"The Defense Department's unmanned air force has grown exponentially; there are now more than 3200 mil-drones in the fleet, up from about 200 in 2002. But after spending some time in Iraq, I'm starting to get the feeling that a lot of those robo-planes are sitting on the shelves, barely used.
Here's why. The military's big unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are controlled by colonels and generals. The local commanders on the ground basically have no say where the things fly. For example, a company commander, recently returned from Anbar province, sa id his area got a grand total of eight minutes of coverage from the Predator spy drone per day.
But wait, you say. The vast majority of America's UAVs are little, hand-launched drones, like the four-and-a-half pound Ravens and the five-pound Dragon Eyes. The local captain has control over those, right? Well, theoretically, yeah.
But there are so many bureaucratic hoops to jump through to get those tiny UAVs in the air that many captains have stopped bothering to try. Air clearance is the hoops that comes up most. Although the drones are small, they can get up pretty high -- 1000 feet, or more. Which means there's a concern about the UAVs getting tangled up with helicopters. Setting aside space for the drones can take 24 to 48 hours -- and insurgents don't usually stay in one place that long.
A few weeks ago in Anbar, I spoke to local Marine commander who had basically given up on using his Dragon Eye, for this reason. The same thing happened in Tarmiyah, north of Baghdad, where Captain Pat Roddy told me, "the Raven? Never fly it." Which is particularly frustrating. Because Roddy regularly gets airspace for himself, to fire mortars. But his higher-ups won't let him launch his drone during that time, because the computer program that tracks airspace says its a no-aircraft zone. Roddy has been told that he can make an emergency switch from mortar to Raven airspace -- and it'll only take an hour to make the switch in the computer. But he can only do so if his troops are in a firefight. And firefights in Iraq almost never take more than a few minutes. An hour later, the Raven is all-but-useless."