s workhorse drone and will account for 300,000 hours this year, double the usage time from last year.
All together, it is estimated that the US Army has a total of 361 UAVs in Iraq alone and that number will likely increase. With more machines, the US Army and Air Force have both argued to maintain control of the useful machines. Army commanders believe that UAVs are better suited under their command, as they can quickly launch UAVs to help soldiers out in the field. The Air Force, who man most of the UAVs, believe they would be better suited to command the new technology.
The future is positive for UAVs, according to US Department of Defense policy, as over the next 10-15 years, UAVs will take over all reconnaissance duties, some bombing missions, as well as most Suppressing Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) missions. To many pilots this would remove the most boring and dangerous jobs from their assignments. Looking forward about 20 years, the US Army believes robotic transports will and eventually robotic fighters will emerge as the next generation of warfare tools. Robotic long-range bombers are reportedly already being designed.
While optimism will remain high, it is vital that the American public realize that UAVs or robots will not soon eliminate the need for soldiers. The technology is advancing rapidly, but even in the next 25 years, it is highly unlikely that UAVs will allow the US Army to fight without fear of human casualties. UAVs have and will remain a vital tool in the Global War on Terror, but they will not replace soldiers in the field.