The F-16s had come and gone, dropping a pair of 500-pound satellite-guided bombs on an insurgent safe house in Iraq’s Sunni Triangle. Now it was up to Major Shannon Rogers to see whether they had hit their target.
With a tug of the throttle, he brought his plane to 10,000 feet for a closer look.
Typically, it takes hours, even days, to get an accurate idea of the damage bombs have caused in a war zone. GIs on the ground have to make their way to a target and report back. But Rogers can get the job done in minutes.
As his plane passed over the site of the safe house, dawn was breaking – a clear, sunny morning that had yet to give way to the August heat. But for Rogers, it was after sunset. He was operating his Predator unmanned aerial vehicle – a drone – from a secure terminal at Nellis Air Force Base, near Las Vegas.
Tracking the feed from the Predator’s camera, Rogers could see rubble where the safe house had been. He and a sensor operator on his crew watched a crowd gather to ogle the destruction. Then a white Dodge pickup rolled up with a .50-caliber heavy machine gun in the back. Five men climbed out, ran into the house, and returned to move the truck to a secluded alley. They began loading ammunition and arc-welding the .50-cal’s mount.
Back at Nellis, Rogers wasn’t limited to just assessing battle damage. He could also inflict it; his Predator was equipped with two Hellfire laser-guided missiles. Rogers, who flew F-15s (call sign: Smack) before switching to drones, radioed for authorization to destroy the Dodge. He got it.
“We left their truck one big smoking hole,” he remembers. “My heart was pumping as we were doing our business. It felt just as real to me, however many thousands of miles away, as if I was sitting right there in that cockpit.”
Rogers’ Predator is one of more than 1,200 UAVs in the US military arsenal; three years ago, there were fewer than 100 in the field. Today drones as small as a crow and as big as a Cessna are searching for roadside bombs, seeking out insurgents, and watching the backs of US troops. They’re cheap, they can stay in the air longer than any manned aircraft, and they can see a battlefield better – all without risking a pilot.
Those capabilities tell only part of the story. UAVs give rank-and-file soldiers powers once reserved for generals. They push generals into the thick of battle. And they’re blurring the lines between the fighter jocks and the grunts on the ground. Firmly entrenched hierachies don’t change easily, but drones are reshaping military culture.
By Noah Shachtman