IN THE early afternoon of August 18th 2008, a reconnaissance unit of about 100 French paratroopers, accompanied by a small number of Afghan and American soldiers, was ambushed by a similarly sized Taliban force in the Uzbin Valley, not far from Kabul. Ten French soldiers were killed in fighting that continued into the night—France’s biggest loss since it sent soldiers to Afghanistan in 2002. But it might have been avoided had the unit had a single aerial-robot scout, says Gérard de Boisboissel, a specialist on military robots at the French army’s Saint-Cyr military academy. That assessment, shared by many, led to a retooling of France’s armed forces. Today drones, also called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), routinely accompany even small French units.
More broadly, fighting forces and intelligence services worldwide are equipping themselves with all manner of robots that operate on land and sea, and in the air. The conduct of war is being transformed—and largely, it seems, to the West’s advantage.