Unmanned aircraft (“drones”) have captured the popular imagination. Hardly a day goes by without a story appearing somewhere about how unmanned aircraft will revolutionize everything from commercial logistics to air combat.
It’s a seductive idea, and probably true to some extent. In the unforgiving world of military planners, though, what matters most is how the available options for conducting missions perform today, not what might unfold tomorrow. One such mission is intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance — what the military calls ISR. Detailed, timely information about tactical conditions is indispensable in deterring or defeating enemies, so much of contemporary military debate revolves around how best to collect, analyze and share such information.
The U.S. Air Force has been struggling of late to determine whether manned or unmanned aircraft are best suited to generating useful intelligence on the modern battlefield. Its two most capable options are the manned U-2S spy plane, which traces