DRONES HAVE become, to use that overworked phrase, a game-changer in fighting terrorists.
The remote-controlled, pilotless aircraft have taken away the terrorists' greatest tactical asset: the ability to hide in ruggedly remote areas, often under the protection of friendly tribes hostile to the United States and not unaccustomed to warfare.
Under normal circumstances, it would take a large, heavily armed force to go after terrorists -- at great expense and with no guarantee of success. That happened when Osama bin Laden eluded U.S. forces in Tora Bora in 2003.
With the Yemeni government's cooperation, missiles fired from drones last week took out U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, a leader of al-Qaeda's increasingly powerful presence in Yemen and his chief propagandist,
The killings raised ethical and legal considerations, but given Awalaki's repeated urgings for his followers to attack Americans, it would have been foolhardy to wait for him to hurt us before we hit him.
Drones come in sizes ranging from handheld to long-range aircraft the size of a small fighter jet. As weapons systems go, they are cheap at a time when cost is an increasing factor in American military thinking, easily replaceable, capable of sustained and almost silent periods aloft and, unlike manned airstrikes, less likely to cause civilian casualties.
Through their cameras, drones supply valuable real-time intelligence. The larger drones offer a choice of weapons capabilities.
Indeed, many see Awlaki's assassination as a turning point in the war on terror, allowing us to minimize the use of ground troops with their expected casualties. The idea of a clean end to the war on terror, cleanly fought from a distance, is appealing.
Our next worry will be al-Qaeda and assorted other terrorists groups, in their unrelenting attempts to damage the United States, attempting to copy our tactics. Al-Qaeda and others are fascinated by our military technology and work hard to copy what they can.
It is not unrealistic to think that somewhere an al-Qaeda weapons maker is experimenting with remote-controlled model airplanes, some of which are fairly large, in hope of devising a jihadi drone. While we perfect our own drone systems -- and the Pentagon has asked for $5 billion next year to do so -- we should be working on systems to keep our own technology from being used against us.