Even the Predator and the Reaper are little more than expensive, error-prone, overgrown model airplanes remotely "flown" by all-too-human pilots. They tend to crash at an alarming rate due to weather, mechanical failures, and computer glitches, leaving shattered silver-screen techno-dreams of cheap, error-free, futuristic warfare in the dust.
Today's armed drones are actually the weak sisters of the weapons world. Even the Reaper is slow, clumsy, unarmored, generally unable to perceive threats around it, and -- writes defense expert Winslow Wheeler -- "fundamentally incapable of defending itself." While Reapers have been outfitted with missiles for theoretical air-to-air combat capabilities, those armaments would be functionally useless in a real-world dogfight.
Similarly, in a 2011 report, the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board admitted that modern air defense systems "would quickly decimate the current Predator/Reaper fleet and be a serious threat against the high-flying Global Hawk." Unlike that MQ-1000 of 2030, today's top drone would be a sitting duck if any reasonably armed enemy wanted to take it on. In this sense, as in many others, it compares unfavorably to current manned combat aircraft.
The Navy's even newer MQ-8B Fire Scout, a much-hyped drone helicopter that has been tested as a weapons platform, has also gone bust. Not only was one shot down in Libya last year, but repeated crashes have caused the Navy to ground the robo-copter "for the indefinite future."
Even the highly classified RQ-170 Sentinel couldn't stay airborne over Iran during a secret mission that suddenly became very public last year. Whether or not an Iranian attack brought down the drone, the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board report makes it clear that there are numerous methods by which remotely piloted aircraft can potentially be thwarted or downed, from the use of lasers and dazzlers to blind or damage sensors to simple jammers to disrupt global positioning systems, not to mention a wide range of cyber-attacks, the jamming of commercial satellite communications, and the spoofing or hijacking of drone data links.
Smaller tactical unmanned aircraft may be even more susceptible to low-tech attacks, not to mention constrained in their abilities and cumbersome to use. Sergeant Christopher Harris, an Army drone pilot and infantryman, described the limitations of the larger of the two hand-launched drones he's operated in Afghanistan this way: the 13-pound Puma was best used from an observation post with some elevation; it only had a 12-mile range and, though theoretically possible to take on patrol, was "a beast to carry around" once the weight of extra batteries and equipment was factored in.
Terminators of Tomorrow?
As for the future, the Air Force's 2011-2036 "Roadmap" has already hit a major detour. In 2010, Air Force magazine breathlessly announced, "Early in the next decade, the Air Force will deploy a new, stealthy RPA -- currently called the MQ-X -- capable of surviving in heavily defended airspace and performing a wide variety of ISR [intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance] and strike missions."
Indeed, the 2011 "Roadmap" lists the MQ-X as the future of Air Force drones. In February 2012 however, Lieutenant General Larry James told an Aviation Week-sponsored conference: "At this point... we don't plan, in the near term, to invest in any sort of MQ-X like program." Instead, James said, the Air Force will be content simply to upgrade the Reaper fleet and watch the Navy's development of its Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike or UCLASS drone to see if it soars or, like so many RPAs, crashes and burns.
The Holy Grail of drone ops is the ability of an aircraft to linger over suspected target areas for long durations. But ultra-long-term loitering operations still remain in the realm of fantasy. Admittedly, the Pentagon's blue skies research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is pursuing an ambitious drone project to provide intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and "communication missions over an area of interest" for five or more years at a time. The project, dubbed "Vulture," is meant to provide satellite-like capabilities "in an aircraft package."
Right now, it sounds downright unlikely.
While the Air Force has had a hush-hush unmanned space plane orbiting the Earth for more than a year, much like a standard satellite, the longest a U.S. military drone has reportedly stayed aloft within the planet's atmosphere is a little more than 336 hours. Plans for ultra-long duration flights took a major hit last year, according to scientists at Sandia National Laboratories and defense giant Northrop Grumman.
Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com. An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. He is the author/editor of several books. This piece is the latest article in his new series on the changing face of American empire, which is being underwritten by Lannan Foundation. This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.