What is the 9/11 legacy for UAV technology?

911-blogs1.gifBy Zach Rosenberg, UAV reporter

I was at my quiet Quaker high school the morning of the 11th, tucked away in the North Carolina woods. By the end of my second class the attacks were well underway. We all crowded quietly around the TV as rumours flooded in: a third plane was near Washington; no, it had already hit the Pentagon; a car bomb exploded at the State Department; a plane was radio-out over Pennsylvania…


It was clear the US was at war with somebody and Osama bin Laden’s name was on everybody’s lips. Bin Laden was in Afghanistan, a chaotic and factionalised place that another great military power, the Soviet Union, had tried and failed to conquer after a long, bloody struggle. The bloody legacy of the endless Vietnam War was in everyone’s mind. It was clear even then that the direct consequences of 9/11 would not be so catastrophic as the war that followed.


It became apparent that UAVs would be prominent in the conflict after a CIA Predator drone destroyed a Yemeni car in November, 2002, a role previously reserved for manned aircraft. They have since become an inseparable part of American asymmetric warfare, from convoy overwatch to communications relay to covert bombings. Where once the symbol of unquestionable American air power was camouflaged Hueys touching down in a rice paddy or F-16s over burning oil wells, now it is the grey Predator drone, flying in circles with an unblinking EO/IR turret and Hellfire missiles hanging off the sides.


So long as the US remains in Afghanistan or Iraq, the grey drones will be there. And wherever American forces go, the grey drones will precede them. And of course, they will also be places that no Americans are supposed to be. Other nations have long since caught on: as a legacy of their operation in Afghanistan and Iraq, they will soon be permanent features of any conflict between sizeable armed groups. Even nonstate actors — most recently the rebels in Libya – have gotten in on the action.


UAV technology is still a bit on the fringe: they are still largely considered force multipliers. But as tactics continue to change, the strategies have not. At least, not yet.


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