Stealth Army

Drones are getting more powerful, more accurate and a lot smaller

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The hot military trend is something the Department of Defense isn't exactly known for: economy. It's a new era, indeed. Today's generals and admirals want weapons that are smaller, remote-controlled and bristling with intelligence.

In short, more drones that can tightly target terrorists, deliver larger payloads and are some of the best spies the U.S. has ever produced, even if they occasionally get captured in Iran or crash on landing at secret bases.

Drones had a big year in 2011, and their stock continues to rise because another big buzzword is persistence, the ability of a drone or satellite to simply stare at a target until something noteworthy happens.

The workhorses of the U.S.'s growing drone force are the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper. Unlike humans, these weapons don't need sleep, although each drone requires a ground crew of 180 people to pilot the craft, operate its sensors, analyze the data it collects and handle maintenance.

The U.S. has about 7,000 drones flying more hours than manned attack planes, and more pilots are being trained to operate them than manned aircraft.

But if drones are a bargain compared with jet fighters, they are also becoming more vulnerable. The latest Reapers cost $8 million each and can be shot down by a decent air-defense network or waylaid by jamming or hacking. The U.S. edge in such technology is waning.

So scientists and engineers in skunkworks across the country are busy honing drone 2.0 technology, which will be able to deliver bigger payloads and operate with greater stealth--which is a reminder that any conversation about the wisdom of relying on these weapons always lags the technology that makes them possible.

America's arsenal has become so small and lethal, you don't need the U.S. Army--or any military service at all, in fact--to field and wield them. The CIA, which used to be limited to derringers and exploding cigars, is now not very secretly flying drones. With little public acknowledgment and minimal congressional oversight, these clandestine warriors have killed some 2,000 people identified as terrorists lurking in shadows around the globe since 9/11. Expect the tally to go higher this year.


Better radar-absorbing coatings as well as improved electronic defenses will give next-gen drones a better chance when flying through hostile airspace


Better engines will permit drones to go faster and carry more. The next-generation Predator, the jet-powered Avenger, will be capable of flying 500 m.p.h., about 50% faster than the turboprop-powered Reaper


Just as photo resolution keeps improving on camera phones, drones' sensors will grab ever sharper images and comb through tons of data before delivering the intelligence needed to warrant pulling the trigger


More bandwidth will yield more robust and secure linkages to ground controllers and among aircraft. It improves situational awareness and enables better decisionmaking on and over the battlefield


The Predator-C Avenger can be armed with 2,000-lb. bombs, four times the size of those carried by the Predator-B Reaper


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