Pilotless Planes Earn Their Wings in 21st-Century Warfare

Bijal P. Trivedi
for National Geographic Today
October 12, 2001

The awkward-looking Predator, with a toucan-like nose and huge wings, is one of a growing fleet of pilotless, remotely controlled planes that are becoming increasingly indispensable in modern warfare.

The Predator measures about 27 feet (8 meters) and seven feet high (2 meters) and weighs just under a ton. Along with other Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), it is playing a critical role in spying and battle assessment.

Pictures showing the pre-and post-attack aerial shots of the Garmabak Ghar terrorist training camp in Afghanistan, for example, were undoubtedly taken by a Predator, or possibly another more sophisticated UAV, such as a Gnat or Global Hawk, said Owen Cote, associate director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Security Studies Program.

The most significant advantage of pilotless spy planes is that they do not put pilots at risk during spying missions. But the planes are also relatively inexpensive, which means the loss would be less costly if they were shot down. (A Predator costs about U.S. $3 million, compared with as much as $2 billion for a single B-2 bomber or $25 million for an F-16 fighter.)

Besides the obvious advantage of no loss of life, "no one really cares if they go down because, compared to other planes that run into the hundreds of millions, these are cheap," said Cote.

Of the 55 Predators that have been delivered to the U.S. Air Force, 19 have been lost—11 during combat.

Another benefit is that Predators and other UAVs can remain airborne at high altitudes and for durations that would not be possible with piloted planes. "These planes don't need food and they don't need rest, which means they can collect more information," said Brig. Gen. Trey Obering at the Pentagon, who oversees all surveillance, reconnaissance, and intelligence gathering for the Air Force.

A Global Hawk can travel five times the distance from New York to Los Angeles without stopping. The long range, high-endurance craft could travel to battle scenes in risky territory, complete the mission, and return without a break.

"You also get more bang for your buck," said Obering, because a pilot doesn't have to be trained to fly each one of the planes. Military officials expect that it will eventually be possible for a single operator to simultaneously control three or four of the planes, he added.

New Strategies

The increased emphasis on the use of UAVs stems from a change in warfare strategies. Before the Cold War, the U.S. Air Force focused primarily on striking strategic fixed targets such as airstrips, military bases, factories, and bridges.

"In fact we got so good at hitting fixed targets that it has become almost routine," Cote said. Within the first two days of air strikes in Afghanistan, the Air Force had successfully destroyed or damaged 85 percent of 31 targets, according to official reports. (Click here for details.)

Continued on Next Page >>



NEWS FEEDS     After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.   After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.

Get our news delivered directly to your desktop—free.
How to Use XML or RSS

National Geographic Daily News To-Go

Listen to your favorite National Geographic news daily, anytime, anywhere from your mobile phone. No wires or syncing. Download Stitcher free today.
Click here to get 12 months of National Geographic Magazine for $15.