The abbreviation is UAV, for unmanned aerial vehicle, and in the name is its great advantage: The United States has developed a weapons delivery system that doesn’t require a pilot.
Commonly called drones, these UAVs started out as unarmed surveillance aircraft designed to be used in environments that would endanger the life of a human pilot.
As drones have become more sophisticated, the military armed them with missiles to fight a new kind of war against a new kind of enemy – loosely organized groups of terrorists operating in countries that are unable or unwilling to fight them. The Pentagon has greatly increased the number of drone attacks, and has taken out some notorious terrorists, including al-Qaida leader Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen and the terror group’s No. 2 strongman Abu Yahya al-Libi in Pakistan.
The drones do have pilots, but they are sitting at a desk equipped with computer screens and joysticks in a room thousands of miles away. The drones have other advantages over piloted aircraft. They can stay in the air for a remarkable 30 hours, on guard day and night.
If you look back to World War II, when tens of thousands of bomber crew members were killed, the change is quite remarkable, and welcome. The U.S. military has created a cheap, reliable weapons system that helps save the lives of Americans and our allies by targeting terrorists, while not endangering U.S. pilots over distant battlefields.
The nation has come to rely on drones in its fight against terrorism, and for good reasons. There is no way the country will, or should, stop using them.
But it should ensure that protocols for using them are sufficient to what is, despite the value of the drones, an uncomfortable change in the nature of warfare. The change – focusing more on terror groups than rogue nations – was necessitated by the terrorists, themselves, but it has expanded the job of the nation’s civilian commander in chief to deciding whom to target for death, and when.
We have few qualms about the need for the president to take on that role, given the realities of the world, but we also want to know that any president’s license to kill is tempered by the realities of a great democracy as we plunge ever deeper into this new world of remote warfare.