The U.S. military has turned to drones to help launch airstrikes against Islamic militants in northern Iraq.
The Defense Department acknowledged early on that aerial drones, known as remotely piloted aircraft in military speak, would be part of the effort to gather intelligence on and, if necessary, bomb militants with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the al-Qaeda inspired Islamic group that controls much of the northern part of the country.
President Obama last week cited as reasons for authorizing the airstrikes in the country the group's advances in the northern Kurdistan region. Militants had reportedly overwhelmed Kurdish fighters and threatened to attack U.S. military and diplomatic personnel in Irbil in the northeast and Yazidi minorities on Mount Sinjar in the northwest.
On Friday, a drone officially identified as an MQ-1 Predator armed with Hellfire missiles struck a mortar position near Irbil and killed several militants. On Saturday, a mix of fighter and drone aircraft destroyed military combat vehicles, including armored personnel carriers and an armed truck. (Ironically, some of the damaged vehicles were reportedly American-made Humvees the militants had captured from Iraqi forces.)
We're interested in learning more about how the manned and unmanned aircraft are apparently working in tandem to conduct the strikes -- and where they're based. The Navy has released photographs of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornets flying from the USS George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf to conduct operations in Iraq. But what about the drones, as well as the C-17 and C-130 cargo aircraft that airdropped food and water to the stranded civilians?
We're also curious why the military seems to be using the MQ-1 Predator -- the workhorse of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- rather than the bigger MQ-9 Reaper, which can loiter over an area for longer periods of time, carry more payload and, over the next few decades, is slated to replace the Predator in the Air Force's drone inventory. (Perhaps all the Reapers are being used in Afghanistan?)
Both unmanned aircraft are made by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., which last month unveiled an enhanced drone cockpit station for operators.