Friday, September 25, 2009

Drones 1 Manned Aircraft 0

The September 28th, 2009 issue of Newsweek carries a most interesting story on how the killing of the F-22 by Congress represents a victory for elements in the Air Force championing unmanned aircraft. The story, written by Fred Kaplan, is titled, Attack of the Drones.
Iraq and Afghanistan are very different wars from the war the F-22 Raptor was designed to fight. (Not one of the advanced aircraft has flown a single mission over either theater.) The enemy isn't a foreign government, but an insurgency; there are few "strategic" targets to bomb and no opposing air force to go after. So the main Air Force role is to support American and allied troops on the ground. This means two things: first, airlifting supplies (General Schwartz's specialty); second, helping the troops find and kill bad guys.

For this second mission, the Air Force has been relying more and more on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with names like Predator, Reaper, Global Hawk, and Warrior Alpha. Joystick pilots located halfway around the world operate these ghost planes. They pinpoint their targets by watching streams of real-time video, taken by cameras strapped to the bellies of the UAVs. Many of the aircraft also carry super-accurate smart bombs, which the joystick pilots can fire with the push of a button once they've spotted the targets on their video screens.

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