10 October 2008
New Killer Drones Could be Piloted by Teenagers
By Noah Shachtman
Today, only experienced Air Force pilots are allowed to remotely-operate the American fleet of killer drones. Tomorrow, the heavily-armed robotic planes could be flown by 19 year-olds, barely out of basic training.
The Army and Marine Corps use Shadow unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to spy on suspected militants. Not only are they smaller, cheaper, lighter, and lower-flying than the Air Force's array of missile-laden Predator and Reaper drones. But Shadows are considered a "tactical assets," meant to watch over relatively small patches of ground, for relatively small units. Predators, on the other hand, are "theater" or "operational-level" assets -- controlled by generals, and sent all over.
As a result, ground forces often use the most junior of noncommissioned officers to fly their Shadows -- teenagers who've sometimes never even been in combat. In contrast, the Air Force only allows rated pilots -- guys trained to operate a B-52 or an F-15 -- to fly their Predators. "You have to understand flight, know how to talk to a controller," then Air Force Colonel Tom Ehrhard told me a few years back. "It takes an aviator to do that."
But those aviators are worn out from non-stop drone-piloting duty. And it often takes a while to get a big UAV like a Predator over to where a captain or a colonel needs it.
Which is why there's a new military development program underway to "weaponize Shadow" for Special Forces, Inside Defense reports. "The goal is to pair firepower with sophisticated visual sensors, giving lower-echelon UAV operators capabilities heretofore reserved for operational-level unmanned systems."
Which means those young privates and corporals and specialists could be controlling killer drones, some day soon.
It's part of a
broader Pentagon effort to make armed UAVs cheaper, and more
plentiful. John Wilcox, with the Office of the
Secretary of Defense, tells
Inside Defense, "We're also going to look at
weaponizing a couple more small UAVs." With one-to-five-pound
weapons, these tny killers could take out high-value targets
-- "or hold a target at risk until bigger and better
operational platforms with more ordnance get onto the