WASHINGTON - The U.S.-led conflict in Afghanistan may one day be remembered less for the ouster of the Taliban or as the first salvo in the war on terrorism than for the pilotless aircraft that cruised silently and almost unseen above the barren landscape.
The aircraft, called unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, are in their infancy but will become crucial around 2020, Pentagon officials predict. Making long, high loops over a battlefield, they will provide live video of enemy forces, even peering through dense jungle foliage. Others will eavesdrop on communications, drop precision bombs or land in rugged terrain to resupply U.S. troops.
Historians of the future may view the Afghanistan campaign as a turning point in warfare, like the Battle of Crecy in 1346, when the English used an emerging technology - the longbow - to defeat the French.
In Afghanistan, a Predator drone fired a Hellfire air-to-ground missile - a first in combat - and streamed real-time video to U.S. warplanes, allowing pinpoint targeting. Another drone, the Global Hawk, made its debut last fall 65,000 feet over Afghanistan, lingering above the battlefield for up to 35 hours, tracking enemy vehicles and transmitting photos to U.S. commanders.
"In Afghanistan, [the drone is] pretty much battle-proven now," Edward C. "Pete" Aldridge, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, logistics and technology, said at a recent meeting with reporters. "Everybody's got a UAV concept going."
The Pentagon plans to spend $5 billion to research, develop and buy drones over the next five years, nearly doubling the money spent in the past decade. Advocates say that besides providing round-the-clock battlefield surveillance, a $35 million Global Hawk, or a smaller drone, is less expensive than manned aircraft, which can easily cost twice as much, and there is no risk to aircrews.
Pilotless aircraft can tackle the most dangerous missions, such as attacking air defenses, said Lt. Col. Doug Boone, who oversees UAVs for the Air Force. Then manned aircraft can move in to finish off the enemy.
But technical hurdles remain, defense analysts and Pentagon officials say, and some in the tradition-bound military remain cautious.
By 2015, Pentagon officials say, about 10 percent of combat strike aircraft will be unmanned, operated by a ground controller tapping away at a computer terminal. Up to 40 percent of U.S. intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft will be pilotless, officials say, replacing the fabled U-2 and other manned planes that have spied high in the skies for decades.
While the Predator is the size of a Cessna light plane and Global Hawk has a 116-foot wingspan that exceeds that of a Boeing 737, futuristic surveillance drones under development are expected to be small enough to fit in a soldier's pack.
Although remote-control aircraft had their beginnings in World War II, it was not until the early 1980s that the Israelis made the first sustained use of drones, employing them to watch Syrian and Palestinian forces in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, U.S. unmanned aircraft kept an eye on Iraqi forces. And in the 1990s, the Predator flew operationally for the first time, over Bosnia.
`Shifting the balance'
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld sees development of drones as a key part of his effort to pull the services into the 21st century, shedding such Cold War arms as heavy tanks and artillery. Rumsfeld's recurring mantra has been stealth, mobility, long-range bombing and superior intelligence - the crucial information that can come from the constant presence of a UAV over the battlefield.
"We must begin shifting the balance in our arsenal between manned and unmanned capabilities," he wrote in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, "between short- and long-range systems, between stealthy and nonstealthy systems. ... And we must make the leap into the Information Age, which is the critical foundation of all our transformation efforts."
Pressing ahead with the development of drones presents challenges that involve the technical - developing more-sophisticated sensors and transmitting information to commanders and combat pilots at lightning speed - and the cultural - that is, overcoming the affection of the uniformed military for the tried-and-true.
Initially, the U.S. armed services were reluctant to devote money and effort to drones, defense officials and lawmakers say, out of uncertainty how pilotless aircraft would fit into their war plans and concerns that the new technology would drain funding from other weapons.
"The Air Force wasn't enamored of unmanned aerial vehicles," Rumsfeld told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, while pressing lawmakers to support his attempts to transform the military into a more high-tech force.