Global Policy Forum

Decade of the Drone

They fly all over the world and represent the most recent symbol of US warfare. The unmanned aircraft systems, the US military drones, have become a cornerstone of US foreign policy since 9/11. The Department of Defense recently requested strong funding for robotic warfare in its 2012 budget. The expanding number of drones, and their constant and increased regularity in the air, demonstrate the US’ ever-widening silent and undeclared wars. 

By Nick Turse


November 1, 2011

They fly over Africa, Asia and Europe, as well as North and South America. Some are literally thrown into the air by human hands. Others take off like traditional airplanes. Some carry only simple video cameras. Then there are those packing 3,750 pounds worth of bombs and missiles whose operators “fly” the planes from air-conditioned trailers located thousands of miles from the war zone.

U.S. military drone missions have become ubiquitous in the decade since 9/11. What were novel operations in the early Bush years have become, in the Obama era, a regular feature of American warfare. Today, U.S. unmanned aerial systems are constantly in the air all around the world and with increasing regularity, in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya, hunting and killing suspected militants. An investigation by AlterNet finds that the number of hours flown by U.S. military drones is far greater than is generally acknowledged. According to statistics provided by the Army, Navy and Air Force, remotely piloted aircraft have logged around 2.7 million flight hours during the current era of drone warfare. More than 87 percent of the time, these drones have been involved in combat.

Decade of the Drone

For the last decade, the United States has aggressively ramped up its drone operations in and outside traditional war zones. A recent in-depth analysis by AlterNet, using military documents, press accounts, and other open-source information, identified at least 60 bases integral to U.S. military and CIA drone operations spread across the globe. While Scientific American reported last month that the “U.S. Army's drone armada alone has expanded from 54 drones in October 2001, when U.S. combat operations began in Afghanistan, to more than 4,000.” These include 1,300 Ravens – essentially 4-pound model airplanes that fit in a rucksack and are thrown into the air like toy gliders – that it purchased last year according to the Economist. Meanwhile, the Air Force’s inventory of MQ-9 Reapers, the heavily armed drones that can carry almost 3,800 pounds of bombs and missiles, has jumped from four aircraft in 2007 to nearly 90, according to statistics provided to AlterNet by the Air Force.

The Washington Post reported that, in 2006, “the nation's fleet of flying robots logged more than 160,000 flight hours.” Air Force statistics indicate that Reapers, alone, have now flown more hours this. Their progenitors, the less heavily armed MQ-1 Predators, have logged an astounding 1 million hours in the air, some 920,000 of them in combat, through the beginning of August, while the RQ-4 Global Hawk, used for long-range, high-altitude surveillance missions, flew 54,000 hours – most of them in combat. When asked how many hours have been flown by the RQ-170 Sentinel, an advanced drone (nicknamed the “Beast of Kandahar”) that was used to spy on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, Air Force spokesman Lieutenant Colonel John Haynes refused to provide figures. “We do not release that information,” he told AlterNet.

For their part, Navy unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have flown more than 21,800 hours this year. More than 10,000 of those hours were logged by the model known as the Scan Eagle, followed by the Shadow, the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance or BAMS-D unmanned aerial system and the Fire Scout pilotless helicopter. This year, almost all the Navy’s flight time for remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), some 21,356 hours according to data provided to AlterNet, was carried out in combat. 

Since their inception, the Navy’s Shadow UAVs have flown 27,251 hours, while its Scan Eagles, BAMS-Ds and Fire Scouts have logged 18,163, 6,567 and 3,600 hours, respectively.

It’s the Army, however, with its arsenal of smaller, tactical drones used by ground troops, that has flown the lion’s share of hours. According to an Army spokesperson, since 2003 that service’s unmanned aircraft have spent 1.2 million hours in combat and, all told, its UAVs have flown more than 1.3 million hours or 148 years worth of flight time.

The Future is Now

In its 2012 budget request, the Department of Defense drew special attention to robotic warfare. “Particularly important is ongoing strong funding for unmanned aircraft systems,” reads the document. Predictably enough, the Army, Navy and Air Force all stressed the need to expand existing programs or develop new remotely piloted systems. Moreover, according to a report by the Congressional Budget Office published earlier this year, “the Department of Defense plans to purchase about 730 new medium-sized and large unmanned aircraft systems” over the next decade.

In 2001, Air Force Predator drones flew 7,500 hours. By 2005, the number topped 41,000. This year, Predators logged more than 70,000 hours of flight time and the numbers are likely to continue to increase exponentially.

Last year, for the first time in its history according to Scientific American, “the Air Force trained more RPA pilots than fixed-wing pilots.” Right now, according to statistics provided to AlterNet by the Air Force, the service has just under 1,200 drone pilots, but optimally would like to have 2,000 to carry out its current operations. As a result, plans are in the works to train more drone operators at an increasing rate.

It isn’t difficult to guess where this is heading. An expanding number of drones, drone pilots and drone bases will surely mean more remote-controlled strikes as part of a drone assassination campaign in support of America’s ever-widening undeclared wars.

All told, U.S. military unmanned aircraft have flown more than 2.3 million hours in combat operations during the post-9/11 era. That’s 260 years worth of combat in little more than a decade of war. Or, to put it another way, decades longer than the United States has existed with, we can be assured, many hundreds of years of combat to come.


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