The Drone Surge: Today, Tomorrow, and 2047

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 tribal North Waziristan district of Pakistan, killing

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 tribal North Waziristan district of Pakistan, killing three.

were once unacknowledged, relatively infrequent targeted killings of
suspected militants or terrorists in the Bush years have become
commonplace under the Obama administration. And since a devastating
December 30th suicide attack by
a Jordanian double agent on a CIA forward operating base in
Afghanistan, unmanned aerial drones have been hunting humans in the
Af-Pak 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 CIA, with
help from the U.S. 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).

Today's Surge

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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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
counterinsurgency strategy. At the same time, however, 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 U.S. 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
on-going 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 miles away; and -- perhaps most importantly -- at
Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, a 12-square-mile 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 will 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 U.S. unmanned aerial operations
forward, ultimately for decades.

Drone Surge: The Longer View

Back 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 U.S. 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
Bush years, from 2006 into 2009, there were 41 drone strikes in
Pakistan which killed 454 militants and civilians. Last year, under
the 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 -- killed
by U.S. 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 U.S. 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 fired 703 Hellfire missiles and dropped 132 GBU-12s
(500-pound 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 Lt. Gen. 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 fall, 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 sci-fi movies like the Terminator series.

a start, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA, the
Pentagon's blue skies research outfit, is already looking into
radically improving on Gorgon Stare with an "Autonomous Real-time
Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance-Infrared (ARGUS-IR)
System." In the obtuse language of military research and development,
it will, according to DARPA, provide a "real-time, high-resolution,
wide area video persistent surveillance capability that allows joint
forces to keep critical areas of interest under constant surveillance
with a high degree of target location accuracy" via as many as "130
'Predator-like' steerable video streams to enable real-time tracking
and monitoring and enhanced situational awareness during evening

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, of course, 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 Weekreport,
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 upon advanced technologies designed to make
targeted killings -- remote-controlled assassinations -- ever more

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' platform."

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-Ma's 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, of course, 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 U.S. 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

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.

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

© 2023