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TIME: Revisiting the Reaper Revolution

Author: Winslow Wheeler
February 27, 2012

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In the first of a five-part series, TIME's Winslow Wheeler investigates if the MQ-9 Reaper, a drone unit, is a game-changing bargain weapon of the future.

In a surprise move this year, the Pentagon has reduced spending for two aerial drones. A version of the RQ-4 Global Hawk will be relegated to storage to be superseded by more capable versions, and future production of the MQ-9 Reaper is to be reduced from 48 per year to 24.

The decisions were surprising. Drones are widely touted as the future of warfare. How can it be that the 40-year old, manned U-2 reconnaissance aircraft can do the mission better than even an early-generation drone?

The Reaper decision was not attached to any admission of disappointment; it was just a matter of budget constraints and skilled manpower shortages, DOD said. The minor setback with Global Hawk notwithstanding, the aura of a leap-ahead in war-fighting technology is left intact, or so it is to be believed.

Much has been written about unmanned aerial drones. Some of it has questioned the morality of how they are being used, and in a few cases, some aspects of technical performance is questioned. Much more of the writing and the vast majority of expert opinion is that drones are cheaper to buy and operate than manned aircraft, can do things aircraft cannot do, and when they perform aircraft-type missions, they often do them at least as well, if not better—all without endangering an American pilot. Some even proclaim the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to be the Air Force's last manned tactical aircraft, and the Air Force is seriously contemplating an "optionally manned" long range, nuclear bomber.

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