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Popularity Of Drones Takes Off For Many Countries

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Popularity Of Drones Takes Off For Many Countries

National Security

Popularity Of Drones Takes Off For Many Countries

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Now let's talk about the drone strikes that have helped the U.S. target militants on Pakistani territory.

NPR's Jackie Northam reports on concerns that the U.S. relies on them too much.

JACKIE NORTHAM: Picture this: It's a warm summer day. You're lying on soft grass, looking up at a few wispy clouds in an azure sky. Suddenly, you see a bird-like silhouette. You think, huh, is that a hawk? Or is that a drone checking me out? That day may not be too far off in the future. Drones, especially the type used for surveillance, are becoming ubiquitous, says Peter Singer, author of "Wired for War."

Mr. PETER SINGER (Author): We're seeing everything from teeny-tiny ones that are the size of bugs. I actually call them bugs with bugs, because they're this little robots the size of insects. They're designed for spying, like James Bond bugs. To the other end of the size spectrum, you have planes with the length of a football field in their wingspan.

NORTHAM: Singer, with the Brookings Institution, says they're designed for jobs that humans can't or don't want to do. He calls them the 3Ds. Dull: a drone can watch empty desert sand for 24 hours at a stretch. Dirty: unmanned aircraft can hover above a nuclear power plant leaking radioactive material.

Mr. SINGER: And most importantly is dangerous: You can send them out on missions that mean that it might get shot down, it might get blown up, and you don't have to worry about the pilot being captured.

NORTHAM: And that is why the drones - the ones equipped with missiles or bombs - have become so valuable to the U.S. over the past few years. They're used by the military and the CIA to track and sometimes kill terror suspects in Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Retired Lieutenant General David Deptula led the U.S. Air Force's drone program from 2006-2010. He says the remotely piloted aircraft have had a significant impact. And, Deptula says, they're precise.

Lieutenant General DAVID DEPTULA (U.S. Air Force, Retired): Statistically, over 95 percent of all the weapons released by the predator hit exactly what their aimed for.

NORTHAM: There are no numbers of how many people have been killed by drones. Neither the CIA nor the military makes that public. An open-source database by the non-partisan New America Foundation says somewhere between 1,400 and 2,300 people have been killed by drones in Pakistan alone over the past seven years. There have been some high-profile misses involving collateral damage in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

But Christine Fair, an assistant professor at Georgetown University, says there's a misperception that drones are firing off weapons indiscriminately. She says there are many people involved in the surveillance part of the operation before a weapon is fired.

Professor CHRISTINE FAIR (Georgetown University): You have lawyers. You have targeteers. You have intelligence operatives. You actually have pilots who are manning the drones. These are not, you know, 14-year-old kids, you know, right out of basic training, playing around with a joy stick.

NORTHAM: But there are lingering questions about the authority to carry out targeted killings with drones, and whether the operations adhere to the Geneva Conventions and the laws of war.

Mary Ellen O'Connell, a professor of international law at the University of Notre Dame, says there's a risk the U.S. is using more force than is lawfully warranted just because the new technology makes it easy.

Ms. MARY ELLEN O'CONNELL (International Law Professor, University of Notre Dame): I think this idea that somehow this technology is allowing us to kill in more places and aim at more targets is, for me, the fundamental, ethical and legal problem with the new technology.

NORTHAM: The demand for drones is enormous - not just by the U.S. Roughly 50 countries are now developing and producing the unmanned aircraft, for both surveillance and strikes.

Deptula, the former head of the Air Force's drone program, says the Pentagon needs to be thinking about the future. Until now, American drones have been allowed to roam freely the skies with no opposition. He says that could change.

Lt. Gen. DEPTULA: To date, we haven't been faced with an adversary that has 10 20, 100 or 1,000 remotely piloted aircraft that are now co-mingling with friendly forces. How do you deal with those kinds of air defense situations?

NORTHAM: Deptula says military planners need to think of all the new potential scenarios as the popularity of drones continues to soar.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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