The Economist's Newsbook blog examines the evolving role of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in American counterterrorism strategy.
On September 30th Anwar al-Awlaki and several of his al-Qaeda colleagues stopped their pickup truck on a remote, dusty road deep inside Yemen's interior. He can have had only a split second to realise what was about to happen. But the missile strike that killed al-Qaeda's most effective propagandist was no real surprise. It was just the latest example of the way America's armed Predator and Reaper drones are changing the terms of combat with the country's enemies, leaving them able to run but with nowhere to hide.
American officers, with their passion for acronyms, prefer not to call the machine that killed al-Awlaki a drone. They have a point. In nature, drone bees are poor, useless things that produce no honey and have no sting. That hardly describes the remotely-piloted Predator MQ-1 or Reaper MQ-9 aircraft. Laden with sophisticated sensors and carrying Hellfire missiles and laser-guided bombs, they patrol the skies above Afghanistan, launch lethally accurate strikes against terrorists in the tribal areas of Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia and have helped NATO turn the tide against Muammar Qaddafi's forces in Libya. Even calling them Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) is slightly misleading. There may not be a man in the cockpit, but each Reaper, a bigger, deadlier version of the Predator, requires more than 180 people to keep it flying. A pilot is always at the controls (albeit from a base that might be 7,500 miles, or 12,000km, away); and another officer operates its sensors and cameras.