And suddenly, UAVs are everywhere. Let’s start with about ten blocks from where I’m writing this, over at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, where an exhibit has opened “celebrating unmanned flight technology.” The exhibit features UAVs from all four U.S. service branches—as well as sponsorship courtesy of General Atomics, proud parent of the Predator, the most famous of the UAVs out there (at least among the ones we know about). And indeed, the original Predator is on display: though you won’t see any of its Reaper successors, given that they’re running sorties over Baghdad, where they’ve got better things to do than impressing tourists and Appropriations Committee congressmen.
Yet what runs the risk of being overshadowed amidst this first-of-its-kind display is the extent to which other nations are getting in on the act. At present, UAVs represent yet one more attribute of the superiority of U.S. military hardware. That won’t change any time soon—the really sophisticated UAVs will sport the Stars N’ Stripes for the time being. But the ability to send an unmanned machine into the air to do useful things is a threshold that’s been crossed in many countries, and that’s likely to accelerate, given a wide range of recon and (at a more advanced level) combat uses. Though combat cuts both ways, of course . . . .case in point: last week’s downing of a Georgian UAV drone by a Russian MIG.
If you haven’t seen it already, the vid’s worth watching, all the way to the static as the missile takes out the drone. (The dry commentary of the Georgian defense minister is also pretty good.)But pyrotechnics aside, this is all about different thresholds of functionality at the end of the day. And as we see signs of a new, “poor man’s” generation of UAV emerge, we can expect the basic functionality to commoditize to the point where basically anyone can build one. And ultimately, anyone will. Expect the next round of insurgent warfare to feature UAVs on both sides.