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Air Force Planning New Drone Fleet For Pakistan

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06/17/2009 08:37 PM
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Air Force Planning New Drone Fleet For Pakistan
[link to www.esquire.com]

As hitmen go, robots are clumsy killers. The proof is in Pakistan, where local authorities claim that drone strikes on Al Qaeda and affiliate targets have killed at least 687 civilians. Whether or not that figure is inflated, the real or imagined death toll continues to fuel anti-American sentiment around the world. And that's to say nothing of the anti-administration fervor inside Washington circles as to whether President Obama and newly promoted general Stanley McChrystal, in continuing Bush-era policies with Bush-era technologies (even if they're offering Pakistan surveillance data), should continue air strikes near the Afghan border at all.

Now, the Air Force is planning to build a more selective breed of military drones, with swarms of bird-size bots shadowing targets and new unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) capable of launching mini-missiles at multiple targets at once. The mechanized assassin, it seems, is about to become a lot more professional.

Details of this new UAV development are limited — the Air Force Research Laboratory released a 78-page briefing last month, sketching out individual plans for a number of drone-related systems. The briefing, first obtained by Air Force Times but reviewed this morning for Esquire.com, offers the first detailed glimpse at an American military strategy that has adapted to conflicts in Pakistan and Afghanistan and "incorporates a vision and strategy... that focus on delivery of warfighting capability" with new robots.

Perhaps the most significant concept in the briefing is a UAV called Suburb Warrior, which would carry a new kind of smaller, precision-guided missile. Another project, called Sniper, is a targeting system that can lock on to multiple targets, allowing a single drone pilot to coordinate the attacks of a squadron of robots — or a single UAV to hit a group of enemies. Picking through the dozens of systems in this briefing, many of which will be flight-tested within five years, there's a clear set of goals: build smaller, even microscopic drones with smaller weapons that can hunt in swarms and engage targets in the close quarters of urban battlefields. And hunt as soon as possible.

To understand the significance of this new plan — how it could affect U.S. diplomacy in the region, reduce potential troop counts there, and, you know, better hunt Al Qaeda — one need only look at the current state of unmanned assassination. The least powerful weapons deployed by Predators — and their new big brother, the Reaper — are Hellfire missiles. These antitank weapons have incredibly literal names; they're designed to penetrate armored vehicles with a jet of molten metal. So if a U.S. target were sitting in a pickup truck, or even a second-floor window, a Hellfire is more than overkill. It's a collateral damage factory, turning a city street into hell on earth, and potentially flattening buildings.

To paraphrase the NRA, robots don't kill civilians; missiles do.

Theoretically, the smaller missiles launched by Suburb Warrior would wreak less havoc in crowded battlefields. In asking for proposals for a "Miniature Weapon Demonstration," the Air Force described the new weapon as an "air-launched, precision miniature munition capability," which would provide a "mobile target kill capability against a broad set of targets in a suburban environment." In the new briefing, the system is described as "for application in a dense, all environment urban battlespace."

That's Pentagon speak for Obama-approved missiles that are ready for anything short of Mogadishu, that cover the Pentagon's ass in smaller cities while they're at it. Notional drawings of Suburb Warrior show the drone loaded with four or more mini-missiles — far fewer munitions than a Reaper carries — but make clear that it's much smaller than even the Predator. The Sniper multiple-targeting system (that Goodyear-blimp-meets-Star-Wars-X-wing craft pictured above) isn't tied to a specific UAV, but it could be a perfect fit for delivering the Suburb Warrior.

Instead of dropping Hellfires or a 500-pound bomb on an insurgent hideout, one or more Suburb Warriors could fire a volley of mini-missiles at confirmed targets, without vaporizing the wedding reception next door. The drone is slated for flight tests by 2014, and Sniper is scheduled to begin tests in cruise missiles and UAVs within two years. The Air Force is reviewing white papers for miniature munitions now, and a contract could be awarded as early as September.

The problem, of course, is that even if the robotic upgrade continues on this fast track, five years is an eternity for America's diplomatic arm to wait for its military one. Who knows if Hillary Clinton will still have her job by then? If she does, what if the new robots still aren't precise enough? So if a squadron of low-flying drones and their micro-munitions don't provide a clean kill in those packed communities, the Air Force Research Laboratory has a more point-blank Plan B: tiny, biologically-inspired micro air vehicles (MAVs) that can flap through alleys and inside buildings.

Like most UAVs, these robots would most likely be used for surveillance and reconnaissance. But in an animated clip released by the Air Force late last year, a MAV lands on an enemy sniper, and, without so much as a prayer to its machine god, detonates itself. The new Air Force briefing doesn't elaborate on this miniature suicide-bomber concept, but it does include plans to have flocks of sparrow-size MAVs airborne by 2015, and even smaller, dragonfly-size robots by 2030. And with the recent news that Israel is developing an explosives-laden snakebot, the writing is on the wall: You can run from tomorrow's robotic hitmen, and you can hide, and they'll flap or squirm or glide into position and kill you anyway.
"He who does not understand your silence will probably not understand your words." ~Elbert Hubbard