Unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) are the wonder weapons of today's wars. UCAVs have been credited with striking the convoy carrying Moammar Qaddafi; killing al Qaeda's Abu Yahya al Libi and Anwar al Awlaki; eviscerating the Taliban's ranks and other militants in the Afghanistan and Pakistan (AfPak) theater; and hitting targets from Asia to Africa--all without putting pilots in harm's way.
The drone revolution promises many benefits, but there are also drawbacks to this nascent unmanned air force--drawbacks that few policymakers have contemplated. Just as drone detractors need to acknowledge what UCAVs bring to the table, UCAV advocates need to acknowledge the negative implications of drone warfare.
Today and Tomorrow
Whatever one's view of UCAVs, the appeal of drones is understandable. As an Air Force report concludes, drones "are not limited by human performance or physiological characteristics ... extreme persistence and maneuverability are intrinsic benefits." (1) In other words, drones can handle what humans cannot--G forces and speed, tedium and boredom. Among the other "intrinsic benefits" of drones: they deprive the enemy of human targets; they don't get tired or thirsty or hungry; they are relatively inexpensive; and with the coming of nuclear-powered drones, they offer the possibility of nearly endless above-target operation.
It is no surprise, then, that drones are beginning to dislodge manned aircraft from the crucial role they have played in warfighting since World War II. Consider some of the evidence:
* There has been a 1,200-percent increase in combat air patrols by drones since 2005. (2)
* In the past decade, the US drone fleet has swelled from 50 planes to 7,500, though the vast majority of these drones are not UCAVs. (3) Still, drones represent 31 percent of the Pentagon's air fleet. (4)
* America's unmanned air force--including drones deployed by the military and the CIA--has struck targets in Pakistan, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and the Philippines. (5) UCAVs are so central to US efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan that some observers have dubbed this front of the antiterror campaign "the drone war."
* Referring to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen declared not long before he retired, "There are those that see the JSF as the last manned fighter or fighter-bomber." Raising more than a few eyebrows, he added, "I'm one that's inclined to believe that." (6)
Two factors are accelerating the use of drones: the public's growing distaste for US casualties and the Pentagon's shrinking share of the budget. Regarding the former, it pays to recall the American people's tolerance for casualties has waxed and waned over the decades. They obviously have had a high threshold for casualties at times. For example, despite far higher casualty levels than recent conflicts, public support remained high throughout World War II and during much of Vietnam. However, that changed dramatically after Vietnam. The result was a quarter-century of push-button, almost-bloodless wars (at least for Americans), each conditioning the American people to expect less bloodshed than the previous conflict. This, in turn, conditioned political and...