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.
Updated:Caption:James MartinPhoto:U.S. Air Force/1st Lt. Shannon Collins
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.
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.
Updated:Caption:James MartinPhoto:U.S. Air Force/ Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt
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.
Updated:Caption:James MartinPhoto:U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Jonathan Steffen
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.
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.
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.
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.
An RQ-4 Global Hawk like the one pictured here is being used to assist Japan in disaster relief and recovery efforts.
Updated:Caption:James MartinPhoto:U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Nichelle Anderson
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.
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.
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.
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.