In most of the world’s militaries – and even in paramilitary groups like Hezbollah – drones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are playing increasing roles in combat and intelligence gathering. They are running ahead of convoys in Afghanistan and Iraq to try to spot or jam improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Even as far back as the first Gulf War, they were being used by battleships to target fire from naval guns. Some Iraqi troops even surrendered to them.
Some even go so far as to say that the era of manned fighter aircraft is drawing to a close, and that the American F-22 may be their last such craft. They can be more manoeuvrable than manned craft, since the physical limitations of pilots are no longer an issue. This is an increasingly serious problem as surface-to-air missiles continue to become faster, more advanced, and more widely employed. Due to not being limited by pilot fatigue, UAVs can also have a much more enduring presence. Missions lasting several days have already been undertaken, and future vehicles may be able to remain airborne for weeks or even months. The US Navy has a ‘Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS)’ program, which aims to provide intelligence coverage of most of the world’s strategic ocean areas, with vehicles capable of loitering for 24 hours.
Of course, the new technologies raise issues beyond military strategy. The ethics of programming machines that employ lethal force will probably become an increasingly important element of international law.