One of the most iconic images of the American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- as well as global U.S. counterterrorism efforts -- has been the armed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), specifically the MQ-1 "Predator" and the MQ-9 "Reaper." Unarmed RQ-1 Predators (which first flew in 1994) were flying over Afghanistan well before the 9/11 attacks. Less than a month after the attacks, an armed variant already in development was deployed for the first time.
In the decade since, the Predator has clocked more than a million flight hours. And while U.S. Air Force procurement ceased in early 2011 -- with more than 250 airframes purchased -- the follow-on MQ-9 Reaper has already been procured in numbers and production continues. Predators and Reapers continue to be employed in a broad spectrum of roles, including close air support (CAS), when forward air controllers communicate with UAV operators to release ordnance with friendly troops in the vicinity (CAS is one of the more challenging missions even for manned aircraft because of the heightened risk of friendly casualties). Officially designated "armed, multi-mission, medium-altitude, long endurance, remotely piloted aircraft," the second to last distinction is the Predator and Reaper's principal value: the ability to loiter for extended periods, in some cases for more than 24 hours.
This ability affords unprecedented situational awareness and physical presence over the battlefield. The implications of this are still being understood, but it is clear that it allows, for example, the sustained and constant monitoring of main supply routes for attempts to emplace improvised explosive devices (IEDs) or the ability to establish a more sophisticated understanding of high-value targets' living patterns. In addition, live, full-motion video for ground controllers is available to lower and lower echelons to an unprecedented degree.