Beneath a new moon, a crew pushes the 2,500-pound Predator drone toward a blacked-out flight line and prepares it for takeoff. The soldiers wheel over a pallet of Hellfire missiles and load them onto the plane's undercarriage. The Predator pilot walks around the aircraft, conducting his preflight check. He then returns to a nearby trailer, sits down at a console with joysticks and monitors, and guides the snub-nosed plane down the runway and into the night air – unmanned and fully armed.
The takeoffs of Predators with metronome regularity here at Kandahar Air Field, in southern Afghanistan, has helped turn this strip of asphalt into what the Pentagon calls the single busiest runway in the world. An aircraft lifts off or lands every two minutes. It's a reminder of how integral drones have become to the war in Afghanistan and the broader war on terror.
Initially, of course, the plan was not to put weapons on Predator drones at all. Like the first military airplanes, they were to be used just for surveillance. As the war in Iraq progressed, however, US service members jury-rigged the drones with weapons. Today, armed Predators and their larger offspring, Reapers, fly over America's battlefields, equipped with both missiles and powerful cameras, becoming the most widely used and, arguably, most important tools in the US arsenal.
Since first being introduced in Iraq and Afghanistan, their numbers have grown from 167 in 2002 to more than 7,000 today. The US Air Force is now recruiting more UAV pilots than traditional ones.