The Unmanned Future of US War

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From land to sea, there’s no mistaking that the US is heading toward a future of unmanned wars. That conclusion is one of the main take-aways from the Defense Department’s 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, released today, a detailed report that updates Congress on the Pentagon’s strategies and planning. The 2010 QDR further cements the Defense Department’s commitment to bolstering its fleet of unmanned combat ships, like the Reaper and Predator drones whose lethal attack missions over Pakistan and Afghanistan are one of the worst-kept secrets in all of government.

According to the QDR, everything about the military’s drone armada is ramping up. The DoD plans to increase the number of Predator and Reaper drone orbits (sustained airborne missions for more than 24 hours) from 35 today to 50 in the 2011 fiscal year to 65 in 2015, a significant uptick that comes on top of the Air Force’s projections that all its drones will fly 250,000 total hours this year, up from a measly 71 hours for the Reaper drone in 2004. The QDR says the Army will also increase the number of drones in every class of its fleet in the next few years, especially its souped-up Extended Range Multi-Purpose Predator.

Not to be outdone, the Navy is developing its own aerial drone, the N-UCAS built by Northrop Grumman, which could deploy from aircraft carriers around the world and expand the military’s aerial reach. And as the QDR reports, the unmanned future isn’t confined to the skies, either: Underway right now is a far-ranging underwater drone with strike capabilities that the Navy is developing. The QDR also vaguely hints at improvements in drone intelligence gathering capabilities, like the current “Gorgon Stare” video technology boasting 10 different cameras operating at once and a more advanced camera technology with 30 feeds at once that could come online this fall.

Interestingly, the QDR’s outlook on drone warfare isn’t limited to the US. DoD officials anticipate—as they logically should—that unmanned drones are quickly becoming the weapon of choice around the world, briefly noting that “non-state actors such as Hezbollah have acquired” drones and pose a threat going forward. The only question now, based on this latest QDR and other news reports, is whether future warzones will actually feature any living, breathing people at all—apart, that is, from the unfortunate bystanders living in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan whose skies are filled with the Predators and Reapers and other drones of the future.

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