Vocabulary > War / Terrorism > Arms, Weapons > Drones
18 November 2009
17 May 2006
with a 49-foot wingspan,
is among the remotely piloted aircraft
from Iraq and Afghanistan back to crews in Nevada.
Peter DaSilva for The New York Times
U.S. Drones Crowding the Skies to Help Fight Insurgents in Iraq
April 5, 2005
OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM -- The Predator is a high-altitude aerial reconnaissance
that is used for surveillance serving as eyes in the sky for ground
(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jeremy T. Lock)
NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. -- An MQ-1 Predator
armed with an AGM-114 Hellfire missile flies a training mission.
The MQ-1's primary mission is interdiction and conducting armed reconnaissance
against critical, perishable targets.
Air Force Link
Official website of the United States AIr Force
Drones for America!
February 18, 2013
By Drew Christie
In this animated satire, a former K.G.B. agent welcomes a
in which Americans live under the watchful eyes of drones.
Predator Drones and Unmanned Aerial
unmanned aerial vehicles UAVs
drone > private use
Dronestagram – the website exposing the US's secret drone war
A new website shows the sites hit in US drone attacks
– adding to the pressure for greater transparency from Washington
drone > toll of US drone strikes on
Osama Bin Laden's plans
drone > Reaper
drone > MQ-1 Predator
Drone war: every attack in Pakistan
visualised 25 March 2013
Drones have become a routine part of military operations
in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Using data from the Bureau for Investigative Journalism
(which we used to create this map),
California-based designers Pitch Interactive
have visualised every known attack
by the US and Coalition military since 2004.
Says Pitch's Wesley Grubbs:
"Our aim is to try can get people to pause for a moment
and consider the issue of drone strikes seriously"
cartoons > Cgale > Obama drones
The International Herald Tribune
24 January 2006
U.S. Election Speeded Move to Codify Policy on Drones
November 24, 2012
The New York Times
By SCOTT SHANE
WASHINGTON — Facing the possibility that President Obama might
not win a second term, his administration accelerated work in the weeks before
the election to develop explicit rules for the targeted killing of terrorists by
unmanned drones, so that a new president would inherit clear standards and
procedures, according to two administration officials.
The matter may have lost some urgency after Nov. 6. But with more than 300 drone
strikes and some 2,500 people killed by the Central Intelligence Agency and the
military since Mr. Obama first took office, the administration is still pushing
to make the rules formal and resolve internal uncertainty and disagreement about
exactly when lethal action is justified.
Mr. Obama and his advisers are still debating whether remote-control killing
should be a measure of last resort against imminent threats to the United
States, or a more flexible tool, available to help allied governments attack
their enemies or to prevent militants from controlling territory.
Though publicly the administration presents a united front on the use of drones,
behind the scenes there is longstanding tension. The Defense Department and the
C.I.A. continue to press for greater latitude to carry out strikes; Justice
Department and State Department officials, and the president’s counterterrorism
adviser, John O. Brennan, have argued for restraint, officials involved in the
More broadly, the administration’s legal reasoning has not persuaded many other
countries that the strikes are acceptable under international law. For years
before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the United States routinely condemned
targeted killings of suspected terrorists by Israel, and most countries still
object to such measures.
But since the first targeted killing by the United States in 2002, two
administrations have taken the position that the United States is at war with Al
Qaeda and its allies and can legally defend itself by striking its enemies
wherever they are found.
Partly because United Nations officials know that the United States is setting a
legal and ethical precedent for other countries developing armed drones, the
U.N. plans to open a unit in Geneva early next year to investigate American
The attempt to write a formal rule book for targeted killing began last summer
after news reports on the drone program, started under President George W. Bush
and expanded by Mr. Obama, revealed some details of the president’s role in the
shifting procedures for compiling “kill lists” and approving strikes. Though
national security officials insist that the process is meticulous and lawful,
the president and top aides believe it should be institutionalized, a course of
action that seemed particularly urgent when it appeared that Mitt Romney might
win the presidency.
“There was concern that the levers might no longer be in our hands,” said one
official, speaking on condition of anonymity. With a continuing debate about the
proper limits of drone strikes, Mr. Obama did not want to leave an “amorphous”
program to his successor, the official said. The effort, which would have been
rushed to completion by January had Mr. Romney won, will now be finished at a
more leisurely pace, the official said.
Mr. Obama himself, in little-noticed remarks, has acknowledged that the legal
governance of drone strikes is still a work in progress.
“One of the things we’ve got to do is put a legal architecture in place, and we
need Congressional help in order to do that, to make sure that not only am I
reined in but any president’s reined in terms of some of the decisions that
we’re making,” Mr. Obama told Jon Stewart in an appearance on “The Daily Show”
on Oct. 18.
In an interview with Mark Bowden for a new book on the killing of Osama bin
Laden, “The Finish,” Mr. Obama said that “creating a legal structure, processes,
with oversight checks on how we use unmanned weapons, is going to be a challenge
for me and my successors for some time to come.”
The president expressed wariness of the powerful temptation drones pose to
policy makers. “There’s a remoteness to it that makes it tempting to think that
somehow we can, without any mess on our hands, solve vexing security problems,”
Despite public remarks by Mr. Obama and his aides on the legal basis for
targeted killing, the program remains officially classified. In court, fighting
lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and The New York Times
seeking secret legal opinions on targeted killings, the government has refused
even to acknowledge the existence of the drone program in Pakistan.
But by many accounts, there has been a significant shift in the nature of the
targets. In the early years, most strikes were aimed at ranking leaders of Al
Qaeda thought to be plotting to attack the United States. That is the purpose
Mr. Obama has emphasized, saying in a CNN interview in September that drones
were used to prevent “an operational plot against the United States” and counter
“terrorist networks that target the United States.”
But for at least two years in Pakistan, partly because of the C.I.A.’s success
in decimating Al Qaeda’s top ranks, most strikes have been directed at militants
whose main battle is with the Pakistani authorities or who fight with the
Taliban against American troops in Afghanistan.
In Yemen, some strikes apparently launched by the United States killed militants
who were preparing to attack Yemeni military forces. Some of those killed were
wearing suicide vests, according to Yemeni news reports.
“Unless they were about to get on a flight to New York to conduct an attack,
they were not an imminent threat to the United States,” said Micah Zenko, a
fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who is a critic of the strikes. “We
don’t say that we’re the counterinsurgency air force of Pakistan, Yemen and
Somalia, but we are.”
Then there is the matter of strikes against people whose identities are unknown.
In an online video chat in January, Mr. Obama spoke of the strikes in Pakistan
as “a targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active
terrorists.” But for several years, first in Pakistan and later in Yemen, in
addition to “personality strikes” against named terrorists, the C.I.A. and the
military have carried out “signature strikes” against groups of suspected,
Originally that term was used to suggest the specific “signature” of a known
high-level terrorist, such as his vehicle parked at a meeting place. But the
word evolved to mean the “signature” of militants in general — for instance,
young men toting arms in an area controlled by extremist groups. Such strikes
have prompted the greatest conflict inside the Obama administration, with some
officials questioning whether killing unidentified fighters is legally justified
or worth the local backlash.
Many people inside and outside the government have argued for far greater candor
about all of the strikes, saying excessive secrecy has prevented public debate
in Congress or a full explanation of their rationale. Experts say the strikes
are deeply unpopular both in Pakistan and Yemen, in part because of allegations
of large numbers of civilian casualties, which American officials say are
Gregory D. Johnsen, author of “The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al Qaeda and America’s
War in Arabia,” argues that the strike strategy is backfiring in Yemen. “In
Yemen, Al Qaeda is actually expanding,” Mr. Johnsen said in a recent talk at the
Brookings Institution, in part because of the backlash against the strikes.
Shuja Nawaz, a Pakistan-born analyst now at the Atlantic Council in Washington,
said the United States should start making public a detailed account of the
results of each strike, including any collateral deaths, in part to counter
propaganda from jihadist groups. “This is a grand opportunity for the Obama
administration to take the drones out of the shadows and to be open about their
objectives,” he said.
But the administration appears to be a long way from embracing such openness.
The draft rule book for drone strikes that has been passed among agencies over
the last several months is so highly classified, officials said, that it is
hand-carried from office to office rather than sent by e-mail.
U.S. Election Speeded Move to Codify Policy
on Drones, NYT, 24.11.2012,
A Day Job Waiting for a Kill Shot a World Away
July 29, 2012
The New York Times
By ELISABETH BUMILLER
HANCOCK FIELD AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, N.Y. — From his
computer console here in the Syracuse suburbs, Col. D. Scott Brenton remotely
flies a Reaper drone that beams back hundreds of hours of live video of
insurgents, his intended targets, going about their daily lives 7,000 miles away
in Afghanistan. Sometimes he and his team watch the same family compound for
“I see mothers with children, I see fathers with children, I see fathers with
mothers, I see kids playing soccer,” Colonel Brenton said.
When the call comes for him to fire a missile and kill a militant — and only,
Colonel Brenton said, when the women and children are not around — the hair on
the back of his neck stands up, just as it did when he used to line up targets
in his F-16 fighter jet.
Afterward, just like the old days, he compartmentalizes. “I feel no emotional
attachment to the enemy,” he said. “I have a duty, and I execute the duty.”
Drones are not only revolutionizing American warfare but are also changing in
profound ways the lives of the people who fly them.
Colonel Brenton acknowledges the peculiar new disconnect of fighting a telewar
with a joystick and a throttle from his padded seat in American suburbia.
When he was deployed in Iraq, “you land and there’s no more weapons on your
F-16, people have an idea of what you were just involved with.” Now he steps out
of a dark room of video screens, his adrenaline still surging after squeezing
the trigger, and commutes home past fast-food restaurants and convenience stores
to help with homework — but always alone with what he has done.
“It’s a strange feeling,” he said. “No one in my immediate environment is aware
of anything that occurred.”
Routinely thought of as robots that turn wars into sanitized video games, the
drones have powerful cameras that bring war straight into a pilot’s face.
Although pilots speak glowingly of the good days, when they can look at a video
feed and warn a ground patrol in Afghanistan about an ambush ahead, the Air
Force is also moving chaplains and medics just outside drone operation centers
to help pilots deal with the bad days — images of a child killed in error or a
close-up of a Marine shot in a raid gone wrong.
Among the toughest psychological tasks is the close surveillance for aerial
sniper missions, reminiscent of the East German Stasi officer absorbed by the
people he spies on in the movie “The Lives of Others.” A drone pilot and his
partner, a sensor operator who manipulates the aircraft’s camera, observe the
habits of a militant as he plays with his children, talks to his wife and visits
his neighbors. They then try to time their strike when, for example, his family
is out at the market.
“They watch this guy do bad things and then his regular old life things,” said
Col. Hernando Ortega, the chief of aerospace medicine for the Air Education
Training Command, who helped conduct a study last year on the stresses on drone
pilots. “At some point, some of the stuff might remind you of stuff you did
yourself. You might gain a level of familiarity that makes it a little difficult
to pull the trigger.”
Of a dozen pilots, sensor operators and supporting intelligence analysts
recently interviewed from three American military bases, none acknowledged the
kind of personal feelings for Afghans that would keep them awake at night after
seeing the bloodshed left by missiles and bombs. But all spoke of a certain
intimacy with Afghan family life that traditional pilots never see from 20,000
feet, and that even ground troops seldom experience.
“You see them wake up in the morning, do their work, go to sleep at night,” said
Dave, an Air Force major who flew drones from 2007 to 2009 at Creech Air Force
Base in Nevada and now trains drone pilots at Holloman Air Force Base in New
Mexico. (The Air Force, citing what it says are credible threats, forbids pilots
to disclose their last names. Senior commanders who speak to the news media and
community groups about the base’s mission, like Colonel Brenton in Syracuse, use
their full names.)
Some pilots spoke of the roiling emotions after they fire a missile. (Only
pilots, all of them officers, employ weapons for strikes.)
“There was good reason for killing the people that I did, and I go through it in
my head over and over and over,” said Will, an Air Force officer who was a pilot
at Creech and now trains others at Holloman. “But you never forget about it. It
never just fades away, I don’t think — not for me.”
The complexities will only grow as the military struggles to keep up with a near
insatiable demand for drones. The Air Force now has more than 1,300 drone
pilots, about 300 less than it needs, stationed at 13 or more bases across the
United States. They fly the unmanned aircraft mostly in Afghanistan. (The
numbers do not include the classified program of the C.I.A., which conducts
drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.) Although the Afghan war is
winding down, the military expects drones to help compensate for fewer troops on
By 2015, the Pentagon projects that the Air Force will need more than 2,000
drone pilots for combat air patrols operating 24 hours a day worldwide. The Air
Force is already training more drone pilots — 350 last year — than fighter and
bomber pilots combined. Until this year, drone pilots went through traditional
flight training before learning how to operate Predators, Reapers and unarmed
Global Hawks. Now the pilots are on a fast track and spend only 40 hours in a
basic Cessna-type plane before starting their drone training.
Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, said it was “conceivable”
that drone pilots in the Air Force would outnumber those in cockpits in the
foreseeable future, although he predicted that the Air Force would have
traditional pilots for at least 30 more years.
Many drone pilots once flew in the air themselves but switched to drones out of
a sense of the inevitable — or if they flew cargo planes, to feel closer to the
war. “You definitely feel more connected to the guys, the battle,” said Dave,
the Air Force major, who flew C-130 transport planes in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Now more and more Air National Guard bases are abandoning traditional aircraft
and switching to drones to meet demand, among them Hancock Field, which retired
its F-16s and switched to Reapers in 2010. Colonel Brenton, who by then had
logged more than 4,000 hours flying F-16s in 15 years of active duty and a
decade in Syracuse deploying to war zones with the Guard, said he learned to fly
drones to stay connected to combat. True, drones cannot engage in air-to-air
combat, but Colonel Brenton said that “the amount of time I’ve engaged the enemy
in air-to-ground combat has been significant” in both Reapers and F-16s.
“I feel like I’m doing the same thing I’ve always done, I just don’t deploy to
do it,” he said. Now he works full time commanding a force of about 220 Reaper
pilots, sensor operators and intelligence analysts at the base.
Pilots say the best days are when ground troops thank them for keeping them
safe. Ted, an Air Force major and an F-16 pilot who flew Reapers from Creech,
recalled how troops on an extended patrol away from their base in Afghanistan
were grateful when he flew a Reaper above them for five hours so they could get
some sleep one night. They told him, “We’re keeping one guy awake to talk to
you, but if you can, just watch over and make sure nobody’s sneaking up on us,”
All the operators dismiss the notion that they are playing a video game. (They
also reject the word “drone” because they say it describes an aircraft that
flies on its own. They call their planes remotely piloted aircraft.)
“I don’t have any video games that ask me to sit in one seat for six hours and
look at the same target,” said Joshua, a sensor operator who worked at Creech
for a decade and is now a trainer at Holloman. “One of the things we try to beat
into our crews is that this is a real aircraft with a real human component, and
whatever decisions you make, good or bad, there’s going to be actual
In his 10 years at Creech, he said without elaborating, “I’ve seen some pretty
All of the pilots who once flew in cockpits say they do miss the sensation of
flight, which for Colonel Brenton extends to the F-16 flybys he did for the
Syracuse Memorial Day parade downtown. To make up for it, he sometimes heads out
on weekends in a small propeller plane, which he calls a bug smasher.
“It’s nice to be up in the air,” he said.
A Day Job Waiting for a Kill Shot a World
Away, NYT, 29.7.2012,
Civilian Deaths Due to Drones Are Not Many,
January 30, 2012
The New York Times
By MARK LANDLER
WASHINGTON — President Obama on Monday defended the use of
drones to strike suspected terrorists in Pakistan and elsewhere, saying the
clandestine program was “kept on a very tight leash” and enabled the United
States to use “pinpoint” targeting to avoid more intrusive military action.
Mr. Obama, in an unusually candid public discussion of the Central Intelligence
Agency’s covert program, said the drone strikes had not inflicted huge civilian
casualties. “We are very careful in terms of how it’s been applied,” he said.
“It is important for everybody to understand that this thing is kept on a very
The president made the remarks in answer to questions posed by people during a
live Web interview sponsored by Google Plus, the social media site of Google. He
also spoke about the economy, laughed at a comedian’s impersonation of him, and
declined a woman’s request to sing or do a dance.
The subject of drones came up when a viewer asked Mr. Obama about a report in
The New York Times on Monday about the State Department’s use of drones for
surveillance purposes to protect its diplomatic installations in Iraq. Mr. Obama
confirmed their use for surveillance, but said he thought the article was “a
little overwritten.” He added that drones were a key part of the country’s
offensive against Al Qaeda.
The C.I.A.’s drone program, unlike the use of armed unmanned aircraft by the
military in Afghanistan and previously in Iraq, is a covert program,
traditionally one of the government’s most carefully-guarded secrets. But
because of intense public interest — the explosions cannot be hidden entirely —
American officials have been willing to discuss the program on condition of
Until Monday, Mr. Obama, who has overseen a dramatic expansion of the use of
drones in Pakistan and on a smaller scale in Yemen and Somalia, had spoken only
indirectly about the program. For example, after a C.I.A. drone strike in
September killed Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born Qaeda propagandist hiding in
Yemen, Mr. Obama never mentioned the agency, its unmanned aircraft or the
missiles they fired.
Instead, speaking at a Virginia military base, he said Mr. Awlaki “was killed”
in what he said was “a tribute to our intelligence community.” The secrecy has
prevented an open debate on legal and ethical questions surrounding the strikes,
since neither intelligence officials nor members of Congress can speak openly
Scott Shane contributed reporting.
Civilian Deaths Due to Drones Are Not Many,
Obama Says, NYT, 30.1.2012,
Drones for Human Rights
January 30, 2012
The New York Times
By ANDREW STOBO SNIDERMAN and MARK HANIS
DRONES are not just for firing missiles in Pakistan. In Iraq, the State
Department is using them to watch for threats to Americans. It’s time we used
the revolution in military affairs to serve human rights advocacy.
With drones, we could take clear pictures and videos of human rights abuses, and
we could start with Syria.
The need there is even more urgent now, because the Arab League’s observers
suspended operations last week.
They fled the very violence they were trying to monitor. Drones could replace
them, and could even go to some places the observers, who were escorted and
restricted by the government, could not see. This we know: the Syrian government
isn’t just fighting rebels, as it claims; it is shooting unarmed protesters, and
has been doing so for months. Despite a ban on news media, much of the violence
is being caught on camera by ubiquitous cellphones. The footage is shaky and the
images grainy, but still they make us YouTube witnesses.
Imagine if we could watch in high definition with a bird’s-eye view. A drone
would let us count demonstrators, gun barrels and pools of blood. And the
evidence could be broadcast for a global audience, including diplomats at the
United Nations and prosecutors at the International Criminal Court.
Drones are increasingly small, affordable and available to nonmilitary buyers.
For hundreds of thousands of dollars — no longer many millions — a surveillance
drone could be flying over protests and clashes in Syria.
An environmental group, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, has reported that
it is using drones to monitor illegal Japanese whaling in the waters of the
Southern Hemisphere. In the past few years, human-rights groups and the actor
and activist George Clooney, among others, have purchased satellite imagery of
conflict zones. Drones can see even more clearly, and broadcast in real time.
We could record the repression in Syria with unprecedented precision and scope.
The better the evidence, the clearer the crimes, the higher the likelihood that
the world would become as outraged as it should be.
This sounds a lot like surveillance, and it would be. It would violate Syrian
airspace, and perhaps a number of Syrian and international laws. It isn’t the
kind of thing nongovernmental organizations usually do. But it is very different
from what governments and armies do. Yes, we (like them) have an agenda, but
ours is transparent: human rights. We have a duty, recognized internationally,
to monitor governments that massacre their own people in large numbers. Human
rights organizations have always done this. Why not get drones to assist the
It may be illegal in the Syrian government’s eyes, but supporting Nelson Mandela
in South Africa was deemed illegal during the apartheid era. To fly over Syria’s
territory may violate official norms of international relations, but governments
do this when they support opposition groups with weapons, money or intelligence,
as NATO countries did recently in Libya. In any event, violations of Syrian
sovereignty would be the direct consequence of the Syrian state’s brutality, not
the imperialism of outsiders.
There are some obvious risks and downsides to the drone approach. The Syrian
government would undoubtedly seize the opportunity to blame a foreign conspiracy
for its troubles. Local operators of the drones could be at risk, though a
higher-end drone could be controlled from a remote location or a neighboring
Such considerations figured in conversations we have had with human rights
organizations that considered hiring drones in Syria, but opted in the end for
supplying protesters with phones, satellite modems and safe houses. For nearly a
year now, brave amateurs with their tiny cameras arguably have been doing the
trick in Syria. In those circumstances, the value that a drone could add might
not be worth the investment and risks.
Even if humanitarian drones are not used in Syria, they should assume their
place in the arsenal of human rights advocates. It is a precedent worth setting,
especially in situations where evidence of large-scale human rights violations
is hard to come by.
Drones can reach places and see things cell phones cannot. Social media did not
document the worst of the genocide in the remote villages of Darfur in 2003 and
2004. Camera-toting protesters could not enter the fields where 8,000 men and
boys were massacred in Srebrenica in 1995. Graphic and detailed evidence of
crimes against humanity does not guarantee a just response, but it helps.
If human rights organizations can spy on evil, they should.
Andrew Stobo Sniderman and Mark Hanis
are co-founders of the Genocide Intervention Network.
Drones for Human Rights, NYT, 30.1.2012,
Soon: The Drone Arms Race
The New York Times
By SCOTT SHANE
Scott Shane is a national security correspondent for The New York Times.
AT the Zhuhai air show in southeastern China last November, Chinese companies
startled some Americans by unveiling 25 different models of remotely controlled
aircraft and showing video animation of a missile-armed drone taking out an
armored vehicle and attacking a United States aircraft carrier.
The presentation appeared to be more marketing hype than military threat; the
event is China’s biggest aviation market, drawing both Chinese and foreign
military buyers. But it was stark evidence that the United States’ near monopoly
on armed drones was coming to an end, with far-reaching consequences for
American security, international law and the future of warfare.
Eventually, the United States will face a military adversary or terrorist group
armed with drones, military analysts say. But what the short-run hazard experts
foresee is not an attack on the United States, which faces no enemies with
significant combat drone capabilities, but the political and legal challenges
posed when another country follows the American example. The Bush
administration, and even more aggressively the Obama administration, embraced an
extraordinary principle: that the United States can send this robotic weapon
over borders to kill perceived enemies, even American citizens, who are viewed
as a threat.
“Is this the world we want to live in?” asks Micah Zenko, a fellow at the
Council on Foreign Relations. “Because we’re creating it.”
What was a science-fiction scenario not much more than a decade ago has become
today’s news. In Iraq and Afghanistan, military drones have become a routine
part of the arsenal. In Pakistan, according to American officials, strikes from
Predators and Reapers operated by the C.I.A. have killed more than 2,000
militants; the number of civilian casualties is hotly debated. In Yemen last
month, an American citizen was, for the first time, the intended target of a
drone strike, as Anwar al-Awlaki, the Qaeda propagandist and plotter, was killed
along with a second American, Samir Khan.
If China, for instance, sends killer drones into Kazakhstan to hunt minority
Uighur Muslims it accuses of plotting terrorism, what will the United States
say? What if India uses remotely controlled craft to hit terrorism suspects in
Kashmir, or Russia sends drones after militants in the Caucasus? American
officials who protest will likely find their own example thrown back at them.
“The problem is that we’re creating an international norm” — asserting the right
to strike preemptively against those we suspect of planning attacks, argues
Dennis M. Gormley, a senior research fellow at the University of Pittsburgh and
author of “Missile Contagion,” who has called for tougher export controls on
American drone technology. “The copycatting is what I worry about most.”
The qualities that have made lethal drones so attractive to the Obama
administration for counterterrorism appeal to many countries and, conceivably,
to terrorist groups: a capacity for leisurely surveillance and precise strikes,
modest cost, and most important, no danger to the operator, who may sit in
safety thousands of miles from the target.
To date, only the United States, Israel (against Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas
in Gaza) and Britain (in Afghanistan) are known to have used drones for strikes.
But American defense analysts count more than 50 countries that have built or
bought unmanned aerial vehicles, or U.A.V.’s, and the number is rising every
month. Most are designed for surveillance, but as the United States has found,
adding missiles or bombs is hardly a technical challenge.
“The virtue of most U.A.V.’s is that they have long wings and you can strap
anything to them,” Mr. Gormley says. That includes video cameras, eavesdropping
equipment and munitions, he says. “It’s spreading like wildfire.”
So far, the United States has a huge lead in the number and sophistication of
unmanned aerial vehicles (about 7,000, by one official’s estimate, mostly
unarmed). The Air Force prefers to call them not U.A.V.’s but R.P.A.’s, or
remotely piloted aircraft, in acknowledgment of the human role; Air Force
officials should know, since their service is now training more pilots to
operate drones than fighters and bombers.
Philip Finnegan, director of corporate analysis for the Teal Group, a company
that tracks defense and aerospace markets, says global spending on research and
procurement of drones over the next decade is expected to total more than $94
billion, including $9 billion on remotely piloted combat aircraft.
Israel and China are aggressively developing and marketing drones, and Russia,
Iran, India, Pakistan and several other countries are not far behind. The
Defense Security Service, which protects the Pentagon and its contractors from
espionage, warned in a report last year that American drone technology had
become a prime target for foreign spies.
Last December, a surveillance drone crashed in an El Paso neighborhood; it had
been launched, it turned out, by the Mexican police across the border. Even
Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group, has deployed drones, an Iranian design
capable of carrying munitions and diving into a target, says P. W. Singer of the
Brookings Institution, whose 2009 book “Wired for War” is a primer on robotic
Late last month, a 26-year-old man from a Boston suburb was arrested and charged
with plotting to load a remotely controlled aircraft with plastic explosives and
crash it into the Pentagon or United States Capitol. His supposed
co-conspirators were actually undercover F.B.I. agents, and it was unclear that
his scheme could have done much damage. But it was an unnerving harbinger, says
John Villasenor, professor of electrical engineering at the University of
California, Los Angeles. He notes that the Army had just announced a $5 million
contract for a backpack-size drone called a Switchblade that can carry an
explosive payload into a target; such a weapon will not long be beyond the
capabilities of a terrorist network.
“If they are skimming over rooftops and trees, they will be almost impossible to
shoot down,” he maintains.
It is easy to scare ourselves by imagining terrorist drones rigged not just to
carry bombs but to spew anthrax or scatter radioactive waste. Speculation that
Al Qaeda might use exotic weapons has so far turned out to be just that. But the
technological curve for drones means the threat can no longer be discounted.
“I think of where the airplane was at the start of World War I: at first it was
unarmed and limited to a handful of countries,” Mr. Singer says. “Then it was
armed and everywhere. That is the path we’re on.”
Coming Soon: The Drone Arms Race, NYT, 8.10.2011,
Reflects U.S. Shift to Drones in Terror Fight
The New York Times
By SCOTT SHANE and THOM SHANKER
The C.I.A. drone strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born
propagandist for Al Qaeda’s rising franchise in Yemen, was one more
demonstration of what American officials describe as a cheap, safe and precise
tool to eliminate enemies. It was also a sign that the decade-old American
campaign against terrorism has reached a turning point.
Disillusioned by huge costs and uncertain outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan, the
Obama administration has decisively embraced the drone, along with small-scale
lightning raids like the one that killed Osama bin Laden in May, as the future
of the fight against terrorist networks.
“The lessons of the big wars are obvious,” said Micah Zenko, a fellow at the
Council on Foreign Relations, who has studied the trade-offs. “The cost in blood
and treasure is immense, and the outcome is unforeseeable. Public support at
home is declining toward rock bottom. And the people you’ve come to liberate
come to resent your presence.”
The shift is also a result of shrinking budgets, which will no longer
accommodate the deployment of large forces overseas at a rough annual cost of $1
million per soldier. And there have been improvements in the technical
capabilities of remotely piloted aircraft. One of them tracked Mr. Awlaki with
live video on Yemeni tribal turf, where it is too dangerous for American troops
Even military officials who advocate for the drone campaign acknowledge that
these technologies are not applicable to every security threat.
Still, the move to drones and precise strikes is a remarkable change in favored
strategy, underscored by the leadership changes at the Pentagon and C.I.A. Just
a few years ago, counterinsurgency was the rage, as Gen. David H. Petraeus used
the strategy to turn around what appeared to be a hopeless situation in Iraq. He
then applied those lessons in Afghanistan.
The outcome — as measured in political stability, rule of law and economic
development — remains uncertain in both.
Now, Mr. Petraeus (he has chosen to go by his civilian title of director, rather
than general) is in charge of the C.I.A., which pioneered the drone campaign in
Pakistan. He no longer commands the troops whose numbers were the core of
And the defense secretary is Leon E. Panetta, who oversaw the escalation of
drone strikes in Pakistan’s lawless tribal area as the C.I.A. director. Mr.
Panetta, the budget director under President Bill Clinton, must find a way to
safeguard security as the Pentagon purse strings draw tight.
Today, there is little political appetite for the risk, cost and especially the
long timelines required by counterinsurgency doctrine, which involves building
societies and governments to gradually take over the battle against insurgents
and terrorists within their borders.
The apparent simplicity of a drone aloft, with its pilot operating from the
United States, can be misleading. Behind each aircraft is a team of 150 or more
personnel, repairing and maintaining the plane and the heap of ground technology
that keeps it in the air, poring over the hours of videos and radio signals it
collects, and gathering the voluminous intelligence necessary to prompt a single
Air Force officials calculate that it costs $5 billion to operate the service’s
global airborne surveillance network, and that sum is growing. The Pentagon has
asked for another $5 billion next year alone for remotely piloted drone systems.
Yet even those costs are tiny compared with the price of the big wars. A Brown
University study, published in June, estimates that the United States will have
spent $3.7 trillion in Afghanistan and Iraq by the time the wars are over.
The drones may alienate fewer people. They have angered many Pakistanis, who
resent the violation of their country’s sovereignty and the inevitable civilian
casualties when missiles go awry or are directed by imperfect intelligence. But
while experts argue over the extent of the deaths of innocents when missiles
fall on suspected terrorist compounds, there is broad agreement that the drones
cause far fewer unintended deaths and produce far fewer refugees than either
ground combat or traditional airstrikes.
Still, there are questions of legality. The Obama administration legal team
wrestled with whether it would be lawful to make Mr. Awlaki a target for death —
a proposition that raised complex issues involving Mr. Awlaki’s constitutional
rights as an American citizen, domestic statutes and international law.
The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel eventually issued a lengthy,
classified memorandum that apparently concluded it would be legal to strike at
someone like Mr. Awlaki in circumstances in which he was believed to be plotting
attacks against the United States, and if there was no way to arrest him. The
existence of that memorandum was first reported Saturday by The Washington Post.
The role of drones in the changing American way of war also illustrates the
increasing militarization of the intelligence community, as Air Force drone
technologies for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance — and now armed
with Hellfire missiles for strikes on ground targets — play a central role in
C.I.A. operations. The blurring of military-intelligence boundaries includes
former uniformed officers assuming top jobs in the intelligence apparatus and
military commando units carrying out raids under C.I.A. command.
As useful as the drones have proved for counterterrorism, their value in other
kinds of conflicts may be more limited. Against some of the most significant
potential threats — a China in ascendancy, for example, or a North Korea or Iran
with nuclear weapons — drones are likely to be of marginal value. Should
military force be required as a deterrent or for an attack, traditional forces,
including warships and combat aircraft, would carry the heaviest load.
Of course, new kinds of air power have often appeared seductive, offering a
cleaner, higher-tech brand of war. Military officials say they are aware that
drones are no panacea.
“It’s one of many capabilities that we have at our disposal to go after
terrorists and others,” one senior Pentagon official said. “But this is a tool
that is not a weapon for weapon’s sake. It’s tied to policy. In many cases,
these weapons are deployed in areas where it’s very tough to go after the enemy
by conventional means, because these terror leaders are located in some of the
most remote places.”
In some ways, the debate over drones versus troops recalls the early months of
George W. Bush’s administration, when the new president and his defense
secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld, envisioned how a revolution in military
technology would allow the Defense Department to reduce its ground forces and
focus money instead on intelligence platforms and long-range, precision-strike
Then came the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the wars, first in Afghanistan and
then in Iraq, in which ground forces carried out the lion’s share of the
Mr. Zenko, of the Council on Foreign Relations, worries about the growing
perception that drones are the answer to terrorism, just a few years after many
officials believed that invading and remaking countries would prove the cure.
The recent string of successful strikes has prompted senior Obama administration
officials to suggest that the demise of Al Qaeda may be within sight. But the
history of terrorist movements shows that they are almost never ended by
military force, he said.
“What gets lost are all the other instruments of national power,” including
diplomacy, trade policy and development aid, Mr. Zenko said. “But these days
those tools never get adequate consideration, because drones get all the
Strike Reflects U.S. Shift to Drones in Terror Fight, NYT, 1.10.2011,
Drone makers seek out new targets
Fri, Sep 23 2011
By Soham Chatterjee and Bijoy Anandoth Koyitty
(Reuters) - Almost a century after the first pilot-less plane
was test launched from the back of a truck in the English village of Upavon,
unmanned aircraft vehicles (UAV), or drones, are smarter, more lethal ... and
seeking new growth drivers.
A leaner U.S. defense budget means there will be less scope for big defense
programs, but drone makers are betting that a focus on intelligence gathering
and risking fewer lives in combat will keep the market growing.
"There's a very large unmanned need for information gathering and communication
relay," said Tim Conver, Chief Executive of AeroVironment Inc (AVAV.O: Quote,
Profile, Research, Stock Buzz), which is a leader in small UAVs with its popular
Raven and Puma models.
"We are committed to creating a business as a stratosphere satellite," Conver
Global spending on drones is forecast to nearly double in the next decade,
growing to $11.3 billion a year -- and suggesting a near-$95 billion market over
the next 10 years, according to industry research firm Teal Group.
Big-hitters in the market include Boeing (BA.N: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock
Buzz), Northrop Grumman (NOC.N: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) and
Lockheed Martin (LMT.N: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz), as well as
privately-held General Atomics Aeronautical Systems and Textron Systems-owned
(TXT.N: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) AAI Corp.
As companies develop next-generation UAV features to cater to their primary
defense market, their efforts are focused on two areas: weaponization and
"Historically, we have seen larger aircraft like the General Atomics' Predator
as a weaponized variant. We're seeing a trend of weaponization down to smaller
classes gaining momentum," said Michael Lewis, an analyst at Lazard Capital.
Textron's Shadow unmanned system is another example of an armed drone. Among
smaller UAVs, AeroVironment recently won a $5 million contract from the U.S.
Army for its Switchblade.
As the United States draws down its troop presence in battlegrounds from Iraq to
Afghanistan, so the need for intelligence gathering capability increases,
driving demand for the Predator and Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk.
"With UAVs, you can do more with less as they act as a force-multiplier,"
Michael Ciarmoli of KeyBanc Capital Markets said.
Though fewer troops on the ground may mean less need for the hand-held UAVs
carried by some soldiers, the Defense Department will still buy the small UAVs
as it has yet to complete its inventory requirements.
AeroVironment, founded by aircraft designer Paul MacCready in 1971, is known for
its focus on small UAVs, but the California-based firm has recently branched out
into electric vehicle charging stations.
The company is developing its Shrike brand of ultra-small UAV, which weighs just
5 pounds and can fit in a backpack. Shrike will focus on surveillance and
"AeroVironment's positioning as the sole-source supplier of small unmanned
aerial systems to the Department of Defense gives it a protected niche in the
defense market," said BB&T Capital Markets analyst Jeremy Devaney.
U.S. drone makers have a technological edge over international peers and could
be looking at lucrative export contracts, though these are often out of reach
because of strict rules on arms exports.
The economic argument to help sensitive arms sales may gain traction as
campaigning for the 2012 U.S. presidential elections kicks off against a
backdrop of a 9 percent unemployment rate.
There's also tougher competition from foreign countries, especially Israel and
"In a time of slower growth in the U.S. market, companies can be expected to
push sales in international markets," said Philip Finnegan, a Teal Group
The Obama administration has begun consulting Congress on plans to sell Global
Hawk spy planes to South Korea, a Reuters report has said. Such a deal would
need a waiver of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a voluntary arms
control pact involving at least 34 countries.
Both surveillance and armed U.S. drones, which have been widely deployed in
Afghanistan and Iraq, have received strong interest from Japan, Australia, Saudi
Arabia and nuclear neighbors India and Pakistan, among others.
AeroVironment, AAI, Northrop Grumman and General Atomics have principally sold
their UAVs to NATO allies. Exports make up just 7 percent of AeroVironment's
sales, and 6 percent of Northrop's.
While U.S. authorities' concern is more about the transfer of advanced sensor
capabilities abroad, UAV makers would at least be able to export airframes, plus
maybe sensor and weapon suites approved for foreign sales.
The Defense Security Cooperation Agency that oversees foreign military sales is
working on pre-approved lists of countries that would qualify to buy drones with
Meantime, NATO sales might provide some relief.
"As our NATO partners attempt to standardize their weapons portfolios more in
line with what the U.S. uses, we will see more sales of systems such as
AeroVironment's Puma and Raven UAVs," said Lazard's Lewis.
"Three years out, AeroVironment will be selling more internationally than they
A potential growth area for UAVs is in commercial markets, where there is
increasing demand for law enforcement, exploration, disaster recovery and border
In the United States, however, prospects are some way off unless the Federal
Aviation Authority (FAA) opens up domestic airspace for commercial UAV
"Airspace restrictions will play an important role in how quickly these new
opportunities become reality," said Lindsay Voss at the Association for Unmanned
Vehicle Systems International.
"When these two obstacles are overcome, the possibilities for the global UAV
industry are endless," she said, referring to the export rules and FAA
(Reporting by Bijoy Koyitty and Soham Chatterjee in Bangalore;
Drone makers seek out
new targets, NYT, 23.9.2011,
U.S. wars wind down,
drones gain new prominence
WASHINGTON | Fri Jul 15, 2011
By Warren Strobel and Tabassum Zakaria
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - 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
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
"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
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
"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
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.
As U.S. wars wind down, drones gain new prominence, R, 15.7.2011,
Drones Are Weapons of Choice in Fighting Qaeda
March 17, 2009
The New York Times
By CHRISTOPHER DREW
A missile fired by an American drone killed at least four
people late Sunday at the house of a militant commander in northwest Pakistan,
the latest use of what intelligence officials have called their most effective
weapon against Al Qaeda.
And Pentagon officials say the remotely piloted planes, which can beam back live
video for up to 22 hours, have done more than any other weapons system to track
down insurgents and save American lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The planes have become one of the military’s favorite weapons despite many
shortcomings resulting from the rush to get them into the field.
An explosion in demand for the drones is contributing to new thinking inside the
Pentagon about how to develop and deploy new weapons systems.
Air Force officials acknowledge that more than a third of their unmanned
Predator spy planes — which are 27 feet long, powered by a high-performance
snowmobile engine, and cost $4.5 million apiece — have crashed, mostly in Iraq
Pilots, who fly them from trailers halfway around the world using joysticks and
computer screens, say some of the controls are clunky. For example, the
missile-firing button sits dangerously close to the switch that shuts off the
plane’s engines. Pilots are also in such short supply that the service recently
put out a call for retirees to help.
But military leaders say they can easily live with all that.
Since the height of the cold war, the military has tended to chase the boldest
and most technologically advanced solution to every threat, leading to long
delays and cost overruns that result in rarely used fighter jets that cost $143
million apiece, and plans for a $3 billion destroyer that the Navy says it can
no longer afford.
Now the Pentagon appears to be warming up to Voltaire’s saying, “The perfect is
the enemy of the good.”
In speeches, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has urged his weapons buyers to
rush out “75 percent solutions over a period of months” rather than waiting for
And as the Obama administration prepares its first budget, officials say they
plan to free up more money for simpler systems like drones that can pay
dividends now, especially as fighting intensifies in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
A rare behind-the-scenes look at the use of the Predator shows both the
difficulties and the rewards in pushing out weapons more quickly.
“I’ll be really candid,” said Col. Eric Mathewson, who directs the Air Force’s
task force on unmanned aerial systems. “We’re on the ragged edge.”
He said the service has been scrambling to train more pilots, who fly the drones
via satellite links from the western United States, to keep up with a
near-tripling of daily missions in the last two years.
Field commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the Air Force is in charge of
the Predators, say their ability to linger over an area for hours, streaming
instant video warnings of insurgent activity, has been crucial to reducing
threats from roadside bombs and identifying terrorist compounds. The C.I.A. is
in charge of drone flights in Pakistan, where more than three dozen missiles
strikes have been launched against Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in recent
Considered a novelty a few years ago, the Air Force’s fleet has grown to 195
Predators and 28 Reapers, a new and more heavily armed cousin of the Predator.
Both models are made by General Atomics, a contractor based in San Diego.
Including drones that the Army has used to counter roadside bombs and tiny
hand-launched models that can help soldiers to peer past the next hill or
building, the total number of military drones has soared to 5,500, from 167 in
The urgent need for more drones has meant bypassing usual procedures. Some of
the 70 Predator crashes, for example, stemmed from decisions to deploy the
planes before they had completed testing and to hold off replacing control
stations to avoid interrupting the supply of intelligence.
“The context was to do just the absolute minimum needed to sustain the fight
now, and accept the risks, while making fixes as you go along,” Colonel
It is easier, of course, for the military to take more risks with unmanned
Complaints about civilian casualties, particularly from strikes in Pakistan,
have stirred some concerns among human rights advocates. Military officials say
the ability of drones to observe targets for lengthy periods makes strikes more
accurate. They also said they do not fire if they think civilians are nearby.
The Predators were still undergoing basic testing when they were rushed into use
in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s and then hastily armed with missiles after the
September 2001 terrorist attacks.
But it was only after the military turned to new counterinsurgency techniques in
early 2007, that demand for drones became almost insatiable. Since then, Air
Force Lt. Gen. Gary North, the air-component commander for the combined forces
in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the service has gone to “amazing lengths” to
increase their use.
The Predators and Reapers are now flying 34 surveillance patrols each day in
Iraq and Afghanistan, up from 12 in 2006. They are also transmitting 16,000
hours of video each month, some of it directly to troops on the ground.
The strains of these growing demands were evident on a recent visit to
Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz., one of four bases where Air
National Guard units have been ordered to full-time duty to help alleviate crew
The Guard members, along with Air Force crews at a base in the Nevada desert,
are 7,000 to 8,000 miles away from the planes they are flying. Most of the crews
sit at 1990s-style computer banks filled with screens, inside dimly lit
trailers. Many fly missions in both Iraq and Afghanistan on the same day.
On a recent day, at 1:15 p.m. in Tucson — 1:15 the next morning in Afghanistan —
a pilot and sensor operator were staring at gray-toned video from the Predator’s
infrared camera, which can make even the darkest night scene surprisingly clear.
The crew was scanning a road, looking for — but not finding — signs of anyone
planting improvised explosive devices or lying in wait for a convoy.
As the Predator circled at 16,000 feet, the dark band of a river and craggy
hills came into view, along with ribbons of farmland.
“We spend 70 to 80 percent of our time doing this, just scanning roads,” said
the pilot, Matthew Morrison.
At other times, the crews monitor insurgent compounds and watch over troops in
battle. “When you’re on the radio with a guy on the ground, and he is out of
breath and you can hear the weapons fire in the background, you are every bit as
engaged as if you were actually there,” Major Morrison said.
When Predators spot possible targets, officers monitoring video at command
centers in Iraq and Afghanistan decide whether to order an attack.
Col. Gregg A. Davies, commander of the group that flies Predators for the
Arizona Guard, said fighter planes with bigger bombs are often sent in to make
the strikes. In all, the Air Force says, Predators and Reapers shot missiles on
244 of the 10,949 missions in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008.
Air Force officials said a few crew members have had a difficult time watching
the strikes. And some pilots said it can be hard to transition from being a
computer-screen warrior to dinner at home or their children’s soccer games.
Another problem has been that few pilots wanted to give up flying fighter jets
to operate drones. Given the shortages, the Air Force has temporarily blocked
transfers out of the program. It also has begun training officers as drone
pilots who have had little or no experience flying conventional planes.
Colonel Mathewson, director of the Air Force’s task force on unmanned aerial
systems, said that while upgrades have been made to control stations, the
service plans to eventually shift to simpler and more intuitive ground systems
that could allow one remote pilot to control several drones. Now, pilots say, it
takes up to 17 steps — including entering data into pull-down windows — to fire
And even though 13 of the 70 Predator crashes have occurred over the last 18
months, officials said the accident rate has fallen as flying hours have shot
All told, 55 have been lost because of equipment failure, operator errors or
weather. Four were shot down in Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq; 11 were lost in combat
situations, like running out of fuel while protecting troops under fire.
Given the demand for video intelligence, the Air Force is equipping 50 manned
turbo-prop planes with similar cameras.
And it is developing new camera systems for Reapers that could vastly expand the
intelligence each plane can collect.
P. W. Singer, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, said the Predators
have already had “an incredible effect,” though the remote control raised
obvious questions about whether the military could become “more cavalier” about
Still, he said, “these systems today are very much Model T Fords. These things
will only get more advanced.”
Drones Are Weapons of
Choice in Fighting Qaeda, NYT, 17.3.2009,
U.S. Drone Kills 20 in Pakistan
October 28, 2008
The New York Times
By JANE PERLEZ , PIR ZUBAIR SHAH and ISMAIL KHAN
PESHAWAR, Pakistan — An American drone aircraft hit a militant compound in
South Waziristan Sunday night, killing 20 people, including two important local
Taliban commanders known for their attacks against American soldiers in
Afghanistan, a senior government official and a local resident said.
One of the dead commanders, Eida Khan, was wanted by the Americans for his
cross-border attacks from bases in Waziristan, the government official said.
Another, Wahweed Ullah, worked with Arabs who were part of Al Qaeda, the local
Mr. Ullah, in his late 20s, was known as an ideologically committed fighter who
specialized in attacks against Americans in Afghanistan, the resident said.
The drone launched a missile attack on a compound in the village of Manduta,
close to Wana, the capital of South Waziristan, about 20 miles from the
Mr. Khan and Mr. Ullah, as well as two brothers of Mr. Khan, were affiliated
with the militant network of Jalaluddin Haqqani, a senior Taliban figure with
close connections to Al Qaeda, said the official and the local resident, who
spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The strike was part of an escalating campaign by the Bush administration to hit
the Taliban and their Al Qaeda backers at their bases in the tribal belt.
The latest strike appears to have been the 19th by pilotless Predator aircraft
in the tribal areas since the beginning of August. In the first seven months of
2008, there were five strikes.
The Bush administration has intensified the drone attacks after backing away
from using American commandos for ground raids into the tribal belt. A ground
assault on September 3 produced an angry public riposte from the chief of the
Pakistani Army, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who said he would defend Pakistan’s
borders “at all costs” against such intrusions, an unusually strong statement
from one ally to another.
Mr. Ullah, who is usually in North Waziristan, was believed to have been
visiting the compound in Manduta to pay respects to the families of those killed
in an American drone strike on Friday on a madrassa in North Waziristan run by
The people killed in the North Waziristan strike came from the area around
Manduta in South Waziristan, the government official and local resident said.
Mr. Khan was well known to the Pakistani authorities. He was arrested in 2004
and jailed until last year when he was released under a prisoner exchange, the
government official said.
While the drone attacks appear to be more acceptable to the Pakistani
authorities than ground incursions, government officials have complained about
the intensity of the strikes and the choice of targets by the Americans.
The Americans were concentrating on Taliban and Al Qaeda forces that hurt
American and coalition troops in Afghanistan but were ignoring militants
targeting Pakistan, a senior Pakistani official in the administration that
oversees the tribal region said Monday.
“The Americans are not interested in our bad guys,” the official said. He was
referring in particular to Baitullah Mehsud, a Pakistani Taliban leader, who is
said by Pakistani authorities to be responsible for many of the suicide bombings
of the last 18 months.
The Pakistani army is fighting the Pakistani Taliban in Bajaur, another part of
the tribal region to the east of Waziristan, and that conflict appeared to be on
the verge of spreading Monday after a suicide bomber rammed his car into a
checkpoint manned by paramilitary forces in the Mohmand region.
The attack was the first in Mohmand, an area adjacent to Bajaur. It killed nine
troops, the government said.
The Pakistani Army has said it planned to launch a campaign against the Taliban
in Mohmand once it has completed its mission in Bajaur.
The conflict in the tribal region was discussed at a government-sponsored
gathering of tribal leaders from Pakistan and Afghanistan in Islamabad Monday.
The meeting, known as a mini-jirga, is part of a dialogue initiated last year by
Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
The emphasis at the meeting was on talks between those Taliban willing to
renounce violence and the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The fact the
gathering took place was seen as a sign that the new Pakistani government is
willing to participate in a process that had been largely ignored by the former
president, Pervez Musharraf.
The foreign minister of Pakistan, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, echoing a parliamentary
resolution last week that encouraged dialogue with willing militants, said:
“There is an increasing realization that the use of force alone cannot yield the
Jane Perlez and Ismail Khan reported from Peshawar, Pakistan,
and Pir Zubair
Shah reported from Islamabad.
U.S. Drone Kills 20 in
Pakistan, NYT, 28.10.2008,
war / peace > intelligence / spies
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Terrrorism > USA > CIA
Terrorism > Surveillance > USA