Despite the ongoing, muffled debate over the use of armed U.S. drones in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere, technological advances allow better-integrated intelligence to go to those who pick targets, guaranteeing a continuation of these types of attacks from afar.

Those same intelligence advances, however, also will enable better protection of American and allied forces fighting on the ground.

From dropping bombs from aircraft high above their targets in Cambodia and Laos during the Vietnam War to firing Tomahawk cruise missiles from submarines hundreds of miles away at Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein in Iraq or Moammar Gaddafi in Libya, the U.S. has specialized in developing weapons that seek out targets with precision.

Such weapons are far from perfect, and almost all of them inevitably kill individuals for which they were not intended. One of the earliest stories I wrote was about the one-kiloton U.S. neutron warhead (explosive power equal to 1,000 tons of TNT) that I was told was developed to be used in Europe, where towns were “two kilotons apart” and therefore would not incur collateral damage.

Who can forget the Cold War rhetoric of possibly using nuclear weapons for “surgical strikes?”

Now we have “precision guided” conventional bombs and missiles, some with programmed guidance systems in their noses, others designed to follow laser beams directed on targets from the air or ground.

In almost all cases, the purpose is to kill an enemy or destroy a target while at the same time protecting our forces from exposure to hostile fire.

The process to find new techniques is unending.

Today, satellite, aircraft and ground-based imagery and signal intercepts are being fused by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and National Security Agency into what they call the Communications Intelligence External Geofusion System (CEGS).

CEGS integrates “things that we listen to and the pictures we take” to make the ability to locate a target “a lot better,” NRO Director Bruce Carlson told the U.S. Geospacial Intelligence Foundation symposium (Geoint 2011) on Oct. 17 in San Antonio.

Although details about the system’s full capabilities are classified, its use was disclosed March 15 in a House Armed Services Committee hearing by Betty Sapp, NRO’s principal deputy director.

Earlier, many had feared that a U.S. unit in the Central Command area was about to be ambushed. Quickly fusing a variety of intelligence, “CEGS was able to rapidly provide a geo-location, which allowed reinforcements to arrive at the scene prior to the ambush,” Sapp said. Air support was called in and “resulted in ‘neutralizing’ 20 insurgents,” Sapp said.

“We are committed to the fight from 22,000 miles above to the men and women we have on the ground,” she said.

At the Geoint event and earlier to reporters, Carlson described another NRO system called “Red Dot,” which helps protect coalition troops from improvised explosive devices, or IEDS. Integrating satellite and other imagery and intercepted electronic signals that fuse hidden bombs, the system puts a red dot on computer map displays in vehicles driven by U.S. troops, warning them to avoid certain places.

The United States is working to make its drones even more accurate with something called Airborne Cueing and Exploitation System Hyperspectral. The Air Force’s first operational airborne hyperspectral sensor is scheduled to fly on an unmanned vehicle this year.

A hyperspectral imagery device crammed into the nose of an Air Force drone may give operators more useful images of the terrain or target in Afghanistan or elsewhere as it seeks bombmaking factories, hidden explosives or even people.

It does this in part by picking up electromagnetic radiation from the ground and processing its spectral signatures to identify the elements involved. That information will help commanders decide whether to fire their missiles.

Robot land and sea weaponry require a whole column of their own. Since there are now more Air Force drone pilots in training than there are pilots training to fly actual aircraft, we may see a time when more Navy officers are preparing to run unmanned submarines and Army officers training to control unmanned tanks.

This is progress. Or should that be a question?