A drone provides remarkable advantages. There is no chance of the pilot being killed or captured. The UAV can fly longer, carry more weapons and manoeuvre better than a regular fighter aircraft — for a fraction of the cost.
The US Air Force now has an entire crop of aviators who have never flown airplanes. They have only piloted UAVs sitting in front of a video screen in Nevada while waging war in Yemen or Waziristan.
The first armed UAVs were reconnaissance drones fitted with Hellfire missiles and used in 2001 to overthrow the Taliban. Two years later, one was used to wipe out an Al Qaeda leader in Yemen – the first use outside a normal battlefield.
Today drones fly back and forth across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border almost non-stop, reconnoitering or seeking intelligence fed targets. Between 2008 and 2010, US officials say drones killed 500 militants.
The US dominates the UAV industry, with a 60 to 70% share of the market. Israel follows a distant second. Europe has less than 5%. The most advanced and largest drones are all American. Some analysts argue that in time fighter aircraft may simply become redundant. A traditional manned air force would be no match for a UAV force that had a similar budget.