Military Drones

Death From Above

Comparatively inexpensive compared to other systems, drones like the one that killed Anwar al-Awlaki have demonstrated themselves to be nimble and deadly.

09.30.11 5:05 PM ET

Heard of a company called General Atomics? The name gives no clue to its main line of business, which is delivering instruments of assassination. We all know the giants of the military-industrial complex: Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics. But right now it is General Atomics that is the Pentagon’s star performer.

The killing of Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen on Friday is the fifth major terrorist scalp to be claimed this year by drone strikes. The drones were conceived, designed, and delivered by a division of General Atomics, based in San Diego. Their two killer drones are the Predator and the Reaper.

Originally, the drones were never intended to be killers. Their mission was to gather intelligence and provide surveillance, unseen and unheard, as they cruised high above the earth with sophisticated cameras and sensing equipment. They are pilotless—the drones are “flown” by pilots who can be thousands of miles away from any theater of war, sitting at a console.

It was only in this decade, when faced with the elusive, evanescent threat of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, that the military realized that they had in their arsenal a new hunter-killer machine uniquely suited to this challenge.

It was relatively simple to attach munitions to a drone, which are slung under the slender wings; one weapon is the Hellfire missile, which was originally intended to be used against tanks and heavy armor, and now, aided by laser-guided targeting, is accurate enough to home in on selected vehicles, like those in the convoy carrying Awlaki.

Very swiftly, drones proved that based on performance, other airborne weapons—bombers, ground-attack airplanes, cruise missiles—were blunt instruments in comparison. Drones are delivered by General Atomics in units of four, and each unit costs around $70 million. Compare that with the $2.8 billion cost of a B-2 stealth bomber, which is enormously expensive to maintain and needs many hours to become operational, and it is clear that by Pentagon standards the drones are bargains.

The downside? The efficacy of drone strikes depends on timely and accurate intelligence. Often that depends on what is called “humint”—humans on the ground, either undercover and infiltrated into dangerous areas, or special forces dropped in for that purpose. The assassination of Awlaki—who had escaped several previous strikes—must have involved precise intelligence on the ground. But an investigation of 270 reported drone strikes in northwest Pakistan from 2004 to the present, carried out by the New America Foundation, estimated that as many as 20 percent of the casualties were civilians, not militants. (Although a formidable number of militants were killed, perhaps as many as 2,000.)

What isn’t shown in the numbers is the psychological effect of the drones on the terrorists. They know they are not safe even in so-called safe-houses; they know the drones are up there constantly; they know that they will never see the killer strike coming. This has obviously been extremely disruptive to both their movements and their communications. Al Qaeda itself has been decimated.

The message from the drones is equally salient for our own military. It’s a harbinger of the future of battle, where human-to-human warfare gives way to ever-smarter unmanned weapons that make today’s huge and profligate conventional arsenals look redundant—as well as irrelevant—to the threats of the future.