The U.S. military has been flying drones over Iraq since Desert Storm, back in '91. But, up 'til now, they've basically served in just one role: as airborne spies, taking pictures of what's below.The Army wants to change that. And fast, by strapping the unmanned planes up with bombs and guns.This wouldn't be a first, exactly. Predator unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have occasionally been equipped with a couple of Hellfire missiles. And occasionally, the drone has unleashed those weapons, either on suspected terrorist groups, or on artillery positions. But those missions have been very much the exception, and not the rule.This new effort reported by Inside the Army -- has the potential to be something quite different: UAVs designated specifically for combat. It's something "troops in Iraq are asking for," the military trade magazine says, "now."
Both the Armys I-Gnat and Hunter UAV systems used in Iraq could carry weapons, sources noted. [In fact, the Hunter has already been tested with Viper Strike munitions.] The I-Gnat can carry up to 450 pounds of payload, while the Hunters payload capacity is 200 pounds. But the Army has never employed a weaponized UAV to date in a warfighting operation, a source said.The only thing we can confirm, due to the operational concerns on this issue, is the Army is in fact pursuing weaponizing a UAV in theater, said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Thats all we can say without disclosing classified informationIt is still new in inventory, noted Army Lt. Col. Christopher Rodney. The use has yet to be determined. The theater, particularly Iraq, will be the testing ground.The testing ground for what, exactly? Well, the Army is on the verge of awarding contracts, to build its weapons-carrying, Extended-Range Mission Payload pilotless planes. But those smallish UAVs, with a range of 300 kilometers, are just a first step. The real doozy is currently being jointly developed by Darpa, the Air Force, and the Navy a drone, specifically designed for combat.THERE'S MORE: Slate's lastest scener from Fallujah tells the story of "How the Pioneer Robot Plane Helped Win an Artillery Duel."AND MORE: A hundred bomb-disposal robots have been bought by the Navy, and are now on their way to Afghanistan and Iraq.AND MORE: "No fewer than 20 types of aircraft have been thrown into the [Fallujah] fight," the AP says, "including 10 fixed-wing planes, three types of helicopters and seven kinds of unmanned drones."