How Drone Strikes Work

Anatomy of a Drone Strike
With a carrying capacity of more than 3,700 pounds, the Reaper drone packs a serious punch.
With a carrying capacity of more than 3,700 pounds, the Reaper drone packs a serious punch.
U.S. Air Force photo/Lance Cheung

The two armed drones in the U.S. arsenal are the ominously named Predator and Reaper drones. They actually look very similar, so it's not surprising that they share many characteristics. Both of these aerial weapons are propeller-driven, and both can be armed with laser-guided Hellfire missiles. Each is equipped with an antenna for communication with ground control during take-off and landing, while a satellite system is used to relay information when the drone is out of sight. This link goes both ways: The pilots can control the navigation, weapons and other systems on the drones, while the drones can send back information like images from its daytime and infrared cameras [sources: U.S. Air Force - Predator, U.S. Air Force - Reaper].

There are some significant differences, though. The Reaper is a bigger drone, boasting a wingspan of 66 feet (20.1 meters) versus the Predator's 55 feet (16.8 meters). With this size comes a number of advantages for the Reaper:

  • Maximum Altitude: Reaper, 50,000 feet (15,240 meters); Predator, 25,000 feet (7,620 meters)
  • Range: Reaper, 1,150 miles (1,850 kilometers); Predator, 770 miles (1,240 kilometers)
  • Payload (carrying capacity): Reaper, 3,750 pounds (1,701 kilograms); Predator, 450 pounds (204 kilograms)
  • Weapons: Reaper, four laser-guided missiles; Predator, two laser-guided missiles
  • Cruising Speed: Reaper, 230 miles per hour (370 kilometers per hour); Predator, 84 miles per hour (135 kilometers per hour)

Of course, these advantages come at a cost: A drone unit — including four aircraft, a ground control station and a satellite link — costs $56.5 million for a Reaper versus $20 million for a Predator [sources: U.S. Air Force - Predator, U.S. Air Force - Reaper].

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and an arm of the military known as the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) are both responsible for directing these armed drones, which are stationed at a series of secret bases across Europe, Africa and Asia and often flown by pilots who are actually in the United States. Initially, these agencies maintained "kill lists" consisting of suspected terrorists they targeted with strikes after receiving permission from the White House.

In 2013, however, the White House became more involved, working to formalize the process through what they termed a disposition matrix. This updated list, created by the National Counterterrorism Center, includes information on suspected terrorists like biographies, locations, associations and affiliated organizations. The list also includes strategies for how to deal with the terrorists, such as extradition, capture and drone strikes. Numerous high-ranking intelligence analysts and military officials review the list before it receives the final OK from the president. In the end, the president must approve all drone strikes outside of Pakistan; the CIA director can approve strikes within Pakistan [source: Matthews].

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