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Tomgram: Nick Turse, The Life and Death of American Drones

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Headlined to H3 12/20/11

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The fact that the duo were controlling a special operations drone highlights the increasingly strong and symbiotic relationship between America's two recently ascendant forms of warfare: raids by small teams of elite forces and attacks by remote-controlled robots.

The Life and Death of American Drones

During the post-crash investigation, it was determined that the ground crew in Afghanistan had been regularly using an unauthorized method of draining engine coolant, though it was unclear whether this contributed to the crash.  Investigation documents further indicate that the drone's engine had 851 hours of flight time and so was nearing the end of the line.  (The operational lifespan of a Predator drone engine is reportedly around 1,080 hours.)

Following the crash, the engine was shipped to a California test facility, where technicians from General Atomics, the maker of the Predator, carried out a forensic investigation.  Significant overheating had, it was discovered, warped and deformed the machinery.

Eventually, the Air Force ruled that a cooling system malfunction had led to engine failure.  An accident investigator also concluded that the pilot had not executed proper procedures after the engine failure, causing the craft to crash just short of the runway, slightly damaging the perimeter fence at Kandahar Air Field and destroying the drone. 

The clear conclusion reached by accident investigators in this crash stands in stark contrast to the murkiness of what happened to the advanced drone now in Iranian hands.  Whether the latter crashed thanks to a malfunction, was shot down, felled by a cyber-attack, or ended up on the ground for some other reason entirely, its loss and that of the special ops drone are reminders of just how reliant the U.S. military has become on high-tech robot planes whose major accidents now exceed those of much more expensive fixed-wing aircraft.  (There were 10 major airborne mishaps involving such Air Force aircraft in 2011.)

Robot War: 2012 and Beyond

The failure to achieve victory in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with a perceived success in the Libyan war -- significantly fought with airpower including drones -- has convinced many in the military not to abandon foreign wars, but to change their approach.  Long-term occupations involving tens of thousands of troops and the use of counterinsurgency tactics are to be traded in for drone and special forces operations.

Remotely piloted aircraft have regularly been touted, in the press and the military, as wonder weapons, the way, not so long ago, counterinsurgency tactics were being promoted as an elixir for military failure.  Like the airplane, the tank, and nuclear weapons before it, the drone has been touted as a game-changer, destined to alter the very essence of warfare.

Instead, like the others, it has increasingly proven to be a non-game-changer of a weapon with ordinary vulnerabilities.  Its technology is fallible and its efforts have often been counterproductive in these last years.  For example, the inability of pilots watching computer monitors on the other side of the planet to discriminate between armed combatants and innocent civilians has proven a continuing problem for the military's drone operations, while the CIA's judge-jury-executioner assassination program is widely considered to have run afoul of international law -- and, in the case of Pakistan, to be alienating an entire population.  The drone increasingly looks less like a winning weapon than a machine for generating opposition and enemies.

In addition, as flight hours rise year after year, the vulnerabilities of remotely piloted missions are ever more regularly coming to light.  These have included Iraqi insurgents hacking drone video feeds, a virulent computer virus infecting the Air Force's unmanned fleet, large percentages of drone pilots suffering from "high operational stress," increasing numbers of crashes, and the possibility of Iranian drone-hijacking. 

While human and mechanical errors are inherent in the operation of any type of machinery, few commentators have focused significant attention on the full spectrum of drone flaws and limitations.  For more than a decade, remotely piloted aircraft have been a mainstay of U.S. military operations and the tempo of drone operations continues to rise yearly, but relatively little has been written about drone defects or the limits and hazards of drone operations. 

Perhaps the Air Force is beginning to worry about when this will change. After years of regularly ushering reporters through drone operations at Creech Air Force Base and getting a flood of glowing, even awestruck, publicity about the glories of drones and drone pilots, this year, without explanation, it shut down press access to the program, moving robotic warfare deeper into the shadows. 

The recent losses of the Pentagon's robot Sentinel in Iran, the Reaper in the Seychelles, and the Predator in Kandahar, however, offer a window into a future in which the global skies will be filled with drones that may prove far less wondrous than Americans have been led to believe. The United States could turn out to be relying on a fleet of robots with wings of clay.

Cross-posted from Tom Dispatch

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