Skip to main content

Demand grows for remote-controlled drones on front lines

  • Story Highlights
  • Pentagon officials push for more unmanned aerial vehicles in Iraq, Afghanistan
  • Drones have moved from being intelligence gatherers to fighting machines
  • Military "not moving aggressively" to get more UAVs, Robert Gates says
  • Next Article in U.S. »
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The demands of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are behind a new push by the Pentagon to increase the ranks of one of its most tireless fighting machines: remote-controlled attack aircraft called Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or UAVs.

U.S. soldiers in Iraq prepare to launch an RQ-7B Shadow drone over Diyala province in February.

The U.S. military in recent months has doubled its squadrons of the small, quiet and deadly drones, which are operated by pilots in the United States.

Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, praised the work of the Predator UAVs flying over Baghdad.

"I think there's some path-breaking work ongoing here," Petraeus said.

Yet Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last month that it's "been like pulling teeth" to get more UAVs into the air over Iraq and Afghanistan. He established a task force to speed up the process.

"Unmanned systems cost much less and offer greater loiter times than their manned counterparts, making them ideal for many of today's tasks," Gates told Air War College graduates last month. Video Watch drones blast unsuspecting targets »

CNN has obtained previously classified video of the Air Force's newest heavily armed unmanned warplane with the grim moniker "The Reaper," which is essentially a Predator on steroids.

The newly declassified video shows a 500-pound bomb slamming into a suspected Taliban bunker in southern Afghanistan this year.

Another video clip shows a 500-pound bomb, aimed and fired by a pilot at Creech Air Force Base in the Nevada desert, striking two insurgents in Afghanistan as they try to escape on a motorcycle.

"It flies higher. It flies faster. It carries more of a weapons load," said Lt. Gen. Norman Seip, commander of the 12th Air Force at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona. "They're flying long, they are flying hard and they are making a big impact."

The CIA began using unmanned drones with cameras in the early 1990s, when Gates was the CIA director.

"After 27 years of experience as an intelligence professional, I had seen many agents place themselves in harm's way to collect information in some of the world's most dangerous and inaccessible environments," Gates said in his Air War College address. He welcomed the UAVs as a "far less risky and far more versatile means of gathering data."

The addition of Hellfire missiles to the original "Predator" spy drone just after September 11, 2001, gave it the ability to live up to its name.

Gates said the Pentagon now has 5,000 UAVs in service -- 25 times the number before the September 11 attacks.

The Air Force recently announced that it can now keep 24 UAVs in the air at all times, putting it two years ahead of its goal.

"But in my view, we can do -- and we should do -- more to meet the needs of men and women fighting in the current conflicts while their outcome may still be in doubt," Gates said.

Gates said he was concerned the military was "not moving aggressively" to get more UAVs to the battlefield.

"I've been wrestling for months to get more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets into the theater," he said. "Because people were stuck in old ways of doing business, it's been like pulling teeth."

The task force, created last month, includes representatives from all four branches of the military. It has a short deadline, he said.

The biggest challenge may be finding and training men and women to pilot the growing fleet of UAVs.

"All this may require rethinking long-standing service assumptions and priorities about which missions require certified pilots and which do not," Gates said.

Critics argue that any aircraft carrying weapons should only be flown by certified pilots.

The Air Force has reduced manpower demands by letting pilots in the United States operate the planes through satellite links supported by ground crews closer to the battlefield.


The Air Force has reassigned pilots from other aircraft, and the Air National Guard has also accelerated its Predator commitment in five states, the Air Force said.

It will establish a second Predator training squadron and a Predator weapons instructor course in early 2009, the Air Force said.

CNN's Jamie McIntyre and Alan Duke contributed to this report.

All About Robert GatesU.S. Air ForceThe Pentagon

  • E-mail
  • Save
  • Print