Military Robots and the Laws of War

Peter W. Singer

More than just conventional wisdom, it has become almost a cliché to say that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have proved “how technology doesn’t have a big place in any doctrine of future war,” as one security analyst told me in 2007. The American military efforts in those countries (or so the thinking goes) have dispelled the understanding of technology-dominated warfare that was prevalent just a few years ago—the notion that modern armed conflict would be fundamentally changed in the age of computers and networks.

It is true that Afghanistan and Iraq have done much to puncture that understanding of war. The vaunted theory, so beloved in the Rumsfeld-era Pentagon, of a “network-centric” revolution in military affairs can now be seen more clearly as a byproduct of the 1990s dotcom boom. The Internet has certainly affected how people shop, communicate, and date. Amid this ecstatic hype, it is not surprising that many security studies experts, both in and out of the defense establishment, latched onto the notion that linking up all our systems via electronic networks would “lift the fog of war,” allow war to be done on the cheap, and even allow the United States to “lock out” competition from the marketplace of war, much as they saw Microsoft doing to Apple at the time.

Nor is it surprising that now analysts are writing off high-tech warfare altogether in the wake of Afghanistan and Iraq. Insurgents armed with crude conventional weapons have proven frequently able to flummox their well-equipped American foes. Many observers increasingly seem to believe that if irregular warfare is likely to be the future of armed conflict, advanced technologies have no great role.

These “all or nothing” attitudes are each incorrect. High technology is not a silver bullet solution to insurgencies, but that doesn’t mean that technology doesn’t matter in these fights. In fact, far from proving the uselessness of advanced technology in modern warfare, Afghanistan and Iraq have for the first time proved the value of a technology that will truly revolutionize warfare—robotics.

When U.S. forces went into Iraq, the original invasion had no robotic systems on the ground. By the end of 2004, there were 150 robots on the ground in Iraq; a year later there were 2,400; by the end of 2008, there were about 12,000 robots of nearly two dozen varieties operating on the ground in Iraq. As one retired Army officer put it, the “Army of the Grand Robotic” is taking shape.

It isn’t just on the ground: military robots have been taking to the skies—and the seas and space, too. And the field is rapidly advancing. The robotic systems now rolling out in prototype stage are far more capable, intelligent, and autonomous than ones already in service in Iraq and Afghanistan. But even they are just the start. As one robotics executive put it at a demonstration of new military prototypes a couple of years ago, “The robots you are seeing here today I like to think of as the Model T. These are not what you are going to see when they are actually deployed in the field. We are seeing the very first stages of this technology.” And just as the Model T exploded on the scene—selling only 239 cars in its first year and over one million a decade later—the demand for robotic warriors is growing very rapidly.

The truly revolutionary part, however, is not robots’ increasing numbers, or even their capabilities. It is the ripple effects that they will have in areas ranging from politics and war to business and ethics. For instance, the difficulties for the existing laws of war that this robotics revolution will provoke are barely beginning to be understood. Technology generally evolves much more quickly than the laws of war. During World War I, for example, all sorts of recent inventions, from airplanes dropping bombs to cannons shooting chemical weapons, were introduced before anyone agreed on the rules for their use—and, as to be expected, the warring sides sometimes took different interpretations on critical questions. While it is far too early to know with any certainty, we can at least start to establish the underlying frameworks as to how robots will reshape the practice and the ethics of warfare.

Rise of the Robots

Mechanization and mass production made possible early automatic weapons in the nineteenth century. Military experimentation with machines that were also mobile and unmanned began during World War I—including even radio-controlled airplanes, the very first unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). World War II saw the operational use of several unmanned weapons by both the Allied and Axis forces, including remote-controlled bombs; it was also a period of rapid advancement in analog and electronic computing.

Military interest in robotics was spotty during the Cold War, with inventors repeatedly finding that what was technically possible mattered less than what was bureaucratically feasible. Robotic systems were getting better, but the interest, energy, and proven success stories necessary for them to take off just weren’t there. The only substantial contract during this long dry spell was one that the Ryan aeronautical firm received in 1962 for $1.1 million to make an unmanned reconnaissance aircraft. The drone that came out of it, the Fire Fly, flew 3,435 missions in Southeast Asia. Overall, though, the Vietnam experience was as bad for robotics as it was for the broader U.S. military. Most of the uses of unmanned systems were classified and thus there was little public knowledge of their relative successes, as well as no field tests or data collection to solve the problems they incurred (16 percent of the Fire Flys crashed). As veteran robotics scientist Robert Finkelstein has pointed out, “It took decades for UAVs to recover from Vietnam misperceptions.”

The next big U.S. military spending on unmanned planes didn’t come until 1979, with the Army’s Aquila program. The Aquila was to be a small propeller-powered drone that could circle over the front lines and send back information on the enemy’s numbers and intentions. Soon, though, the Army began to load up the plane with all sorts of new requirements. It now had to carry night vision and laser designators, spot artillery fire, survive against enemy ground fire, and so on. Each new requirement came at a cost. The more you loaded up the drone, the bigger it had to be, meaning it was both heavier than planned and an easier target to shoot down. The more secure you wanted the communications, the lower the quality of the images it beamed back. The program originally planned to spend $560 million for 780 Aquila drones. By 1987, it had spent over $1 billion for just a few prototypes. The program was canceled and the cause of unmanned vehicles was set further back, again more by policy decisions than the technology itself.

Work continued, but mainly on testing various drones and ground vehicles, which were usually regular vehicles jury-rigged with remote controls. During this period, most of the ground systems were designed to be tele-operated—that is, using long fiber-optic wires to link the robot to the controller. Any enemy with a pair of scissors could take them out. One of the few to be built from the ground up to drive on its own was Martin Marietta’s eight-wheeled “Autonomous Land Vehicle.” Unfortunately, the weapon had a major image problem: It was shaped like an RV, what retirees would use to drive cross-country to see the Grand Canyon. This killed any chance of convincing the generals of its use for warfighting.

Another significant program that didn’t take off in this period was a 1980 Army plan for a robotic antitank vehicle. The idea was to take a commercial all-terrain vehicle, rig it for remote control, and load it with missiles. Congress thought that ATVs, while certainly fun for country kids to ride around behind trailer parks, were a bit too small to be taking on Soviet tanks. So the program was canceled. But the military mistakenly came to believe that Congress’s real objection was to the weaponization of unmanned systems. “So,” as Finkelstein says, “misinterpretation kept weapons off for almost a decade.”

Despite these setbacks, the American military robotics community didn’t waver in its belief in the usefulness of its work. It could point to other nations beginning to successfully deploy unmanned systems, like Israel’s successful experience with drones in the 1980s. By the time of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, unmanned systems were gradually making their way into the U.S. military, but in very small numbers. The Army had a handful of M-60 tanks converted into unmanned land-mine clearers, but they were left behind in the famous “left-hook” invasion force that drove across the desert into Iraq. The Air Force flew just one UAV drone. The only notable success story was the Navy’s use of the Pioneer drone, an unmanned plane (almost exactly like the planned Aquila) that the Navy had bought secondhand from the Israelis. It flew off of World War II-era U.S. battleships that had been taken out of mothballs in the 1980s and updated for use in pounding ground targets with their massive sixteen-inch guns. The guns fired shells that weighed 2,000 pounds and could leave a crater the size of a football field. The little drones, which the Iraqis took to calling “vultures,” would fly over targets and spot where the shells were landing. “The Iraqis came to learn that when they heard the buzz of a Pioneer overhead, all heck would break loose shortly thereafter because these sixteen-inch rounds would start landing all around them,” said Steve Reid, an executive at the Pioneer’s maker, AAI. In one case, a group of Iraqi soldiers saw a Pioneer flying overhead and, rather than wait to be blown up, waved white bed sheets and undershirts at the drone—the first time in history that human soldiers surrendered to an unmanned system.

Of course, the real stars of the Gulf War were not unmanned systems in the way we think of them now, but new “smart bombs”—that is, cruise missiles and laser-guided bombs. A massive PR campaign was built around the guided weapons as the “heroes” of the hundred-hour war. The only problem was that they weren’t. Only 7 percent of all the bombs dropped were guided; the rest were “dumb.” The most influential technology in the Gulf War was not the sexy smart bombs, but the humble desktop computer. By 1990, the U.S. military had bought into the idea of digitizing its forces and was spending some $30 billion a year on applying computers to all its various tasks. The Gulf War was the first war in history to involve widespread computers, used for everything from organizing the movement of hundreds of thousands of troops to sorting through reams of satellite photos looking for targets for missiles to hit. Calling it a “technology war,” the victorious commanding general, “Stormin’” Norman Schwarzkopf, said, “I couldn’t have done it all without the computers.”

Over the rest of the 1990s, as sensors and computer processors improved, unmanned systems became ever more capable. But the “magic moment,” as retired Air Force Colonel Tom Erhard put it, occurred in 1995, when unmanned systems were integrated with the Global Positioning System (GPS). “That’s when it really came together.” Now widely accessible by devices in automobiles, the GPS is a constellation of military satellites that can provide the location, speed, and direction of a receiver, anywhere on the globe. It allowed unmanned systems (and their human operators) to automatically know where they were at any time. With GPS, as well as the advance of the video game industry (which the controllers began to mimic), the interfaces became accessible to a wider set of users. Drones began to be far more intuitive to fly, while the information they passed on to the generals and troops in the field became ever more detailed.

The programs also began to pass some key hurdles of acceptability. The various military services had long resisted buying any unmanned systems, but slowly they began to accept their use. In 1997, for example, the Air Force Chief of Staff, General Ronald R. Fogleman, instructed his planners that his service could “no longer…spend money the way we have been,” and mandated that they consider investing in new technologies such as UAVs. The military advantages of unmanned systems became increasingly clear to observers in the Pentagon. In many situations, robots have faster reaction times and better aim than human beings. They are often ideal for filling roles that people in the field call the “Three Ds”: dull, dirty, or dangerous. Unlike humans, who get tired and hungry and lose concentration and effectiveness, robots can perform boring tasks with unstinting accuracy for long periods of time. (As one advertisement for an unmanned plane put it, “Can you keep your eyes open for thirty hours without blinking?”) They can operate in dirty environments, such as battle zones filled with biological or chemical weapons, or under other dangerous conditions, such as in space, in rough seas, or in flights with very high gravitational pressures.

The rising interest in robots in the late 1990s coincided with changing political winds—a shrinking U.S. military as part of the post-Cold War so-called “peace dividend,” and an increasing belief that public tolerance for military risk and casualties had dropped dramatically after the relatively costless victory in the Gulf War. In 2000, this was the main factor that led Senator John Warner (R.-Va.), then chairman of the Armed Services Committee, to mandate in the Pentagon’s budget that by 2010, one-third of all the aircraft designed to attack behind enemy lines be unmanned, and that by 2015, one-third of all ground combat vehicles be driverless.

And then came September 11, 2001. The annual national defense budget since 9/11 has risen to $515 billion (an increase of 74 percent between 2002 and 2008), not counting the cost of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. There has been a massive increase in spending on research and development and on procurement, with a particular focus on anything unmanned. “Make ’em as fast as you can” is what one robotics executive recounts being told by his Pentagon buyers after 9/11. Enthusiasm has only grown thanks to successes on the battlefield.

With this change in military mentality, money, and use, the groundwork was finally laid for a real military robotics industry. As the Washington Post put it, “The undertaking has attracted not only the country’s top weapons makers but also dozens of small businesses…all pitching a science-fiction gallery of possible solutions.” Robert Finkelstein recalled a time when he personally knew most of the engineers working on military robotics. Today, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International has fourteen hundred member companies. Almost four thousand people showed up at its last annual meeting.

Cleaning Floors and Fighting Wars

During the war in Iraq, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) became the insurgents’ primary way of attacking U.S. forces. Often hidden along roadsides and disguised to look like trash or scrap metal, these cheap and easy-to-make bombs can do tremendous damage. At the peak of the Iraq insurgency in 2006, IED attacks were averaging nearly two thousand a month. They have been the leading cause of casualties among American personnel in Iraq, accounting for 40 percent of the troop deaths.

On the ground, the military bomb squad hunting for IEDs is called the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team. Before Iraq, EOD teams were not much valued by either the troops in the field or their senior leaders. They usually deployed to battlefields only after the fighting was done, to defuse any old weapons caches or unexploded ammunition that might be found. In Iraq, though, EOD teams went from an afterthought to a critical assignment. In a typical tour in Iraq when the insurgency was at its peak, each team would go on more than six hundred IED calls, defusing or safely exploding about two IEDs a day. Perhaps the best sign of how critical the EOD teams became is that the insurgents began offering a rumored $50,000 bounty for killing an EOD team member.

Working alongside many EOD teams have been robots—scouting ahead for IEDs and ambushes, saving soldiers’ lives many times over. Most of these unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) have been made by two Boston-area robotics firms. One of these, iRobot, was founded in 1990 by three M.I.T. computer geeks; it is best known for the Roomba, the disc-shaped automatic vacuum cleaner that the company released in 2002. Roomba actually evolved from Fetch, a robot that the company designed in 1997 for the U.S. Air Force. Fetch cleaned up cluster bomblets from airfields; Roomba cleans up dust bunnies under sofas.

The company’s other breakout product was PackBot, which came out of a 1998 contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Weighing forty-two pounds and costing just under $150,000, PackBot is about the size of a lawn mower. It is typically operated via remote control, although it can drive itself, including even backtracking to wherever it started its mission. PackBot moves using four “flippers”—essentially tank treads that can rotate on one axis. These allow PackBot not only to roll forward and backward like regular tank tracks, but also to climb stairs, rumble over rocks, squeeze down twisting tunnels, and even swim in under six feet of water.

The designers at iRobot view their robots as “platforms.” PackBot has eight separate payload bays and hookups that allow its users to swap in whatever they need: mine detector, chemical and biological weapons sensor, or just extra power packs. The EOD version of the PackBots serving in Iraq comes with an extendable arm on top that mounts both a head, containing a high-powered zoom camera, and a claw-like gripper. Soldiers use these to drive up to IEDs, peer at them closely, and then, using the gripper, disassemble the bomb, all from a safe distance.

PackBot made its operational debut on 9/11 when engineers from iRobot drove down to New York City to help in the rescue and recovery efforts at Ground Zero. Soon after, PackBot went to war. As U.S. forces deployed to Afghanistan, troops came across massive cave complexes that had to be scouted out, but were often booby-trapped. The only specialized tool the troops had were flashlights, and they often sent their local Afghan allies to crawl through the caves on hands and knees. “Then we began to run out of Afghans,” recounts a soldier. iRobot was then asked by the Pentagon to send help. Just six weeks later, PackBots were first used in a cave complex near the village of Nazaraht, in the heart of Taliban territory. Production and profits for Packbots boomed in the years that followed, culminating in a $286 million Pentagon contract in 2008 to supply as many as three thousand more machines.

Meanwhile, iRobot has new and improved versions of the PackBot as well as a host of plans to convert any type of vehicle into a robot, be it a car or ship, using a universal control unit that you plug into the engine and steering wheel. One new robot that iRobot’s designers are especially excited to show off is the Warrior. Weighing about 250 pounds, the Warrior is essentially a PackBot on steroids: it has the same basic design, but is about five times bigger. Warrior can drive at 15 miles per hour for five hours, while carrying one hundred pounds—yet it is agile enough to fit through a doorway and go up stairs. It is really just a mobile platform, with a USB port—a universal connector—on top that can be used to plug in sensors, a gun, and a TV camera for battle, or an iPod and loudspeakers for a mobile rave party. The long-term strategy is for other companies to focus on the plug-in market while iRobot corners the market for the robotic platforms. What Microsoft did for the software industry, iRobot hopes to do for the robotics industry.

Just a twenty-minute drive from iRobot’s offices are the headquarters of the Foster-Miller company. Founded in the 1950s—also by M.I.T. grads—Foster-Miller makes the PackBot’s primary competitor, the Talon. The Talon, which first hit the market in 2000, looks like a small tank, driven by two treads that run its length. Weighing just over a hundred pounds, it is a bit bigger than the PackBot. It too has a retractable arm with a gripper, but mounts its main sensors on a separate antenna-like “mast” sticking up from the body and carrying a zoom camera. Talon can go up to speeds of about 5.5 miles per hour, the equivalent of a decent jog on a treadmill, a pace it can maintain for five hours.

Like the PackBot, the Talon helped sift through the wreckage at Ground Zero and soon after deployed to Afghanistan. And like iRobot, Foster-Miller has boomed, doubling the number of robots it sells every year for the last four years. The company received an initial $65 million in orders for Talons in the first two years of the insurgency in Iraq. By 2008, there were close to two thousand Talons in the field and the firm had won a $400 million contract to supply another two thousand. Under an additional $20 million repair and spare-parts contract, the company also operates a “robot hospital” in Baghdad. Foster-Miller now makes some fifty to sixty Talons a month, and repairs another hundred damaged systems.

In technology circles, new products that change the rules of the game, such as what the iPod did to portable music players, are called “killer applications.” Foster-Miller’s new product gives this phrase a literal meaning. The Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection System (SWORDS) is the first armed robot designed to roam the battlefield. SWORDS is basically the Talon’s tougher big brother, with its gripping arm replaced by a gun mount that can carry pretty much any weapon that weighs under three hundred pounds, ranging from an M-16 rifle and .50-caliber machine gun to a 40mm grenade launcher or an antitank rocket launcher. In less than a minute, the human soldier flips two levers and locks his favorite weapon into the mount. The SWORDS can’t reload itself, but it can carry two hundred rounds of ammunition for the light machine guns, three hundred rounds for the heavy machine guns, six grenades, or four rockets.

Unlike the more-automated PackBot, SWORDS has very limited intelligence on its own; it is remote-controlled from afar by either radio or a spooled-out fiber optic wire. Thanks to the five cameras mounted on the robot, the operator can not only see as if he has eyes in the back of his head, but farther than had previously been possible when shooting a gun. As one soldier put it, “You can read people’s nametags at 300 to 400 meters, whereas the human eye can’t pick that up. You can see the expression on his face, what weapons he is carrying. You can even see if his [weapon’s] selector lever is on fire or on safe.” The cameras can also see in night vision, meaning the enemy can be fired on at any hour and in any climate. And the gun is impressively precise; it is locked in a stable platform, so its aim isn’t disrupted by the breathing or heartbeat that human snipers must compensate for, and it doesn’t get nervous in a sticky situation.

So far, SWORDS has been used for street patrols, reconnaissance, sniping, checkpoint security, and guarding observation posts. It bodes to be especially useful for urban warfare jobs, such as going first into buildings and alleyways where insurgents might hide. SWORDS’s inhuman capabilities could well result in even more intrepid missions. For example, the robot can drive through snow and sand, and can even drive underwater down to depths of one hundred feet, meaning it could pop up in quite unexpected places. Likewise, its battery allows it to be hidden somewhere in “sleep” mode for at least seven days and then wake up to shoot away at any foes.

Foster-Miller and iRobot feel a keen sense of competition with each other. At iRobot, researchers describe their rivals as thinking, “We hear that robots are trendy, so let’s do that.” At Foster-Miller, they retort, “We don’t just do robots and we don’t suck dirt.” (Indeed, thanks to its Roomba vacuum cleaner, iRobot may be the only company that sells at both Pentagon trade shows and Bed Bath & Beyond.) The two companies have even become locked in a bit of a marketing war. If robots were pickup trucks, Foster-Miller represents the Ford model, stressing how the Talon is “Built Tough.” Its promotional materials describe the Talon as “The Soldier’s Choice.” Foster-Miller executives love to recount tales of how the Talon has proven it “can take a punch and stay in the fight.” The iRobot team, meanwhile, bristles at the idea that its systems are “agile but fragile.” They insist that the PackBot is tough, too, citing various statistics on how it can survive a 400 g-force hit, what they describe as the equivalent of being tossed out of a hovering helicopter onto a concrete floor. They are most proud of the fact that their robots have a 95 percent out-of-the-box reliability rate, higher than any other in the marketplace, meaning that when the soldiers get them in the field, they can trust the robot will work as designed.

Beneath all the difference and rancor, the two companies are similar in one telling way. The hallways and cubicles of both of their offices are covered with pictures and thank-you letters from soldiers in the field. A typical note from an EOD soldier reads, “This little guy saved our butts on many occasions.”

Future Ground-Bots

Foster-Miller’s SWORDS was not the first ground robot to draw blood on the battlefield. That seems to have been the MARCBOT (Multi-Function Agile Remote-Controlled Robot), a commonly-used UGV that looks like a toy truck with a video camera mounted on a tiny antenna-like mast. Costing only $5,000, the tiny bot is used to scout out where the enemy might be and also to drive under cars and search for hidden explosives. One unit of soldiers put Claymore antipersonnel mines on their MARCBOTs. Whenever they thought insurgents were hiding in an alley, they would send a MARCBOT down first, not just to scout out the ambush, but to take them out with the Claymore. Of course, each discovered insurgent meant $5,000 worth of blown-up robot parts, but so far the Army hasn’t billed the soldiers.

Meanwhile, both iRobot and Foster-Miller are hard at work on the next generation of UGVs. For testing purposes, iRobot’s PackBot has been equipped with a shotgun that can fire a variety of ammunition, including non-lethal rubber bullets, rounds that can blow down a door, and even more powerful “elephant killer” bullets. Another version of PackBot is the Robotic Enhanced Detection Outpost with Lasers (REDOWL), which uses lasers and sound detection equipment to find any sniper who dares to shoot at the robot or accompanying troops, and instantly targets him with an infrared laser beam.

Foster-Miller has similar plans to upgrade its current generation of ground robots. For example, the first version of the armed SWORDS needed the remote human operator to be situated within a mile or two, which can still put the human in danger. The company plans to vastly extend the range of communications so as to get ground robot operators completely off the battlefield. And the SWORDS itself is being replaced by a new version named after the Roman god of war—the MAARS (Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System), which carries a more powerful machine gun, 40mm grenade launchers, and, for non-lethal settings, a green laser “dazzler,” tear gas, and a loudspeaker, perfect for warning any insurgents that “Resistance is futile.”

We will also soon see entirely new armed UGVs hit the battlefield. One such prototype is the Gladiator. Described as the “world’s first multipurpose combat robot,” it came out of a partnership between the U.S. Marine Corps and Carnegie Mellon University. About the size of a golf cart, the first version of the vehicle was operated by a soldier wielding a PlayStation video game controller, but software plug-ins will allow it to be upgraded to semiautonomous and then fully autonomous modes. Fully loaded, it costs $400,000 and carries a machine gun with six hundred rounds of ammunition, antitank rockets, and non-lethal weapons.

Not all future UGVs, it should be noted, will take on combat roles. Some are being designed as “medbots,” to supplement the work of field medics. The Bloodhound, yet another version of the PackBot, will be able to search on its own for a hurt soldier; it can then be remotely controlled to provide rudimentary treatment. The next step will be specially designed medbots, such as REV and REX. REV, the Robotic Evacuation Vehicle (a robot version of an ambulance), carries REX, the Robotic Extraction Vehicle, a tiny stretcher-bearer that zips out to drag soldiers into the safety of the ambulance. REX has an arm with six joints to drag a soldier to safety, while REV has a life-support pod that even comes with a flat-screen TV facing the wounded soldier’s face so that operators can see and communicate with the human on the other end if he is conscious. Ultimately, REV will be configured so that complex surgeries can occur inside the medbot.

Coordinating many of the ground robots on the drawing boards is the U.S. Army’s $230 billion Future Combat Systems (FCS) program. It involves everything from replacing tens of thousands of armored vehicles with a new generation of manned and unmanned vehicles to writing the many millions of lines of software code for the new computers that will link them all together. Starting in 2011, the Army plans to start spiraling a few new technologies at a time into the force. By 2015, the Army believes it will be in a position to reorganize its units into new FCS brigades, which will represent a revolutionary new model of how military units are staffed and organized. Each brigade will actually have more unmanned vehicles than manned ones (a planned 330 unmanned to 300 manned). Each brigade will also have its own unmanned air force, with over a hundred drones controlled by the unit’s soldiers. They will range in size from a fifteen-pounder that will fit in soldiers’ backpacks to a twenty-three-foot-long robotic helicopter.

Up, Up, and Away

Military robots have also taken to the skies. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), like the now-well-known Predator and Global Hawk, made their debut in the Balkan wars in the 1990s, gathering information on Serb air defenses and refugee flows. These drones are an indispensable part of the U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, but commanders’ attitudes toward them were very different just a few years ago. Lieutenant General Walter Buchanan, the U.S. Air Force commander in the Middle East, recalled the run-up to the Iraq war in an interview with Air Force Magazine:

In March of 2002, [during] the mission briefings over Southern Iraq at that time, the mission commander would get up and he’d say, “OK, we’re going to have the F-15Cs fly here, the F-16s are going to fly here, the A-6s are going to fly here, tankers are going to be here today.” Then they would say, “And oh by the way, way over here is going to be the Predator.” We don’t go over there, and he’s not going to come over here and bother us…. It was almost like nobody wanted to talk to them.

This is far from the case today. The Predator, perhaps the best known UAV, is a twenty-seven-foot-long plane that can spend some t