War drones on

The Persian Gulf War of 1990-91 introduced Americans to the concept of watching combat as it unfolded, but folks such as Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell were quick to remind us we weren’t watching a “video game.” Real people were dying in real time.

But let’s take that notion another step into the future. In Afghanistan and in Iraq, where the United States has been fighting since 2001, the Pentagon is deploying an airborne device called a “drone.” It is a pilotless aircraft armed with missiles, bombs and other ordnance. And these drones have taken the video game concept to a lethal new level, given that they are “piloted” by programmers sitting half a world away.

“NOVA” broadcasts an episode, which it will re-air on KACV-TV at 1 a.m. Thursday, titled “Rise of the Drones.” It details how the armed forces are using the unmanned aircraft with deadly efficiency against our enemies in Afghanistan and in other areas that harbor suspected terrorists. The Iraq war, of course, is over, but drones did their job — and did it well — against the Iraqi military commanded by the late Saddam Hussein.

Take a look at it also online at pbs.org/nova

Some analysts predict that the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Army will have more pilotless aircraft than piloted craft within the next two or three decades. The upside of this is that it puts fewer American pilots in harm’s way. The downside is a bit more difficult to define. The drones used to kill terrorist masterminds have proven to be highly accurate. In fact, President Obama had considered launching a drone attack on the compound where Osama bin Laden was hiding, but opted instead for sending in a team of SEAL commandos flying aboard helicopters piloted by Army Special Forces personnel. But the question remains: Does the use of drones desensitize military brass to the true cost of war?

The U.S. military isn’t the only organization making greater use of drones. Other more sophisticated military powers have been using them as well, making this form of aerial combat a worldwide phenomenon.

PBS is on top of this trend with its next “NOVA” broadcast. The face of war is changing. But it’s still a nasty business.

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