How A Drone Strike Works

January 21, 2020

The U.S. has become dependent on drones to monitor and target perceived threats. They may keep military officials out of the line of fire, but these unmanned aircrafts aren’t as autonomous as they seem. How much do you really know about how a drone strike works?


We don't officially know what weaponry was

used in the strike against

Iranian general Qassem Soleimani.

The statement released by the White House

doesn't indicate any method, however,

reports from The New York Times and

several anonymous sources confirm it was a drone strike.

[MUSIC] Government officials rarely

comment on the drone program,

so it's difficult to say

exactly how many strikes have been deployed,

but it's known that during Obama's time in office,

his administration deployed

over 500 drone strikes in Afghanistan,

Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.

The US drone program is shrouded in secrecy,

but leaked military documents and first person accounts

can help paint a picture of

just how a drone strike works.

The US uses several types of drones,

but only to carry out attacks, Predators and Reapers.

Of these, the largest and most

powerful is the MQ-9 Reaper.

The MQ-9 Reaper has a wingspan of 66 feet.

It can fly at a maximum altitude of 50,000 feet

and carry up to 3,750 lbs.

According to data provided by the US Air Force,

it has a top speed of 230 miles per

hour and a range of 1,150 miles.

On any strike mission,

a drone will be armed with bombs or missiles.

The most common is the AGM-114,

a laser guided missile also known as a Hellfire missile.

The term Hellfire actually refers to a family of

precision missiles designed to localize damage.

Even though drones can be operated remotely,

drone strikes are far from a hands off process.

By the time a drone strike is ordered,

the crew has likely been monitoring the target for weeks.

The strike order is then passed up a chain of approval.

The exact chain of approval is unknown,

but leaked Pentagon papers

provided to the intercept in 2015

indicate that in some instances

the final permission is granted by the president himself.

A 2013 strike in Yemen had to

be approved by 15 people and finally,

the president in order to be carried out.

Once permission is granted,

the drone can be launched.

Even though drones are piloted remotely,

they require an on

the ground crew for launch and retrieval.

After takeoff, control is transferred to

a pilot who could be thousands of miles away,

often at a US Air Force base in Nevada or New Mexico.

Reaper drones are equipped with

two sets of communication tools.

A communication antenna allows

ground crew to control takeoff and landing,

and a satellite communication system

enables remote controlled by a pilot.

This style of control is referred

to as remote split operations.

For a successful strike,

the drone needs to be within

a few kilometers of the target.

If the strike is aimed at an individual,

the target is almost always that person's cell phone.

According to papers obtained by the Intercept,

cell phone use plays

a vital role in tracking and identifying targets.

After the missile is launched,

the drone remains in the air and the pilot monitors

his success of the mission via

the drones onboard cameras.

Piloting a drone is

sometimes compared to playing a video game,

but former drone pilots say that

this comparison is disrespectful and inaccurate.

Through cameras, drone pilots are

often witness to upclose acts of violence,

and drone pilots still report suffering from PTSD.

When it comes to the US military,

drone strikes are primarily used to

target suspected terrorists and terrorist activity,

but it's not always that simple.

According to information obtained by

the Bureau of Investigative Journalism,

between 384 and 807 civilians

were killed by drone strikes between 2008 and 2016.

Whistleblower accounts indicate that

this number may be underreported.

Even though they're stunning pieces of technology,

drones still need to evolve to stay relevant.

So far, drones have been operating in environments

without direct threats but that won't always be the case.

According to the Air Force Times,

the next generation of

unmanned aircrafts is being designed with this in mind.

The XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrator

completed it's first flight in March 2019.

The military is anticipating that

greater numbers of drones will

be destroyed in future combat.

This new model is significantly cheaper to manufacture,

making it easier to replace.

It's unclear exactly how the military plans to

use this new drone but one thing is for sure,

no matter how conflicts abroad change,

the US dependence on unmanned aircrafts

isn't going anywhere