There is an unofficial but lethal drone war taking place over Pakistan, Yemen and Libya that has expanded the area of operation for U.S. forces beyond Iraq and Afghanistan, with no real acknowledgement from the government that anything extraordinary is happening. The undeclared conflict on these three fronts might be the first Drone War, and warfare has never seen anything like it.

On just one front of this undeclared war, in Pakistan, the U.S. had launched 37 drone strikes this year as of June and 118 in all of 2010.

The simultaneous use of remotely piloted unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) over Pakistan, Yemen and Libya, as well as Iraq and Afghanistan, typically operated by crews in the Nevada desert, raises certain questions. Would the U.S. engage in such a wide-ranging air campaign if it were conducted only with manned aircraft flying from overseas bases and carrier strike groups? Has the use of unmanned systems led to more warfare, in more places, because of the smaller logistics tail and the fact that pilots' lives are not at risk?

“The issue is not whether or not the aircraft is manned,” says Lt. Gen. (ret.) David Deptula, former U.S. Air Force first deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and principal air attack planner during Operation Desert Storm, the runup to the 1991 Persian Gulf war. “We would do what we're doing if the only way we could do it is with a man in the aircraft.”

Deptula maintains that operating over permissive environments such as Yemen or Pakistan—where the tacit or explicit approval of the host government has been granted—means that the threat to pilots is limited, and that “taking the human out of the cockpit simply allows the capability of persistence to be exploited.” In other words, the ability of remotely piloted systems to hover over targets for hours before striking is what leads policymakers and combatant commanders to make use of them in these situations, not because there is no risk to American lives.

In his view, UAVs don't “lower the threshold to the application of force,” but enable “a perspective that we didn't have when you had a person in the cockpit”—namely, persistence. A General Atomics Predator or Reaper drone can loiter well beyond the capability of a manned aircraft, which gives it the ability to wait out an enemy while it gathers the intelligence needed for a planning a strike. Deptula has long railed against the word “unmanned” when it comes to drones, since “it nominally takes about 180 people to maintain a single orbit. The majority of those people are analysts. You don't have that in manned aircraft.”

From a legal standpoint, U.S. government officials are adamant that using a drone to kill an enemy is no different than employing manned aircraft. “[The] rules that govern targeting do not turn on the type of weapon system used, and there is no prohibition under the laws of war on the use of technologically advanced weapon systems in armed conflict—such as pilotless aircraft or so-called smart bombs—so long as they are employed in conformity with applicable laws of war,” Harold Hongju Koh, legal adviser to the U.S. State Department, said at this year's annual meeting of the American Society of International Law in Washington. “Indeed, using such advanced technologies can ensure both that the best intelligence is available for planning operations and that civilian casualties are minimized in carrying out such an operation.”

A secondary question is whether drone operators are more or less likely to drop bombs than manned aircraft. Precious little research has been done on how the people operating drones—particularly those responsible for the weapons—are affected psychologically, or more importantly, whether they are affected differently than those flying manned aircraft. An Air Force Research Laboratory study in 2010 compared drone operators to gunship pilots and found similarities.

But there are also differences. For example, subject matter experts interviewed by the study's authors cited cases where sensor operators, after having to kill enemy forces, decided they weren't comfortable doing so and changed jobs. “They reported such SOs (sensor operators) performed their surveillance and reconnaissance duties well, but emotionally struggled with their role in taking lives of others, regardless of the threat enemy combatants posed to U.S. and allied forces,” the study found. “[Subject matter experts] reported such SOs experienced significant internal conflict with their role, and that such a conflict did not become apparent until the SO was faced with a real-life situation or fully educated about the nature of their combat-related duties.”

In other words, UAV sensor operators may have more problems with releasing weapons than gunship crews, and thus might require even more motivation to do their jobs, the authors wrote.

Pilots or drone operators can only fly where their military and civilian bosses tell them to and conduct the missions they've been tasked to do. The notion that having access to armed, unmanned platforms may make it easier for the order to be given to fly lethal missions, and therefore permit politicians to take nations to war sooner, or without the planning and deliberation that is essential to engaging in conflict, is one that the U.K. Defense Ministry has considered. The ministry's Development, Concepts and Doctrine Center released a report titled “The U.K. Approach to Unmanned Aircraft Systems” in March, which states “ . . . the recent extensive use of unmanned aircraft over Pakistan and Yemen may already herald a new era. That these activities are exclusively carried out by unmanned aircraft, even though very capable manned aircraft are available, and that the use of ground troops in harm's way has been avoided, suggests that the use of force is totally a function of an unmanned capability.”

“I actually disagree that [the U.K. is] doing anything differently because of the unmanned technology,” says Wing Cdr. Chris Thirtle, Royal Air Force desk officer and policy lead for remotely piloted air systems. “From a U.K. perspective, I sense there is no change in political appetite just because of the advent of unmanned aircraft. They don't change what we do, they don't influence what we do; they just give us a better, and hopefully safer, way of doing it.”

In Afghanistan, too, experience suggests that decisions to strike are not being taken more hastily because of remotely piloted platforms. Rather, it is another factor inherent in the current generation of unmanned aircraft that is changing the nature of warfare.

Thirtle and Deptula have much in common in their assessments of what capabilities UAVs give the U.S. and U.K., with the aircraft's ability to loiter above a target for hours being the critical factor that changes the potential battlefield below. “What the unmanned system gives that we've not had before is the persistent presence that enables us to know when we want to deliver an effect and where we need to deliver it,” says Thirtle. “In a congested, cluttered, complex battlespace, persistence is becoming more and more valuable. A single snapshot just gives you a picture. Your understanding of that picture could change if you saw what was happening there 5 minutes before or 5 seconds later. That is what's changing the way we consider how we use our pieces on the chessboard. I think we've understood the benefits of persistence,” he adds, “and you'll see a drive to keep that card in hand.”

DTI saw the benefits of persistence at Bagram AB, Afghanistan, in September 2009, while embedded with the U.S. Army's Task Force ODIN, an acronym for observe, detect, identify and neutralize. The task force's mix of contractors and enlisted personnel teamed up to operate General Atomics MQ-1C Warrior drones on surveillance and overwatch missions as well as lethal runs (DTI November 2009, p. 16).

Since the aircraft can fly 24 hr. at a time, teams would swap out every 7 hr. to keep a fresh set of eyes on the ground at all times. DTI was allowed into the flight-control pod to observe a live night raid at an undisclosed location in Afghanistan, and the hours on station that the drone provided gave the insertion team on the ground an unprecedented look into the “pattern of life” inside the compound's walls hours before their helicopters touched down—intel that was pored over in real time by analysts in multiple locations via a secure online chat function.

Another mission the ODIN crews were practicing at the time—and which has since been put to lethal effect—was teaming with Army Apache helicopter crews. During the test runs DTI observed, an Apache crew would laser-designate a target that a Warrior UAV would hit, or a Warrior designated a target that an Apache would strike. In this mission the value of keeping a persistent watch on a target is combined with the ability of a helicopter crew to see a wider view of an area, something unavailable to a drone's operators.

The stress operators can experience on long missions is a concern, however. There are advantages to removing a pilot from an airframe—the calm, comfortable “cockpit” environment of a drone operator and access to more intelligence and advice should enable greater concentration and better decision-making. But unmanned aviation technology has its own unique set of pressures—everything an operator sees, hears and reads is stored, and all decisions taken can be subject to a greater degree of analysis and evaluation after a mission than would be possible with a manned platform. The remote operator may be under increased pressure to justify every decision taken during a mission. Greater persistence also means longer time on station than for a manned platform, and the view through the “cockpit windshield” is not of ground several miles below, but close-up sensor footage of buildings, vehicles and people—friend and foe alike.

Air Cdr. Stuart Atha, the U.K. Defense Ministry's head of Joint Capability, and in 2009-10 the air component commander in Afghanistan, addressed the question of the effect “prolonged exposure to death and destruction via near-real-time video” may have on aircrews in a recent speech to defense experts in London.

“The crews are distant but not detached,” he said. “While they operate at no direct physical risk they are subject to psychological and emotional stresses. Yet the evidence shows that occupational rather than operational issues, such as the long hours worked, the need to maintain a heightened awareness over long periods, and in particular the constant juggling of domestic and professional life, are the more prevalent causes of stress.”

In the present climate, with Britain's economic uncertainties pointing to further cuts in defense budgets, remotely piloted operations offer a rare area of growth. And while the Reaper drone remains an Urgent Operational Requirement and is not at present expected to remain in the RAF inventory after the U.K. withdraws from Afghanistan, the Scavenger Istar (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance) UAV requirement, set to be finalized in 2012 with a view to initial operating capability around 2018, will keep the RAF invested in remotely piloted air system capabilities. From being an uncertain berth in a changing service, remotely piloted aircraft may offer one of the more secure career paths in the British military.

While the U.S. isn't hiding the fact that it is flying missions against targets in Pakistan and Yemen, the U.K. is more careful about its Afghanistan operations. Penetrating foreign airspace is still penetrating foreign airspace, Thirtle says, echoing Deptula's contention that not having a pilot in the cockpit doesn't really change the nature of the situation. “Speaking hypothetically,” Thirtle continues, “there's much less political fallout from having a bunch of wreckage found on the wrong side of the border than a captured airman or a body. However, I've seen and heard nothing that gives me any sense that wreckage falling on the wrong side of the border is acceptable just because it's unmanned.

“The U.K. operates remotely piloted aircraft systems only in Afghanistan. The border is considered so sacrosanct that you put another border inside the real border, so that even if your navigation system drifts slightly, there is no danger you will have infringed somebody else's airspace.”

In the U.S., remotely piloted aircraft are also creating career paths. The Air Force Academy's class of 2011 was the first in which graduates planned to specialize in operating remotely piloted aircraft—32 of 1,021 graduates selected this field. In the Army, enlisted soldiers operate the UAVs and surveillance equipment, though Army pilots or contract pilots handle takeoffs and landings.

The Wall Street Journal reported last month that the CIA is now preparing to launch a major drone operation over Yemen. The aircraft will conduct surveillance and attack missions, using operations over Pakistan as a blueprint. This, of course, adds another wrinkle to the debate over the increasing use of unmanned platforms for targeted killings in countries where the U.S. isn't technically at war.