It’s become popular to depict American UAVs as some kind of super weapon and a danger to world peace. Anyone who understands how modern warplanes operate knows this is not true, but the mass media and many politicians who find it useful to follow whatever idea the mass media is behind have created a fictional reality in which UAVs do unspeakable things that are unique in human history.
The facts are more mundane. UAVs use the same sensors (high-res video cameras and night vision all with zoom) as fighter aircraft and the same guided weapons as well. By 2007 the U.S. Air Force recognized this and began sending its new MQ-9 Reaper UAVs to Afghanistan and Iraq, not as reconnaissance aircraft, but as replacements for F-16 and F-15 fighter-bombers. While the manned aircraft can carry five or six times as many bombs as a Reaper, this does not matter when you are using guided weapons. The Reaper can carry up to four 228 kg (500 pound) JDAM smart bombs. While over 300 JDAMs were dropped per day during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, by 2007 the average number per day was, at most, 3-4 bombs. More JDAMs were dropped in Afghanistan, but even there, half a dozen a day, over the entire country, was a lot. Thus a half a dozen Reapers can easily replace half a dozen F-16s or F-15s. This saves a lot of money, as the two man crews for the Reaper (pilot and sensor operator) are back in the United States, and operate the UAVs via a satellite link. The UAVs have a major advantage over manned fighter-bombers, in that they can stay over the target area longer, and do so with relief crews, so that there are always alert eyes using the powerful sensors (similar to the targeting pods on fighters) carried by the Reaper. The major disadvantage of the Reaper is its slow speed (about 500 kilometers an hour). Speed is a factor if you have a situation develop on the ground somewhere, and warplanes have to be rushed in. For that reason, some "fast movers" (jet fighters and heavy bombers) remained in Iraq and Afghanistan, ready to rush to an emergency at twice the speed of a UAV.
While the earlier Predator was a reconnaissance aircraft that could carry weapons (two Hellfire missiles, each weighing a 38 kg/106 pounds), the Reaper was designed as a combat aircraft that also does reconnaissance. The Reaper can carry over a ton of GPS or laser guided 228 kg bombs, as well as the 114 kg (250 pound) SDB, or the even lighter missiles. There is even a version of the Hellfire missile (Brimstone) developed in Britain and now selling to many other air forces.
The Predators cost, fully equipped, about a fifth of what an F-16 does while the Reaper goes for about a third of what the F-16 costs. The Reaper can only stay in the air for up to 24 hours, versus 40 hours for the Predator. But experience has shown that few missions require even 24 hours endurance. For that reason, the air force decided not to give the Reaper an inflight refueling capability. The Reaper carries sensors equal to those found in targeting pods like the Sniper XL or Litening, and flies at the same altitude of most fighters using those pods. This makes the Reaper immune to most ground fire, and capable of seeing, and attacking, anything down there. All at a third of the price of a manned fighter aircraft and even lower cost per flight hour (about a tenth of what it costs to keep an F-16 up there).
The targeting pods, packed with electronics and sensors, are very popular with fighter pilots, mainly because they contain FLIR (video quality night vision infrared radar) and TV cameras that enable pilots flying at 6,200 meters (20,000 feet) to clearly make out what is going on down on the ground. The pods also contain laser designators for laser guided bombs and laser range finders that enable pilots to get coordinates for JDAM (GPS guided) bombs. Safely outside the range of most anti-aircraft fire (six kilometers up and up to fifty kilometers away) pilots can literally see the progress of ground fighting and have even been acting as aerial observers for ground forces. These capabilities also enable pilots to more easily find targets themselves and hit them with laser guided or JDAM bombs.
In effect, a fighter pilot in an F-16 has the same capabilities as a UAV. Both have someone flying the aircraft who can see clearly what is on the ground and launch a smart bomb or missile to hit what they see. The only difference is that the UAVs all have a two person crew (pilot and senor operator watching what the camera trained on the ground sees). While the F-16 pilot has to fly his aircraft as well as look at the video display of what the targeting pod sees, larger fighters like the F-15E have a crew of two, with the same crew arrangement as UAVs. The U.S. also installed targeting pods on heavy bombers (B-1 and B-52) where the crew arrangement is similar to UAVs.
While the UAV stays in the air longer than fighters or bombers that is mainly because of pilot fatigue. An F-16 can (with aerial refueling) stay in the air as long as a UAV but the pilot would wear out after six or so hours of flying and using the targeting pod. The UAVs change “crews” every six hours, something fighter pilots can’t do unless they land. But the UAV crew and the fighter or bomber crew see the same images of what is on the ground and often launch the same weapons to attack the target.
The targeting pod grade sensors are also used in UAVs and are the result of smaller and more capable electronics being made available in the 1990s and later. This is the actual “revolution” people, or the mass media, pick up on. What the journalists nearly all tend to ignore was that in past wars, especially World War II, fighters, especially American and British ones flew very close to the ground to strafe (machine-gun) or bomb the enemy. It was more dangerous than using a targeting pod, but the pilots got to see the same degree of detail. This up close and personal strafing and bombing was, according to German witnesses (and victims), a crucial weapon for the allies and played a large, and generally unrecognized (by many historians and most journalists) weapon in the war. The difference with the fighters and the UAVs is that their new cameras also record what the pilots see and much of this video has been released. During World War II the best you got was grainy and very brief gun camera video of strafing and bombing. Not nearly as memorable of the longer and more detailed videos taken by UAVs, fighters or helicopter gunships. It was another case of “the media was the message,” even if a lot got lost in translation.
From the beginning of flight aircraft went after headquarters, enemy leaders and other key personnel. Before aircraft came along it was much more difficult to get at these targets. During World War II headquarters came to be camouflaged as they had come to be called “bomb magnets.” After World War II such headquarters, now even more carefully concealed, were called “missile magnets.” The new missile magnets are terrorist leaders and their key people (bomb makers, intel and financial experts). The more things change the more they remain the same.