The rise of the drone wars (pictures)

The U.S. Air Force predicts that a third of its attack and fighter planes will be drones in just 10 years.

James Martin
James Martin is the Managing Editor of Photography at CNET. His photos capture technology's impact on society - from the widening wealth gap in San Francisco, to the European refugee crisis and Rwanda's efforts to improve health care. From the technology pioneers of Google and Facebook, photographing Apple's Steve Jobs and Tim Cook, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Google's Sundar Pichai, to the most groundbreaking launches at Apple and NASA, his is a dream job for any documentary photography and journalist with a love for technology. Exhibited widely, syndicated and reprinted thousands of times over the years, James follows the people and places behind the technology changing our world, bringing their stories and ideas to life.
James Martin
1 of 20 U.S. Air Force/1st Lt. Shannon Collins

The changing face of warfare

From a shipping container-size control room on a quiet, but highly secure airbase somewhere in America, Air Force technicians are glued to their screens, using joysticks to unleash drone warfare thousands of miles away.

These young men and women don't look like the muscled Marines you might imagine as warriors. But since 2001, they've killed thousands of foreign fighters -- and then returned home to sleep safely in their beds each night.

It's the changing face of war for America, and the shift is coming quickly. By 2023, the U.S. Air Force says, one-third of its attack and fighter planes will be drones.

Here, an MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle and F-16 Fighting Falcon are seen after returning from an Operation Iraqi Freedom combat mission. Both aircraft provide intelligence, search and reconnaissance gathering features, as well as munitions capability to support ground troops and base defense.

These pilotless planes are just a hint of what's to come, as the Air Force believes drone warfare is still in its infancy. These weapons can fly themselves using GPS at undetectable altitudes; they're lighter and more efficient than jets, burning 300 times less fuel than a fighter jet; and they have a global reach that works around the official authorizations for war in the United States.
2 of 20 Screenshot/PBS/NOVA

High in the sky

The cameras aboard today's drones are easily capable of detecting people from 5 miles or 6 miles away, allowing the aircraft to travel undetected at altitudes of 25,000 feet.

Though drones might be facilitating an ease of war, the road to drone warfare hasn't been smooth. Today during his confirmation hearing to be CIA director, White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan faced questions by the Senate Select Intelligence Committee about the agency's covert use of lethal force in unauthorized war zones and the drone killings of Americans.

The government claims to have eliminated up to 70 percent of al-Qaeda's top leadership with the use of drones. But critics say the collateral damage is too high. The Taliban claims that 30 percent of those killed in drone strikes are civilians.

By removing the danger of war to our troops, have we facilitated the spread of war around the world? Technically, the United States is involved in one war -- Afghanistan. But drones strikes have killed thousands with just the press of a button, often without accountability or transparency, and with few constraints. The U.S. has fired drone missiles in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, and Iraq, and the military is soon to open a new base for drone flights in northwest Africa.
3 of 20 U.S. Air Force/ Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt

MQ-9 Reaper over southern Afghanistan

An MQ-9 Reaper, piloted by Col. Lex Turner and armed with GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided munitions and AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, flies a combat mission over southern Afghanistan.
4 of 20 U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Jonathan Steffen

Drone at Balad Air Base, Iraq

Avionics mechanics Jonathan Hagy and Russell Gordy work on an MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle May 17 at the Balad Air Base in Iraq. The Predator provides armed reconnaissance, airborne surveillance, and target acquisition for Iraq.
5 of 20 Screenshot/PBS/NOVA

Satellite navigation systems

In place of the cockpit, where the pilot of a fighter plane would normally sit, is the navigation system -- the brains of the aircraft. The Predator carries the satellite control system to communicate with the operator who is sometimes thousands of miles away.
6 of 20 Screenshot/PBS/NOVA

Sensor ball

The so-called sensor ball on a Predator carries the high-res daylight and infrared cameras, which can see a person from more than 5 miles away, as well as provides the laser guidance system for the missiles.
7 of 20 Screenshot/PBS/NOVA

Targeting systems

The seeker on the front of the missiles, seen here, detects the spot where the guidance system has marked the target on the ground and travels to that spot, making the drone very accurate.
8 of 20 U.S. Air Force

The 'Reaper'

The "Reaper" has been chosen as the name for the MQ-9 unmanned aerial vehicle.
9 of 20 U.S. Air Force

The RQ-11 Raven Small Unmanned Aircraft System

The RQ-11 Raven Small Unmanned Aircraft System weighs just 4.2 lbs. and is a back-packable system which is deployed in the field by a two-man team to provide targeting information and situational awareness using high-resolution, day- and night-time cameras, as well as thermal imaging. The Raven is the most widely used drone in the world.
10 of 20 U.S. Air Force

Global Hawk spy drone

An RQ-4 Global Hawk is a high-altitude, long-endurance intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data system with a wingspan of 130.9 feet. Operated by the 12th Reconnaissance Squadron from Beale Air Force Base, Calif., it's a global spy plane that provides intelligence in real time from around the world. The X-band imager has a wide view which can detect moving targets within a radius of 62 miles, and in the finer "spot" mode can provide 6-foot resolution over a 3.8-square mile area.
11 of 20 U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Nichelle Anderson

Peacetime support imaging

An RQ-4 Global Hawk like the one pictured here is being used to assist Japan in disaster relief and recovery efforts.
12 of 20 Screenshot/PBS/NOVA

Drone operators

Drone operators control unmanned vehicles from thousands of miles away inside shipping container-size control rooms. The Air Force trains drone operators specifically for the job, and has discovered that pilots with real experience in fighter jets are not well-suited to being drone operators; it's a whole different skill set.
13 of 20 U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson

MQ-1 Predator

An MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle takes off from Creech Air Force Base, Nev., on May 11, for a training sortie over the Nevada desert.
14 of 20 Screenshot/PBS/NOVA

View from a Predator

The view as seen from a Predator drone's daylight camera.
15 of 20 Rinze Klein RNLA

Preflight check

Aircrews perform a preflight check on an MQ-9 Reaper before it takes off for a mission in Afghanistan on September 31. The Reaper is larger and more heavily armed than the MQ-1 Predator. In addition to its traditional ISR capabilities, it's designed to attack time-sensitive targets with persistence and precision, and destroy or disable those targets.
16 of 20 Rinze Klein RNLA

Reaper in Afghanistan

A maintenance Airman inspects an MQ-9 Reaper in Afghanistan on September 31, 2011. Capable of striking enemy targets with onboard weapons, the Reaper has conducted close air support and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions.
17 of 20 U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Andy M. Kin

RQ-4 Global Hawk

An RQ-4 Global Hawk gets prepared for a mission while deployed November 23, 2010 at an air base in Southwest Asia. The RQ-4 and the Airmen are assigned to the 380th Expeditionary Operations Group.
18 of 20 Screenshot/PBS/NOVA

View to a kill

In this screenshot from a Predator drone, insurgents in Iraq are seen firing mortars toward a coalition airbase.
19 of 20 Screenshot/PBS/NOVA

Identifying targets

After observing the insurgents firing mortars at a U.S. airbase, the drone tracks the suspects to their vehicle where it then engages the vehicle.
20 of 20 Screenshot/PBS/NOVA

Additional monitoring of the situation

A benefit of drones, the U.S. Airforce says, is the ability to continue to monitor an airstrike after the missile has hit its target.

During WWII, according to David Deptula Lt. General USAF/Ret., it took months of work to assemble intelligence from the ground and then determine targets to hit, and then took hundreds of aircraft dropping thousands of bombs to destroy a target. Today, those capabilities are all-in-one -- drones allow the cycle to be accomplished in minutes, rather than months.

As the U.S. government continues to struggle with an official policy toward the rules of engagement for drones, the technology marches on, and the operational capabilities of our human-less war become stronger every day.

More Galleries

My Favorite Shots From the Galaxy S24 Ultra's Camera
A houseplant

My Favorite Shots From the Galaxy S24 Ultra's Camera

20 Photos
Honor's Magic V2 Foldable Is Lighter Than Samsung's Galaxy S24 Ultra

Honor's Magic V2 Foldable Is Lighter Than Samsung's Galaxy S24 Ultra

10 Photos
The Samsung Galaxy S24 and S24 Plus Looks Sweet in Aluminum
Samsung Galaxy S24

The Samsung Galaxy S24 and S24 Plus Looks Sweet in Aluminum

23 Photos
Samsung's Galaxy S24 Ultra Now Has a Titanium Design
The Galaxy S24 Ultra in multiple colors

Samsung's Galaxy S24 Ultra Now Has a Titanium Design

23 Photos
I Took 600+ Photos With the iPhone 15 Pro and Pro Max. Look at My Favorites

I Took 600+ Photos With the iPhone 15 Pro and Pro Max. Look at My Favorites

34 Photos
17 Hidden iOS 17 Features You Should Definitely Know About
Invitation for the Apple September iPhone 15 event

17 Hidden iOS 17 Features You Should Definitely Know About

18 Photos
AI or Not AI: Can You Spot the Real Photos?

AI or Not AI: Can You Spot the Real Photos?

17 Photos