Drone aircraft have been a fixture of U.S. combat and intelligence operations for some years. But this year, the U.S. military's use of unmanned aircraft reached unprecedented levels. This is the future of warfare.

X-47B in catapult test
The X-47B drone prototype gets ready for take-off in its first-ever catapult launch. U.S. Navy photo

Drone aircraft have been a fixture of U.S. combat and intelligence operations for some years now. But in 2012, the U.S. military's use of unmanned aircraft like the Reaper reached unprecedented levels, in both absolute and relative numbers. Looking at Pentagon stats, Wired reckons that the record 447 drone strikes in Afghanistan last year accounted for 11.5 percent of the U.S. air war, more than double the level of the year before. It's easy to understand why military planners are leaning more and more on drones -- they're a bargain, relatively speaking; they're not so easy to spot or shoot down (not that Iran hasn't tried), and they keep pilots out of harm's way.

This year we also got a hint of where the future of drones will bring us: aircraft carriers. The U.S. Navy has been putting a pair of X-47B drone prototypes through their paces, including the recent launch of one from a steam catapult and the delivery of another to the flight deck of the U.S.S. Harry S. Truman. Sometime next year, the Navy says, watch for the historic moment as an X-47B becomes the first-ever unmanned aircraft to take off from and land on a carrier at sea.

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About the author

Jonathan Skillings is managing editor of CNET News, based in the Boston bureau. He's been with CNET since 2000, after a decade in tech journalism at the IDG News Service, PC Week, and an AS/400 magazine. He's also been a soldier and a schoolteacher, and will always be a die-hard fan of jazz, the brassier the better.


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