When the history of drone warfare is written, the otherwise unremarkable battle of Manbij that liberated a small city in northern Syria from the clutches of the Islamic State group this summer could end up with a chapter of its own.
Drones played an integral part of the fight for this key terrain roughly 20 miles from the Turkish border, representing a dramatic escalation of war planners' reliance on the remote-controlled machines for intelligence gathering and killing.
Known in military circles as Remotely Piloted Aircraft or RPA, drones accounted for a third of the air missions during a month-long battle and conducted 663 airstrikes on ground targets, according to U.S. Central Command, the military headquarters that oversees conflicts in the Middle East. And some of their missions endured for 19 hours straight or more, with rotating shifts of pilots commanding the unmanned aircraft from the U.S. and elsewhere.
They remain hotly contested technology at the center of arguments by critics who say they make killing too easy. But their irrefutable contribution, rightly or wrongly, to defeating the Islamic State group serves as evidence for those who oversee them that there is no turning back on their use.
All of those things make us uniquely capable in that kind of environment," says Col. Case Cunningham, the commander of the Air Force's 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing, a drone unit based at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada. "I feel really good about what our airmen are doing on the ground there because they're saving lives from the folks that we're in conflict with."
The former F-16 and Air Force Thunderbirds pilot took over as commander of the unit in July 2015 and continues to fly drone missions himself from Creech on the MQ-9, more commonly known as the Reaper. His tenure comes at a time of unprecedented demand for the aircraft he commands – the percentage of missions in which Reapers fire their weapons has increased fivefold since 2011, he says. Now, roughly 15 percent of all the airstrikes in the war against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria are conducted by drones.
"That says a lot about what our commanders think," Cunningham says.
These leaders, now in the midst of a political transition, are trying to find ways to get more drones into the skies, train more operators and prepare more analysts to process the information they produce.
"The RPA mission is instrumental to achieving decision advantage against our adversaries," Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, head of the Air Force's Air Combat Command, told a congressional panel earlier this year. "It is a powerful asset to our national decision-makers and our national security and is the backbone to the success of our current fights."
In 2007, the Air Force was responsible for seven drone "combat air patrols," or CAPs, what the military calls its flying missions. Now there are 65, Carlisle said.
"Our warfighters' demand for persist attack and reconnaissance through the use of RPAs has skyrocketed," he said.
Pentagon leaders considered Manbij one of the most critical and difficult liberation efforts in the lead-up to its current campaigns to free the terrorist network's key havens of Raqqa and Mosul. It had been a transit hub for Islamic State group fighters and supplies flowing into Syria and Iraq until it was freed in August.
It posed particularly difficult problems for the airpower overhead supporting a coalition of local fighters on the ground, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces. Its dense urban terrain, littered with Islamic State group fighting positions and tunnel networks, combined with a large civilian population forced to remain as human shields, made it particularly difficult for aircraft overhead to determine their targets and then strike them without incurring civilian casualties.
Army Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of the war against the Islamic State group, described Manbij after its liberation as "a very difficult fight, a very concentrated urban fight, where there were extensive use of [improvised explosive devices], there were use of tunnels, we were fighting inside buildings."
Pilots for manned planes with experience over Iraq and Syria privately say this kind of dense, bloody, confusing urban warfare demonstrates an evolution in the kind of results the Air Force can now achieve. They've learned how to, for example, maneuver into a position from which they can strike insurgents flanked by civilians in narrow alleyways and with friendly forces nearby, all without colliding with the myriad other planes in the air or accidentally striking the wrong target.
They aren't always completely successful. A review the Pentagon released last week of claims of civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria over the last year confirmed two instances in Manbij, one on July 31 and one on Aug. 20. On both occasions, a noncombatant entered the target area after the coalition aircraft had fired its weapon, the investigators say. They would not say what kind of aircraft conducted those strikes.
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