UAVs: Changing the face of modern warfare

By Robert J. Galbraith on July 10, 2008

On January 29th in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan, the commander of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terror network in Afghanistan, Abu Laith al-Libi, was killed by a US missile strike launched from what was believed to be an MQ-1 Predator, an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV).

Libi, who was No 5 on the Central Intelligence Agencies’ most wanted list, (which has bin Laden at its top) was in a compound with 12 other al-Qaeda militants when the Predator’s laser-guided, Hellfire missile struck.

According to Pakistani intelligence officials, al-Libi, and his acquaintances, were using satellite phones and a computer when the missile was launched at the compound in which they died. It was allegedly the signals from these electronic devices that the Predator honed in on to aim its missiles at the target.

The MQ-1 Predator is a long-endurance, remotely piloted aircraft with the primary mission of conducting surveillance operations and armed reconnaissance against targets.

The reality of modern warfare is not much different from that of the days of old. That is, to kill and not be killed. The attitude is the same, it’s the means of reaching that goal that is changing. The increased use of Predators and other types of UAV’s (or drones as they are also referred to) are the creation of modern warfare and are presently in use by the CIA and the United States military in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Given that a Predator is very unobtrusive and the Hellfire missiles that it carries are supersonic, such a combination gives little warning of attack. Most importantly, there is no risk of death or capture to a human crew, which are necessary to pilot, navigate and target in a conventional manned aircraft. Also, at a price tag of $4.5 million each, the 27-foot-long Predator, powered by a 101 horsepower engine, is much cheaper and smaller than manned aircraft, some costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

Ever since Predators were first deployed for reconnaissance and surveillance operations by the US military during the 1995 civil war in Bosnia, they have become an integral piece of military hardware not only for the US military and the CIA; they are also used by the Italian Air Force, the Royal Air Force, the Pakistan Air Force and others. Presently, there are thousands in use. Their importance can be realized by the fact that in the 2008 fiscal year, the US Defence Department has a $15 billion budget just for unmanned systems.

Drones are not only being used in combat situations, but will soon be in use along the 8,890 kilometre US-Canada borders. The US Customs and Border Protection agency will use them to prevent acts of terrorism arising from unlawful movement of people and to track illegal drugs and other contraband moving toward or crossing the borders. Canada has initiated a research and acquisition program into its own drone patrols which will also soon be flying along the border.

The new era in aerial warfare and surveillance is here to stay, and it is advancing by technological leaps and bounds. UAV’s are aircraft that can fly continuously for 30 hours without refuelling, in the worst weather, over the harshest terrain found on the earth, while keeping an eye on all that goes on below. Welcome to the future—where the eye in the sky never sleeps.


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