Unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, have become one of the weapons most closely associated with the global war on terror.

Hundreds of U.S. drones, also known as remotely piloted aircraft, of various types have spent countless hours tracking terrorists and providing American and coalition troops with early warning.

Drones have also attracted scrutiny for their use in killing enemy fighters with precision strikes — strikes that have often killed innocent civilians as well.

But as the U.S. military prepares for a conflict with countries deemed “peers” or “near-peers” — namely China or Russia — the days of drones dominating the air might be coming to an end.


Steady Hands and Unblinking Eyes

MQ-1 Predator drone
An MQ-1 Predator drone. (Photo by Lt Col Leslie Pratt/USAF)

Remotely piloted aircraft are good for three main mission sets: precision strikes, close air support, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR).

They’re usually piloted by two operators sitting in a facility thousands of miles away and can stay aloft for tens of hours, becoming an unblinking eye in the sky.

Drones first saw combat in large numbers during the NATO campaign in Bosnia in the 1990s. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the U.S. military and intelligence community used the MQ-1 Predator to great effect in Afghanistan and Iraq.