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Drones: Their Reach and Limits

by Kenneth Bloomquist

predator-drone-firing-missileExecutive Summary

Drones are exceptional new military tools that magnify American air supremacy. They are cheaper to build, easier to place in the field, and more accurate than their manned jetfighter counterparts. Most importantly, drones effectively identify targets as they emerge and can strike these targets within very short windows of opportunity. The Predator drone in particular has proven both versatile in several battlefield roles and unmatched in its ability to deliver precision strikes on short notice, making it an indispensable addition to US counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations. The endurance and rapid response capability of the aircraft have helped the US military and intelligence community keep pace with smaller, faster, and lower-profile terrorist networks.

However, the Predator and other drone systems have numerous flaws and limitations. The physical separation of the pilot from the aircraft makes them more difficult to control, and as such they are far more likely to be damaged or destroyed by pilot error. Additionally, the Predator and reconnaissance drones such as the Global Hawk are adept at gathering an immense amount of visual information and displaying it to operators, but it can take a great deal of time and manpower to interpret the information gathered. Unless the aircraft knows what it is looking for or confines its surveillance to a very limited area, it will have difficulty quickly identifying specific targets.

In many cases, the information gathered by the drone is misinterpreted by pilots and analysts who have a limited time window in which to strike potential targets. Predators have staked out suspicious objects which have turned out to be piles of manure, launched attacks against Yemeni civilians, and killed American troops – a consequence of not having eyes on the ground to provide adequate context for what is being observed. Despite these incidents, it remains unclear whether drones are more or less likely to inflict collateral damage than manned aircraft, and many advocates claim that the use of drones has actually reduced overall civilian casualties. Further debate on this topic is hamstrung by a lack of reliable casualty data from drone strikes, which largely take place in regions of the world which are poorly administered.

Finally, drone strikes result in the destruction of potentially actionable intelligence and prisoners. The Abbottabad raid which killed Usama bin Laden, for example, would not have yielded the immense amount of documents and internal al-Qa’ida communiques it had if a drone strike had been chosen in place of helicopter- mounted ground troops. The Predator is an excellent weapon when the only options are destroy or not destroy, but a poor substitute for boots on the ground when operations are more demanding and complex.


In many respects, unmanned vehicles are the perfect weapon for the United States. They are cheaper to build and maintain than manned aircraft, have substantial range with a small tactical and logistical footprint, and project force without endangering the lives of American soldiers. This combination of lower cost and lower risk which exploits the US military’s technological advantages has made them attractive options for military planners and policymakers alike.

The appearance of this technology on the battlefield and its unexpectedly significant impact have been so sudden, however, that the extent of its military implications remains to be explored. What exactly “drones” are capable of and what their limits might be have been topics of much interest in policy circles, though their technical and military nature provide an obstacle to the interested layman. This white paper seeks to provide concise insight on this topic for the uninitiated reader as opposed to military experts, focusing heavily on the Predator drone in particular – what distinguishes a Predator drone from traditional aircraft, why it is so effective in certain mission roles, and what its limits may be.

What Constitutes a ‘Drone’

The use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in warfare is not new as new as their exposure in current events may suggest. As early as the 1940’s, the United States had experimented with reconfigured, explosives-laden bomber aircraft which could be guided to targets and abandoned by crew before impact, in effect making the vehicle an improvised cruise missile. Even earlier, remote aircraft similar to recreational model planes were used by the navy as target practice for antiaircraft artillery. By the peak of the war in Vietnam, these simple machines had evolved to include newly-miniaturized photographic equipment, sensors, and countermeasures, transforming them into reconnaissance aircraft and decoys. It is only in recent years, however, that UAVs – “drones” in common parlance – have been adapted for use as “kinetic” tactical weapons rather than support craft. In military terminology, these are referred to most commonly as “unmanned combat aerial vehicles,” or “UCAVs.”

The term “drone” originated in the perception that UAVs and UCAVs were similar to hive insects which have no minds of their own. The insect analogy is accurate enough in the sense that UAVs and their combat counterparts don’t have a pilot, or “mind” physically outfitted in their fuselage. The analogy is misleads, however, if one assumes that UAVs are autonomous – no drone, combat or otherwise, operates by itself except in rare instances where the satellite uplink between its pilots and the aircraft is severed. And even in these cases, drone aviation systems are only sophisticated enough to keep the aircraft aloft and potentially return it to its landing field. Any commands more complex than these require human input.

Though lacking one onboard, drones are still operated by human pilots who control the aircraft via remote from a ground control station (GCS). The control station, which in the case of the Predator is about the size of a trailer, houses consoles similar to those of a traditional aircraft cockpit which a pilot can manipulate to fly the drone. An increase of throttle, for example, would be accomplished by the pilot adjusting the throttle at his station. The GCS would then transmit the command to a satellite, and then from the satellite to the aircraft, which would respond by increasing its speed. Video feeds captured by the drone’s onboard cameras are

transmitted via satellite back to the GCS and displayed on the pilot’s monitors, allowing him to “see” the drone’s surroundings and react accordingly.

Strikes conducted by UCAVs are still aimed and executed using the direct input commands of operators, though they may be a hemisphere away from the aircraft itself. Target identification and analysis is likewise conducted by humans who interpret the information relayed by the aircraft’s sensors and cameras. Taken together, these observations would make the Predator or Global Hawk functionally more similar to the F-16 fighter aircraft than an autonomous robot, as some misconceptions of the drone have suggested.

Discounting smaller, man-portable models, the most pervasive and successful drones currently in use by the United States are the MQ-1 Predator surveillance and attack drone (along with its larger, newer model, the MQ- 9 Reaper) and the RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance drone. Other, more advanced and ambitious models of drone such as the X47, AURA, and Avenger are currently in development, but this paper intends to focus on the Predator/Reaper workhorses which are being employed to conduct military strikes – the most controversial task drones are currently used for.

The Predator Drone

Undoubtedly the most famous UCAV, the Predator is a mid-sized, single-propeller surveillance aircraft with a wingspan of just under 50 ft. Though originally designed for reconnaissance, it can be outfitted with pylons to hold two missiles or bombs, one under each wing, which are guided by laser targeting systems suspended beneath the aircraft’s nose. The Predator carries several different cameras for use in tracking targets in a variety of terrains and conditions, as well as sophisticated avionics and communications equipment that allow it to be controlled through satellite uplink from anywhere in the world.

Each Predator costs $4.4 million to manufacture, and an additional $3,000 per hour in flight accounting for fuel, maintenance, and armaments. While that price tag may seem daunting to the layman, $4.4 million is a fraction of the cost of a single F-16 Falcon fighter aircraft ($15 million) or even more expensive F-18 and F-35 fighters ($30 million and $130 million, respectively) which comprise or will comprise much of the American air combat fleet in the future. The Predator consumes less fuel and requires a smaller staff to maintain, also saving on logistical costs.

Armed Predator variants are used in declared combat zones such as Afghanistan, as well as undeclared or “noncombat” zones such as Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, the Persian Gulf, and recently the US-Mexico border. Reports also suggest that Predators have been flown over the nations of Niger and Mali following the outbreak of violence between the US-allied Malian government and a coalition of jihadist and separatist militias there in 2012.

An MQ-1 Predator carrying two Hellfire missiles. Note the sensor pod beneath the nose where the drone’s cameras are housed. Image copyright © U.S. Air Force.


How Predator Drones are Used

A typical Predator overwatch mission would entail the launch of the aircraft in-theater by pilots at a forward- deployed ground control station (GCS) within 300 miles of the final target destination (representing half of the drone’s range). Once airborne, control of the drone is usually transferred to pilots in the United States, who could be stationed in a number of different facilities depending on the service which is using the drone. For the next twenty-four hours, the Predator would circle a designated area and relay captured images of the terrain and potential targets below to its pilots’ monitors.

According to accounts given by Predator pilots, the first analysis of the information gathered by the Predator’s surveillance is done by the drone operators themselves. Pilots scan terrain below for suspicious activity, personnel carrying weapons, or individuals meeting the physical descriptions of priority targets and engage accordingly. Predator pilots are also often given specific targets to find, such as bulldozers used to erect insurgent barricades in Fallujah or vehicles of model and color seen in the possession of suspected terrorists. When suspicious activity is found, the pilot relays the information to superior officers and analysts who authorize or deny the strike.

Predator drones are also commonly employed as close air support for American soldiers deployed in combat situations, and in this role they are very functionally similar to helicopters or fighter aircraft. Ground units which encounter heavy resistance in the field can relay their position to the drone pilots, which then respond by destroying the targets in question. In this role, the Predator’s advanced sensors and unique vantage point over the target location allow it to confirm the success or failure of its strike and inform the ground forces it is supporting.

Why the Predator Is So Effective

The capability to methodically scan large areas of terrain over long stretches of time is what sets the Predator apart from traditional aircraft. An F-16 strike aircraft travels at great speeds and delivers its weapons inside a small timeframe. The pilot often has poor visibility of his targets, and instead relies on the information provided by intelligence sources or visual confirmation from ground forces to inform him of where the weapon needs to be used. These limitations mean that, especially in counterinsurgency and urban warfare environments, either assets in close proximity to the intended target need to be present to identify it and relay its location to the aircraft, or the weapon will be used with a much higher chance of hitting the wrong target and inflicting collateral damage. US military doctrine regarding noncombatants often leads to the rejection of the latter option, and therefore the use of such munitions is frequently aborted. And in cases in which ground forces are in close proximity to identify and confirm target locations, those soldiers are placed in higher-risk combat situations.

An MQ-9 Reaper UCAV taxis on an airfield. The Reaper is a larger, longer-range version of the Predator which can carry more armaments under each wing, has longer range, and can stay airborne for longer periods. Image copyright © U.S. Air Force.

By contrast, the Predator drone has three advantages over the fighter aircraft. First, the drone enjoys a substantial improvement in mission efficiency since it is not limited by the endurance of a single human pilot. An F-16 fighter aircraft, regardless of the state of its fuel, armaments, and integrity of its systems, can only remain in the air as long as its onboard human pilot can remain capable of operating the aircraft. The biological need to sleep, for example, reduces the time frame a manned aircraft can remain active to no more than the duration the human pilot can remain conscious and lucid. Removing a pilot removes this constraint on the hardware, allowing Predator drones to remain aloft for over 24 hours as ground-based operators take shifts at the vehicle’s controls.

Second, the Predator can identify a wider range of potential targets even without boots (and eyes) on the ground. Circling at high altitude and nearly silent, the drone has the luxury of not only picking out overtly hostile targets, but also potentially hostile targets that are nearly always completely unaware of its presence. Suspicious objects or activity – a man digging a ditch along the side of the road, a car speeding through an intersection, or a group of pickups parked end-to-end in an alleyway – can be followed until their status is confirmed. The drone would be able to see if the ditch-digging man places an IED in it or just fills it with gravel, for example. If it does turn out to be an IED, the drone can engage. If not, it simply finds another target. The F-16 often has no such identification capability, and would either have to attack the mildly suspicious target or leave it be. And while helicopters are capable of observing a target more closely, they are far more high-profile and can alert these suspicious targets beforehand, giving them ample opportunity to disappear into the surrounding terrain.

The third advantage the Predator enjoys is its capability to choose an optimal time to strike. A fighter aircraft has a shorter operational flight time and must attack its target within it or abandon it entirely. If ground units are present to identify the target, the pilot must wait for confirmation to reach him through proper channels, leaving time for it to move or change. A drone strike, however, can be timed much more precisely since the person firing the weapon is simultaneously observing the target over extended periods. In some cases, Predator pilots have identified insurgent “technicals” – civilian vehicles outfitted with weapons – and followed them for hours, waiting for them to park in locations suitable for airstrikes.

The Limitations of Drones

Even with their relatively short operational service, and despite their striking successes, numerous flaws with the Predator drone have become apparent. First among them: they are far more accident-prone than manned aircraft.

Accident Prone

While figures vary, some estimates indicate that drones are five to ten times more likely to suffer fatal mishaps than their jetfighter counterparts. Since larger, more expensive variants of drone entered the US arsenal, over 100 of them have been reported lost – a disproportionally high number given the relatively short time the aircraft have been in service.

The primary reason given for the tendency of unmanned systems to crash is how incredibly difficult they are to fly and land. Unlike a fighter aircraft’s cockpit, which offers a pilot a wide view range and allows him to maintain situational awareness of his immediate surroundings, the Predator’s pilot must operate the aircraft while looking through nothing but a forward-mounted camera. He has little peripheral vision from the vehicle to inform him of adjustments he may need to make in order to fly safely. In one reported case, a Predator drone nearly collided with an army transport while taxiing because the drone doesn’t allow it’s operator to look left or right. UAV system developers are currently looking for design improvements to address this problem.

In addition, current drone systems fail to provide pilots with physical feedback. Subtle changes in elevation, balance, speed, or drift which an experienced pilot would recognize and correct for in a cockpit don’t register as intuitively (if at all) from a Predator’s GCS console. This is further complicated by the fact that, even with modern communications technology, there is a handful of seconds of delay between the pilots and the drone when it is being controlled over long distances. In effect, pilots in on bases in Nevada are seeing on their monitors what the drone cameras captured 1 to 3 seconds ago. When one second could mean the difference between a successful landing and a crash or collision, this becomes a serious problem. As a result, a team must be present near the drone’s landing field to direct the very difficult landing and takeoff procedures, necessitating forward staging bases even when most operations are conducted within the United States.

Left: A captured American RQ-170 Sentinel spy drone on display in Iran. The drone was famously lost by the CIA over Iranian airspace as it was examining Iranian nuclear facilities in December of 2011. Iran claims to have taken control of the aircraft through a cyber-attack, while American officials stated that the aircraft suffered a systems failure and crashed. Right: The wreckage of an MQ-9 Reaper drone litters the Arizona landscape after Department of Homeland Security operators lost control of it, citing pilot error and display failures.

Analytical Errors

Just like satellites, the Predator (and the more surveillance-oriented Global Hawk) is capable of capturing a great deal of visual information in short amounts of time. The drone’s onboard cameras are powerful enough that even at a cruising altitude of over 10,000 ft., details of vehicles and clothing can be readily discerned. However, processing this volume of information is another task entirely. A Predator pilot looking through the aircraft’s nose-mounted cameras can’t interpret everything he sees at once, and instead has to focus on targets which he intuitively deems the most likely to be relevant. This makes it very difficult for the drone to locate a specific target, especially one with few distinguishing characteristics such as a particular man or inconspicuous vehicle that is actively trying to remain below notice. Consequently, most Predator strikes are launched at targets of opportunity identified spontaneously by the drone itself or at targets already identified by ground forces. They rarely find higher-priority targets being actively sought by the intelligence services, though they may frequently carry out the strike once those targets are found through other means.

The responsibility of only a few operators and analysts in identifying and engaging targets so quickly has also led to deadly “friendly-fire” incidents with serious consequences. In April of 2011, two US soldiers were killed by a Predator drone which had misidentified them as insurgents. In another notable incident, CIA-deployed teams in Afghanistan were targeted and nearly fired upon by a Predator drone whose operators were unaware of the agency’s presence in the area. These cases illustrate the fact that the input of human resources on the ground remains paramount, especially in noncombat espionage roles that entail a great deal of observation and investigation. Despite an uncounted number of drone sorties over the tribal areas of Pakistan, Usama bin Laden was never found by a drone – he was found through a personal courier identified in prisoner interrogations and located by ground-based intelligence operatives.

Lack of After-Action Analysis

Finally, the Predator and other UCAVs are weapons which, as of yet, are incapable of gathering evidence or further intelligence from the targets of its strikes. The Hellfire missile – originally designed to destroy enemy tanks and armored vehicles – leaves very little evidence to collect following an attack. Pocket debris such as receipts, cellphones, wallets, keys, flash drives, cameras, and laptops are rarely recovered, and any useful information they may have yielded to further infiltrate or undermine the hostile network is lost. And while smaller munitions such as the “Scorpion” missile are now being employed to reduce collateral damage in urban areas, they are still more than capable of destroying this valuable intelligence.

This drawback of drone use was apparent to the military advisors of the Obama administration when options were being weighed for the Abbottabad raid. By all accounts, a drone strike was considered early in the decision-making process, but the inability of the US intelligence services to immediately and confidently confirm the identity of the strike’s victim and the destruction of a potential trove of al-Qa’ida documents took drone strikes off the table. In addition, drone strikes are very obvious after the fact since they leave a great deal of damage in their wake. Had Usama bin Laden not been present in the Abbottabad compound, helicopter teams may have been able to leave Pakistani territory without leaving convincing evidence of their presence behind – an option the Predator strike could not have offered given the damage its ordinance would have dealt to the building.


The Predator and other UAV / UCAV drone systems are effective additions to American air power in constant, low-intensity conflicts such as those the United States has engaged in over the last decade. Their ability to observe and engage targets at prime moments make them respectably accurate, and their lower cost and profile allow them to be more readily fielded. In cases in which the capture or pursuit or targets is deemed impossible, the drone offers an effective option for destroying them.

The fact that combat drones cannot recover information from targets they engage, however, limits their practical value in a long-term conflict greatly concerned with the collection and analysis of intelligence. Also, despite their extensive surveillance and spy capabilities, drones are still only supplementary assets to human- based intelligence which is required to process the information they gather and to tell the drones where to direct their attentions. These limitations of the aircraft render it a unique and valuable tool, but not a replacement for ground forces and traditional intelligence collection.

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Kenneth Bloomquist writes on matters of  foreign policy and national security and was invited by Frontiers of Freedom to prepare this study and analysis of drones.