WASHINGTON In many ways, it's the perfect weapon for a war-weary nation that suddenly finds itself on a tight budget.
Missile-armed drones are playing a greater role than ever in U.S. counter-terror operations, as President Barack Obama winds down land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Washington's focus expands to militant havens such as Somalia and Yemen where there are no U.S. troops permanently on the ground.
The CIA now operates Predator and Reaper unmanned aircraft, armed with Hellfire missiles, over at least five countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and Libya.
The agency does not publicly acknowledge the program. The U.S. military uses drones, primarily for surveillance, in Iraq and elsewhere.
And there's every likelihood the use of drones to attack suspected anti-U.S. militants will spread further, current and former U.S. officials told Reuters.
"The CIA's role could very well expand over the coming years as the government deals with emerging terrorist threats," said a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
In the latest strikes, at least 48 militants were reported killed in drone attacks Monday and Tuesday in Pakistan's tribal regions.
That brought to about 260 the number of drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004, including nearly 50 this year, according to a tally kept by the New America Foundation think tank.
By far most of those drone strikes, more than 225, came after July 2008, when the United States decided on a more aggressive and unilateral pursuit of militants in Pakistan, a U.S. official said.
Analysts and former U.S. intelligence officials generally approve of the increasing reliance on drones, but warn they are not without drawbacks. Those include civilian casualties, resentment of America's warfare-from-a-distance in Pakistan and elsewhere -- and the likelihood the technology will be turned against the United States some day, they said.
"We currently have a monopoly, or effective monopoly, on armed drones," said John Nagl, a retired U.S. Army officer and president of the Center for a New American Security think tank. "This technology will spread, and it will be used against us in years to come."
COUNTER-INSURGENCY ON THE WANE?
The use of drones -- remotely piloted aircraft -- against militants began in the years after the September 11, 2001 attacks, was ramped up in President George W. Bush's final year in office and has been embraced enthusiastically by Obama.
"When threatened, we must respond with force -- but when that force can be targeted, we need not deploy large land armies overseas," Obama declared in a June 22 speech announcing a faster-than-expected withdrawal of the troops he surged into Afghanistan last year.
Obama's speech appeared to signal the end of the era of large-scale counter-insurgency campaigns, championed by a cadre of officers that included Nagl, involving tens of thousands of U.S. and allied troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The troops did more than fight. They protected civilian populations, built schools and roads, trained armies and police forces.
The White House's new counter-terrorism strategy emphasizes a lighter footprint, as advocated by Vice President Joe Biden. Combat brigades are being replaced by Special Forces strike teams, capture-and-interrogate operations -- and drones.
A senior U.S. official said Obama has made no "strategic shift" to favor using drone strikes.
"There are probably some times when they are the most appropriate tool given the nature of the target you may be going after, and there are other times when they won't be," said the official, who was not authorized to be quoted by name.
Indeed, Obama rejected an option for a drone strike to kill al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in early May, sending in a Navy SEAL team instead. In April, he authorized yet another approach, capturing a leader of the Somali militant group al Shabaab, Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, at sea and interrogating him for two months before transferring him to a U.S. prison.
Still, the official acknowledged that drones are an attractive option outside declared theaters of war, where "you want to be even more discriminating and more careful in your application" of deadly force.
That, analysts say, is precisely where the militant threat is moving, as al Qaeda's core group declines relative to affiliates like al Shabaab and Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
As the Iraq war winds down, more drones equipped for intelligence gathering and other purposes have been freed up, the senior official said. The overall U.S. drone arsenal has also increased. "It's something that in some ways is a natural evolution: as you have more assets to draw on, you tend to use them more," he said.
KILL OR CAPTURE
Paul Pillar, a Georgetown University professor and former top CIA analyst, said drones are a "more effective and better focused way" of using military force against militants.
"But ... we must bear in mind as we make each individual decision about a drone strike that the immediate positive results always have to be weighed against the potentially longer-term consequences, given how it's perceived and possible resentment," he said.
Former U.S. intelligence officials said one downside to drone strikes is the loss of potential intelligence from interrogating a suspect or finding telltale "pocket litter."
The senior U.S. official called that a false choice -- capture often isn't an option -- and also rejected criticism of civilian casualties. Drones, he said, are often more precise than other counter-terrorism weapons.
Innocent bystanders have frequently been killed in drone strikes, but such deaths appear to have dropped dramatically in recent years.
A source familiar with the program said about 30 noncombatants and 1,400 militants have been killed in Pakistan since Bush expanded drone use in July 2008. The New America Foundation analysis found the "non-militant fatality rate" dropped from about 20 percent in 2004 to 5 percent last year.
Nagl credited former defense secretary Robert Gates and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, former U.S. commander in Afghanistan, with pushing hard for better links between intelligence gathering and drone operators, resulting in more accurate strikes -- and fewer civilian casualties.
While counter-insurgency may be out of favor now, Nagl -- who emphasized that he did not back the 2003 Iraq invasion -- said the United States should not jettison those skills. "We may be done with counter-insurgency, but insurgency may not be done with us."
Both the Predator and Reaper drones are produced by the privately held General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., based in San Diego, California.
(Editing by Todd Eastham)