At first the use of drones, referred to by the military as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPAs), was limited to aerial reconnaissance and surveillance. However, it wasn’t long before the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) put a missile on a Predator UAV that could take out targets on the ground. The targets were usually high-value terrorist targets in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, or other parts of the world.
Shortly after the CIA weaponized their drones the U.S. Air Force followed suit – putting weapons systems on their Predators and later their Reapers. So not only could the UAVs conduct reconnaissance and surveillance for extended periods of time over a target area; it could now engage any targets that were in the area.
There are several advantages to the use of drones over aircraft piloted by people. There is less danger to the crew (there is none), the drones have an extended flying time far beyond that of a manned aircraft (except for refueling capable aircraft in extreme circumstances), and the drones are considered far less expensive to buy, maintain, and operate than manned aircraft.
The ability to use drones in place of conventional forces or aircraft is a strategic advantage for the United States. Drone flights can be conducted with a reduced military signature at overseas bases due to their significantly smaller personnel support requirement. The risk of a pilot being captured in hostile territory is greatly reduced.
Currently UAVs are known to operate (by the military and / or CIA) in the countries of Libya, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Pakistan. Most times, the drones are used to eliminate high-value targets – terrorists. However, the military will use drones to support combat operations as well as to target terrorists.
For now, the United States enjoys a qualitative advantage in the use of UAVs. However, it won’t be long before other nations (and terrorist groups) close this technological gap.
Read more in “Drone strikes are best understood as part of the US’s grand strategy”, Business Insider, August 17, 2016.