For Americans watching at home, drones defined the War in Afghanistan under Obama’s tenure. Variously depicted as cartoonishly inept or maliciously evil robots, the spectre of armed unmanned aerial vehicles animated heated campus discourse about what, exactly, America was doing overseas.
Since the early 2010s, military drones have faded from the minds of much of the public. In that time, other nations like Iraq and Nigeria and Pakistan have joined America as wielders of armed remotely piloted aircraft. And even more nations have adopted unarmed drones as flying cameras to guide their military. The latest country to join that list is none other than Afghanistan.
A U.S. military official announced yesterday that Afghanistan is expected to field its own drones starting in March. Rather than the menacing armed Reapers or the plane-sized missile-carrying Predators, Afghanistan’s army will fly the modest ScanEagle. At just 5 feet long and with a 10-foot wingspan, these hardy drones are launched not from runways but from truck-mounted catapults. That makes them much easier to deploy than airplanes, and when they need to come in for a landing, a specially set up sky hook will snag them out of the air. Despite only weighing 50 pounds, ScanEagles can fly for up to 24 hours, and they fly slow, cruising around 60 mph. This makes them a useful tool for watching open spaces from a lofty height of nearly 20,000 feet. Think less like a hawk, more like a vulture.
The United States is currently training soldiers in Afghanistan’s army in piloting the aircraft, so that the country can use them in the fight against the still insurgent Taliban on its own. The U.S. is providing eight ScanEagle units, each with six drones and the systems needed to operate them, for a total of 48 ScanEagles. The drones have powerful cameras that feed live video to operators on the ground, giving commanders a bird’s-eye-view of the battlefield. Much like the unarmed American drones that flew over Afghanistan before them, these ScanEagles are primarily useful tools for fighting insurgents.