“The last fighter pilot has already been born.” That simple statement, attributed to a variety of sources, encapsulates the sea change that unmanned aircraft have brought to military aviation.

Scarcely a week goes by without a newspaper headline announcing the latest strike by a remotely piloted American aircraft on insurgents in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. On October 2, The Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. military has loaned MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones to the CIA to give the agency more firepower in targeting militants on the Afghan border. “The Pentagon and CIA have ramped up their purchases of drones,” according to the front page article, “but they aren’t being built fast enough to meet the rapid rise in demand.”

Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) have seen phenomenal growth during the past decade, in no small part due to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. But as Lawrence Spinetta explains in “The Rise of Unmanned Aircraft”, UAS like the Predator and Reaper didn’t spring up overnight to become a major component of modern warfighting; they’re the culmination of a long history of experimentation with drones.

Spinetta, who has flown F-15s in combat and commanded a Predator squadron, is uniquely qualified to address the many complexities and controversies surrounding UAS. In addition to the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq, he points to several factors that have driven the UAS revolution. These include the maturation of supporting technology such as GPS navigation, interservice competition for unmanned assets, civilian support at the highest levels and, most important, the many advantages remotely piloted aircraft offer: the ability to project power while minimizing risk, unprecedented loiter capability and low cost. “It makes no sense to strap a targeting pod on a B-1’s pylon when each 12-hour mission costs taxpayers $720,000,” he notes. “The Predator gives you better capability and its flying costs are measured in the hundreds of dollars per hour.”

Spinetta expects the role of unmanned aircraft to increase to the point where UAS will provide the preponderance of combat capabilities while manned aviation serves a niche role. Pointing out that UAS already fly close air support missions, he predicts they will next take over suppression of enemy air defenses, and then tactical and strategic airlift. He says air-to-air combat won’t be far behind; the new BAE Systems Taranis unmanned combat air vehicle, for example, already has air-to-air self-defense capability.

And don’t forget the countless civilian applications for UAS. Unmanned aircraft already patrol America’s borders, conduct scientific research, assess storm damage and help firefighters. Spinetta envisions tremendous growth for corporate applications, saying, for instance, there’s no reason the FedEx fleet couldn’t be entirely unmanned.

What this all means for the future of traditional pilots remains unclear, but there’s no doubt we are witnessing an unprecedented aviation revolution. As recently retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula remarked, “The future of how you use these unmanned systems or remotely piloted systems is really unlimited.”


The Future is Now was in the January 2011 issue of Aviation History Magazine. Subscribe today!