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Q. Is the United States likely to continue using armed drones in combat?

As the above discussion suggests, drones present leaders and militaries with a number of advantages, most important of which are a long loiter time and minimized risk to troops. In this context, it is not surprising that the United States had established an impressive record for using drones and in some respects it is more surprising that its use of drone strikes had declined since the 2010 peak. Whether because it was exercising a more restrictive set of targeting rules or had run out of high-value targets, the United States had nonetheless throttled back its drone policy. The decline also seemed compatible with the attrition of a number of drone pilots, with the Air Force losing more drone pilots than it was training, thereby limiting the degree to which the United States could rely on drones.

In the middle of 2015, however, the Pentagon announced that it would increase the number of drone missions it conducted on a daily basis by 50%, from 60 to 90. These missions appeared to be primarily intended for surveillance and intelligence missions to monitor security in places such as Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Northern Africa, and the South China Sea. With increasing tensions in these areas and with limits to the credibility of using military force against countries such as China and Russia, drones can offer a means of gathering intelligence while also showing a degree of force well below the threshold that would cause any retaliatory action. On the other hand, the mere presence of these American aircraft close to the drones' countries of interest could seem like a counterproductive provocation. Beyond the intelligence function that these missions would carry out, the vision implicit in plan was to increase the capacity to conduct lethal strikes, a more controversial proposition.

How the Pentagon will implement these increases when it had recently announced growing rates of attrition in its operator ranks remains to be seen. One way is to move from the near-exclusive reliance on the Air Force and toward greater reliance on the Army, which would contribute 16 flights per day, and Special Operations Command, which would contribute another four. The military also plans to rely more on enlisted personnel or private contractors at least to conduct surveillance or reconnaissance. The Pentagon would increase operational tempo gradually and in response to what it sees as a growing demand for drones in the world's hotspots.35

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