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Vocapedia > War, Terrorism > Air







How a C.I.A. Drone Base Grew in Niger's Desert

Video        Visual Investigations        NYT        10 September 2018


Officials from the U.S. and Niger

have confirmed the location of a new C.I.A. drone base

to The New York Times.


We’ve analyzed its construction and location.



















'My father was martyred by a drone'

G    10 February 2015





'My father was martyred by a drone'

Video        G        The Guardian        10 February 2015


'My father was martyred by a drone':

Yemeni teenager records life months

before suffering a similar fate.


Mohammed Saleh Tauiman was 13

when the Guardian gave him a camera

to record his family life

in Marib province in northern Yemen in 2014.


In this footage from the last months of 2014,

Mohammed interviews his brothers and sisters

about their father, killed in a US drone attack,

as the unmanned CIA aircraft continued to fly sorties



On 26 January Mohammed himself

was killed by a US drone

alongside his brother-in-law and another man.


















Drone wars:

the gamers recruited to kill

G    2 February 2015




Drone wars: the gamers recruited to kill

Video        Guardian Docs        2 February 2015


In tiny bunkers in the United States,

young pilots are operating unmanned drones

targeting 'bad people' in Pakistan.


Recruited at video game fairs by military leaders

who know the value of games that glamourise 'militainment',

drone pilots are left traumatised by the civilian casualties

– or 'collateral damage' – their strikes cause.


Psychologically distanced from the enemy,

are drones the future of warfare?




















































































Andy Singer



18 November 2009
















Andy Singer



17 May 2006

















The Predator,

with a 49-foot wingspan,

is among the remotely piloted aircraft sending data

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

NYT        April 5, 2005


















MQ-1 Predator


The Predator is a high-altitude aerial reconnaissance plane

that is used for surveillance

serving as eyes in the sky for ground forces.

(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jeremy T. Lock)



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.

(Courtesy photo)


Air Force Link        Official website of the United States AIr Force



added  28.8.2007



















Drones for America!

February 18, 2013

By Drew Christie


In this animated satire, a former K.G.B. agent welcomes a future

in which Americans live under the watchful eyes of drones.
















drone        USA










A.I.-controlled killer drones        USA












killer robot > military-grade autonomous drones         USA



known as a lethal autonomous weapons system

— or LAWS —










drone base        USA


watch?v=14-JDZnhl0U - NYT - 20 September 2018















drone wars        UK / USA





































drone warfare        USA



























remote control warfare        UK










armchair warfare        USA











– the website exposing the US's secret drone war        UK        2012


A new website shows the sites

hit in US drone attacks

– adding to the pressure

for greater transparency

from Washington










toll of US drone strikes

on Osama Bin Laden's plans        UK        2012










Drone war:

every attack in Pakistan visualised        UK        25 March 2013


Drones have become

a routine part of military operations

in Afghanistan and Pakistan.


Using dat

 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











drone attack        UK / USA

































autonomous attack        USA










drone strike        UK / USA








































































































































even-post-bin-laden-u-s-drones-in-pakistan-press-on-idUSTRE74B6I520110512 - May 12, 2011



















CIA drone strike program in Pakistan        USA










drone hit        USA










drone strike > blunder        USA


















targeted drone killings

of American citizens overseas        USA






















USA > drone assassination        UK










drones > targeted killings        USA










civilian deaths in drone strikes        USA














kill        USA










be wiped out    (passive)        UK










drone victims        USA






cartoons > Cagle > Obama drones        USA






aimed at N        USA






pound        USA

















pilotless airplane








drone aircraft








Predator Drones and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles    UAVs












































drone / unmanned aerial vehicles    UAVs        UK / USA












































































































































Switchblade drones        USA


Switchblade drones,

made by California-based AeroVironment,

were designed to attack

either soldiers or tanks.


But the technology is versatile:

Larger versions can take out artillery tubes,

crater runways

and destroy radar installations.



Smaller versions can target the drivers of vehicles,

or individual officers if they are detected.











USA > Hellfire missiles        UK










spy drone        USA










low-tech surveillance drones        USA










thermal imaging        UK










Big Brother        UK










drone > private use        UK










surveillance drone        UK










nuclear drones        UK


















drone pilot        USA






















drone operator        USA



















drone makers








drone > Reaper        USA












drone > MQ-1 Predator        USA


















U.S. Air Force MQ-1B Predator unmanned aerial vehicle,

carrying a Hellfire missile        USA










drone base        UK / USA
















Drone Age        UK










laser        USA




















Patrick Chappatte


The International Herald Tribune


24 January 2006















Corpus of news articles


War, Terrorism > Arms, Weapons >


Air > Drones




U.S. Election Speeded Move

to Codify Policy on Drones


November 24, 2012

The New York Times



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 discussions say.

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 drone strikes.

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,” he said.

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, unknown militants.

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 exaggerated.

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,






A Day Job Waiting for a Kill

Shot a World Away


July 29, 2012
The New York Times


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 weeks.

“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 the ground.

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,” he recalled.

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 consequences.”

In his 10 years at Creech, he said without elaborating, “I’ve seen some pretty disturbing things.”

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, Obama Says


January 30, 2012
The New York Times


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 tight leash.”

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 anonymity.

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 about them.


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



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 good work?

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 country.

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,






Coming Soon: The Drone Arms Race


October 8, 2011
The New York Times

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 combat.

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,






Strike Reflects U.S. Shift to Drones

in Terror Fight


October 1, 2011
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — 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 to go.

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 counterinsurgency.

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 strike.

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 weapons.

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 missions.

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 attention.”


Charlie Savage contributed reporting.

    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 told Reuters.

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 intelligence.

"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 intelligence gathering.

"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 China.

"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 analyst.

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 certain capabilities.

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 are today."



A potential growth area for UAVs is in commercial markets, where there is increasing demand for law enforcement, exploration, disaster recovery and border security.

In the United States, however, prospects are some way off unless the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) opens up domestic airspace for commercial UAV operations.

"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 restrictions.


(Reporting by Bijoy Koyitty

and Soham Chatterjee in Bangalore;

Editing by Ian Geoghegan)

    Drone makers seek out new targets, NYT, 23.9.2011,






As U.S. wars wind down,

drones gain new prominence


WASHINGTON | Fri Jul 15, 2011
1:13am EDT
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 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."



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.



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)

    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


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 and Afghanistan.

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 “gold-plated” solutions.

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 months.

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 2001.

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 Mathewson said.

It is easier, of course, for the military to take more risks with unmanned planes.

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 shortages.

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 a missile.

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 up.

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 using force.

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





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 resident said.

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 Afghanistan border.

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 Mr. Haqqani.

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 desired results.”

Jane Perlez and Ismail Khan

reported from Peshawar, Pakistan,

and Pir Zubair Shah reported from Islamabad.

U.S. Drone Kills 20 in Pakistan,










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