From blimps to bugs, aerial drones are transforming the way America fights and thinks about its wars. United States intelligence officials call unmanned aerial vehicles, often referred to as drones, their most effective weapon against Al Qaeda. The remotely piloted planes are used to transmit live video from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan to American forces, and to carry out air strikes. More C.I.A. drone attacks have been conducted under President Barack Obama than under President George W. Bush.
The Pentagon now has some 7,000 aerial drones, compared with fewer than 50 a decade ago, and asked Congress for nearly $5 billion for drones in the 2012 budget.
Drones have become more crucial than ever in fighting wars and terrorism. The Central Intelligence Agency spied on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan by video transmitted from a drone. One of Pakistan’s most wanted militants, Ilyas Kashmiri, was reported dead in a June 2011 C.I.A. drone strike, part of an aggressive drone campaign that administration officials say has helped paralyze Al Qaeda in the region. More than 1,900 insurgents in Pakistan’s tribal areas have been killed by American drones since 2006, according to the Web sitelongwarjournal.com, which closely tracks the strikes as part of its focus on the war on terror.
In September 2011, a drone missile killed Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical American-born cleric, using live video on Yemeni tribal turf where it is too dangerous for American troops to go. It was another sign that, disillusioned by huge costs and uncertain outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration has decisively embraced the drone as the future of the fight against terrorist networks.
President Obama authorized the use of drones early in the NATO-led air campaign against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces in Libya. In October 2011, an American Predator drone and a French warplane hit two vehicles in a convoy fleeing his hometown of Surt. Though neither vehicle carried Colonel Qaddafi, the rest of the convoy detoured and scattered; Mr. Qaddafi was soon caught by rebels and killed.
Ethical Questions Raised
Large or small, drones raise questions about the growing disconnect between the American public and its wars. Military ethicists concede that drones can turn war into a video game and, with no Americans directly at risk, more easily draw the United States into conflicts. Drones have also created a crisis of information for analysts on the end of a daily video deluge.