Predators, Reapers and Ravens: The Drone Revolution in Tactics and Strategy

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 6

Hydrogen Powered Unmanned Spy Plane - The Phantom Eye (Photo: Boeing)

With very little discussion, the United States and as many as 50 other nations have inaugurated what amounts to a “drone revolution” that will profoundly change our very understanding of the security environment. There can be no doubt that unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, represent the future of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency in remote and insecure lands such as Pakistan’s tribal region, Yemen, Somalia, Libya and beyond. [1] Where U.S. boots cannot be placed on the ground to hunt terrorists, drones will increasingly strike at those whom America deems to be its enemies. John Brennan, the president’s top counterterrorism adviser, recently announced that, “The United States does not view our authority to use military force against al-Qaeda as being restricted solely to ‘hot’ battlefields like Afghanistan” (New York Times, September 16, 2011). This means that the Obama administration believes it can utilize drones wherever al-Qaeda or allied terrorists may be, from North Africa to the southern Philippines. All signs indicate that the U.S. military and the CIA are planning a future where drones will play an increasingly important role in warfare and anti-terrorist operations.

This of course means more strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the primary focus of current drone operations. As the United States draws down its troops in Afghanistan in 2013-2014 and prepares to hand the fight against the Taliban over to the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police, its presence on the ground in this strategic country will be much diminished. It is increasingly clear that the Pentagon will transfer its anti-Taliban combat efforts to small, elite Special Forces groups, manned support aircraft and drones. These elements, which will most likely be based in so-called “Joint Facilities” in Jalalabad (eastern Afghanistan) Kandahar (southern Afghanistan) and Bagram (north of Kabul), will be used to assist the Afghan Army’s defensive efforts or to carry out offensives against Taliban-held sanctuaries. They will also be engaged in “hunt and kill” missions designed to take out local Taliban commanders and disrupt their networks.

With the coming withdrawal of most U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the need for counter-terrorism “personality strikes” (i.e. strikes on high value targets) will be greater than ever. This will certainly mean a continuation of ‘signature strike’ attacks (i.e. strikes based on “pattern of life” activities, such as transporting weapons to a known Taliban safe house or crossing the Afghan border with weapons) on Taliban foot soldiers as well.

The drones will also play a key role in keeping up the pressure on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen and al-Shabaab militants in Somalia. New Yemeni president Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi appears to have condoned the recent strikes against the terrorists who have taken advantage of the recent turmoil following the 2011 downfall of the Saleh government to carve out sanctuaries in Abyan Province. In Somalia, U.S. Special Forces and drones are increasingly being used to raid al-Shabaab militants and to monitor pirates who have seized Western captives.

In Libya there were more drone strikes in 2011 during the overthrow of Gaddafi than in Pakistan. The Global Post described this as the new model for similar campaigns in the future saying Qaddafi’s death is “the latest victory for a new American approach to war: few if any troops on the ground and the heavy use of air power, including drones” (Global Post, May 23, 2011).  By contrast, the conventional model of military intervention involving the insertion of ground forces is extremely costly and invites domestic and external criticism in a way that drones do not.

Drones and American Foreign Policy    

Drone-centric alternatives to conventional warfare dovetail with the Pentagon and CIA’s long term plans for counter terrorism and counter insurgency operations in the Islamic world and beyond. Former CIA official Bruce Riedel has said the Obama administration “has made a very conscious decision that it wants to get out of large conventional warfare solutions and wants to emphasize counterterrorism and a lighter footprint on the ground”  (USA Today, October 1, 2011). President Obama has announced the U.S. military of the future will focus on “intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, counterterrorism, countering weapons of mass destruction, and the ability to operate in environments where adversaries try to deny us access” [2] All of these missions translate to more drones.

While the recent economic crunch has led to huge cuts in the U.S. military’s size and budget, the Pentagon has called for a 30% increase in the U.S. drone fleet at a time of steep military cutbacks. This represents a shift from big bloody wars, like the invasion of Iraq which cost almost a trillion dollars and 4,500 American lives, to the model of the aerial campaign in Libya, which cost just over 1 billion dollars with no American loss of life. Other nations are following suit; British military officials have said that almost one third of the Royal Air Force will be drones in 20 years (Guardian, July 5, 2011).

In addition to bases in Turkey, Sicily, Afghanistan and possibly once more in Pakistan, drones will be found in forward staging areas some advisers are calling “lily pad bases,” like the ones currently found in Camp Lemonier (Djibouti) or Arba Minch (Ethiopia). Such bases may also be built in Jordan and Turkey to help monitor Iraq and in the Seychelles Islands of the Indian Ocean to hunt Somali pirates (AP, December 13, 2011). President Obama has also authorized the building of a new drone base in the Arabian Peninsula to carry out strikes on al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen (YemenOnline, September 22, 2011; Yemen Observer, September 22). President Obama’s defense budget also calls for funding for the construction of a new “Afloat Forward Staging Base” (AFSB), a launching pad for drones and Special Forces that can be sailed to potential hot spots (AFP, January 26). 

The Drone Revolution

Whether one supports the drone strikes or is opposed to them there is no doubt that drones are here to stay. A few facts about drones will make this fact abundantly clear;

  • More than 50 countries have built or bought drones. Even Lebanon’s Hezbollah has used Iranian-built drones. Over the next decade more than $94 billion is expected to be spent globally on drone research and procurement. China unveiled 25 new drone models at an air show in 2011 and Iran claims their Karrar (Striker) drones are capable of long-range missions. (Ressalat [Tehran], August 23, 2010; Vatan-e Emrooz [Tehran], August 23, 2010). Last month 13 NATO nations agreed to jointly deploy a fleet of its own Global Hawk surveillance drones after seeing how useful the American drones were in the air war against Qaddafi’s forces in Libya. NATO has already begun building a €1.3 billion drone base at Sigonella in Sicily (Agenzia Nazionale Stampa Associata, February 4). Many observers are worried that a future drone race will see other countries besides the United States hunting down their enemies with remote controlled planes.
  • In 2000 the U.S. had just 50 drones. Today almost one in three U.S. warplanes is a drone. That translates to approximately 7,500 drones in the U.S. fleet. The majority (5,346) are Ravens, a small hand-launched surveillance drone heavily used by the army in Iraq and Afghanistan (, January 9).

  • Since 2005 there has been a 1200% increase in patrols by drones (Economist, October 8, 2011). The U.S. Air Force trained more drone pilots in 2011 than pilots for fighter and bomber aircraft combined (NPR, November 29, 2011).

  • New jet-powered drones threaten to make current inventories of propeller-driven drones obsolete. The U.S Air Force has begun deploying a new jet drone known as the Predator C or Avenger that will allow it to mount attacks at a much faster speed than the propeller driven Predators and Reapers in its current fleet. The Avenger carries even more ordnance than the Reaper (, December 13). The U.S. Navy is developing a carrier-based jet drone known as the X-47B which can fly ten times farther than manned planes and defend aircraft carriers from threats such as “carrier killer” missiles. [3] The U.S. has also launched the “Phantom Eye,” a hydrogen-fuelled surveillance drone that can remain aloft for four days at 65,000 feet. [4] Meanwhile, the UK has developed a $225 million intercontinental jet propelled drone known as the Taranis after the Celtic god of thunder (Daily Mail, July 13, 2010). Unlike the Predator and Reaper, the stealthy Taranis has an internal bomb bay which can carry a wide array of weapons.

  • The U.S. Air Force is developing nano-drones like the Wasp, which weigh less than a pound and can fly to 1,000 feet. The Air Force has also planned Project Anubis to build killer micro-drones that weigh less than a pound. The small drones will be used to terminate “high value targets” and will one day fly in swarms against the enemy (, January 5, 2010; Aviation Week, March 2, 2010).

  • The U.S Army recently developed a small backpack size drone known as the Switchblade, a small kamikaze-style aircraft carrying explosives that can be launched from a tube, loiter in the sky and then dive at a target upon command. [5]

  • The U.S. Army has developed a surveillance drone that can be flown by the crew of an Apache AH-64D Longbow attack helicopter to help it find its targets on the ground (, November 2, 2011).

  • Predator drones are already being used to monitor the US-Mexican border. Mexico is using much smaller U.S. built drones for the same purpose (Reuters, December 27, 2011; El Paso Times, December 17, 2010).

  • America has already experienced its first attempt by a terrorist to use a drone to carry out a terrorist act. In September 2011 Rezwan Ferdaus was arrested in the Boston area after the FBI found him plotting to use 7 foot remote control toy planes loaded with C-4 plastic explosives in them to fly into the Pentagon and other targets in Washington DC (CBS, November 4, 2011).

  • In December 2010 the US Air Force announced that it had test flown the X-37B, an unmanned space vehicle modeled on the Space Shuttle. This development caused many drone critics to worry that the Air Force was involved in the development of drones for space warfare (, December 3, 2010).

While the first drone attack on al-Qaeda in Yemen in 2002 was greeted with tremendous coverage by the international media, drone strikes today have become so mundane that they are now relegated to small articles on back pages of newspapers, if they are picked up at all. Both Democrats and Republicans seem to have accepted this radical development with little real debate as have the vast majority of Americans. In fact 83% of Americans are reported to approve of President Obama’s stepped up drone policy (Washington Post, February 7). For Americans, drone attacks in distant locations seem to be an accepted part of the new scheme of things in the post-9/11 world.

As for the CIA, which was so reluctant to get into the drone assassination business prior to 9/11, current CIA head David Petraeus has said “We can’t get enough drones” (Business Week, February 5, 2010). Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said “We are buying as many Reapers as we possibly can” (, February 4, 2010). The Air Force’s 147th Reconnaissance’s Wing Commander, Colonel Ken Wisian said of drones “The demand for this kind of capacity is insatiable” (Houston Chronicle, June 28, 2010).


While America’s CIA is currently the only intelligence agency that flies killer drones beyond its borders, it is perhaps only a matter of time before Russia, China, India, Israel and other countries deploy killer drones abroad in search of their foes. Israel is already deploying its drones in the Gaza Strip, where Palestinian sources say they have killed over 800 people, mostly civilians (Press TV [Tehran], December 4, 2011). David Cortright of Notre Dame University has asked:  What kind of a future are we creating for our children? We face the prospect of a world in which every nation will have drone warfare capability, in which terror can rain down from the sky at any moment without warning” (CNN, October 19, 2011).

As rare voices like Cortright’s ponder the future of remote controlled aerial killers and their impact on war and counter-terrorism, drones are increasingly coming to shape the way the United States and other countries hunt and kill those they deem to be enemies. Peter Singer, author of Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century best sums up the future by writing "the [drone] technology is here. And it isn’t going away. It will increasingly play a role in our lives…The real question is: How do we deal with it?" (Los Angeles Times, November 27, 2011).

Dr. Brian Glyn Williams is Associate Professor of Islamic History at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. His interactive web page can be found at:



1. For an introductory survey of the CIA’s drone campaign in Pakistan see: Brian Glyn Williams, “The CIA’s Covert Drone War in Pakistan, 2004-2010. The History of an Assassination Campaign,” Studies in Terrorism and Conflict. 33, 2010.

2. White House, Office of the Press Secretary; “Remarks by the President on the Defense Strategic Review,” January 5, 2012.


4. See video at

5. Innovation News Daily, September 6, 2011; see also: