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Nick Turse: Drone Disasters

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This Story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

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After almost two months in abeyance and the (possibly temporary) loss of Shamsi Air Base for its air war, the CIA is again cranking up its drone operations in the Pakistani tribal borderlands.  The first two attacks of 2012 were launched within 48 hours of each other, reportedly killing 10 ___s, and wounding at least four ___s.  Yes, that's right, the U.S. is killing ___s in Pakistan.  These days, the dead there are regularly identified in press accounts as "militants" or "suspected militants" and often, quoting never-named Pakistani or other "intelligence sources," as "foreigners" or "non-Pakistanis."  They just about never have names, and the CIA's robots never get close enough to their charred bodies to do whatever would be the dehumanizing techno-equivalent of urinating on them. 

It all sounds so relatively clean.  Last year, there were 75 such clean attacks, 303 since 2004, killing possibly thousands of ___s in those borderlands.  In fact, the world of death and destruction always tends to look clean and "precise" -- if you keep your distance, if you remain in the heavens like the implacable gods of yore or thousands of miles from your targets like the "pilots" of these robotic planes and the policymakers who dispatch them. 

On the ground, things are of course far messier, nastier, more disturbingly human.  The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism has estimated that U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan have, over the years, killed at least 168 children.  In a roiled and roiling situation in that country, with the military and the civilian government at odds, with coup rumors in the air and borders still closed to U.S. Afghan War supplies (since an "incident" in which American air strikes killed up to 26 Pakistani troops), the deeply unpopular drone attacks only heighten tensions.  Whomever they may kill -- including al-Qaeda figures -- they also intensify anger and make the situation worse in the name of making it better.  They are, by their nature, blowback weapons and their image of high-tech, war-winning precision here in the U.S. undoubtedly has an instant blowback effect on those who loose them.  The drones can't help but offer them a dangerous and deceptive feeling of omnipotence, a feeling that -- legality be damned -- anything is possible.

If, as Nick Turse has long been arguing in his reportage on our latest wonder weapons, drones are, in the end, counterproductive tools of war, this has yet to sink in here.  After all, our military planners are now projecting an investment of at least $40 billion in the burgeoning drone industry over the next decade for more than 700 medium- and large-size drones (and who knows how much is to go into smaller versions of the same).

Turse's work on drones in his TomDispatch series on the changing face of empire relies on seldom noted realities hidden away in U.S. Air Force documents.  He has a way of bringing the robotic planes down to earth.  They are, as he has written, wonder weapons with wings of clay. (To catch Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Turse discusses why drone warfare is anything but failure-proof, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

The Crash and Burn Future of Robot Warfare
What 70 Downed Drones Tell Us About the New American Way of War
By Nick Turse

American fighter jets screamed over the Iraqi countryside heading for the MQ-1 Predator drone, while its crew in California stood by helplessly.  What had begun as an ordinary reconnaissance mission was now taking a ruinous turn.  In an instant, the jets attacked and then it was all over.  The Predator, one of the Air Force's workhorse hunter/killer robots, had been obliterated.

An account of the spectacular end of that nearly $4 million drone in November 2007 is contained in a collection of Air Force accident investigation documents recently examined by TomDispatch.  They catalog more than 70 catastrophic Air Force drone mishaps since 2000, each resulting in the loss of an aircraft or property damage of $2 million or more. 

These official reports, some obtained by TomDispatch through the Freedom of Information Act, offer new insights into a largely covert, yet highly touted war-fighting, assassination, and spy program involving armed robots that are significantly less reliable than previously acknowledged.  These planes, the latest wonder weapons in the U.S. military arsenal, are tested, launched, and piloted from a shadowy network of more than 60 bases spread around the globe, often in support of elite teams of special operations forces.  Collectively, the Air Force documents offer a remarkable portrait of modern drone warfare, one rarely found in a decade of generally triumphalist or awestruck press accounts that seldom mention the limitations of drones, much less their mission failures.

The aerial disasters described draw attention not only to the technical limitations of drone warfare, but to larger conceptual flaws inherent in such operations.  Launched and landed by aircrews close to battlefields in places like Afghanistan, the drones are controlled during missions by pilots and sensor operators -- often multiple teams over many hours -- from bases in places like Nevada and North Dakota.  They are sometimes also monitored by "screeners" from private security contractors at stateside bases like Hurlburt Field in Florida.  (A recent McClatchy report revealed that it takes nearly 170 people to keep a single Predator in the air for 24 hours.)

In other words, drone missions, like the robots themselves, have many moving parts and much, it turns out, can and does go wrong.  In that November 2007 Predator incident in Iraq, for instance, an electronic failure caused the robotic aircraft to engage its self-destruct mechanism and crash, after which U.S. jets destroyed the wreckage to prevent it from falling into enemy hands.  In other cases, drones -- officially known as remotely piloted aircraft, or RPAs -- broke down, escaped human control and oversight, or self-destructed for reasons ranging from pilot error and bad weather to mechanical failure in Afghanistan, Djibouti, the Gulf of Aden, Iraq, Kuwait, and various other unspecified or classified foreign locations, as well as in the United States.

In 2001, Air Force Predator drones flew 7,500 hours.  By the close of last year, that number topped 70,000.  As the tempo of robotic air operations has steadily increased, crashes have, not surprisingly, become more frequent.  In 2001, just two Air Force drones were destroyed in accidents.  In 2008, eight drones fell from the sky.  Last year, the number reached 13.  (Accident rates are, however, dropping according to an Air Force report relying on figures from 2009.)

Keep in mind that the 70-plus accidents recorded in those Air Force documents represent only drone crashes investigated by the Air Force under a rigid set of rules. Many other drone mishaps have not been included in the Air Force statistics.  Examples include a haywire MQ-9 Reaper drone that had to be shot out of the Afghan skies by a fighter jet in 2009, a remotely-operated Navy helicopter that went down in Libya last June, an unmanned aerial vehicle whose camera was reportedly taken by Afghan insurgents after a crash in August 2011, an advanced RQ-170 Sentinel lost during a spy mission in Iran last December, and the recent crash of an MQ-9 Reaper in the Seychelles Islands.

You Don't Need a Weatherman... Or Do You?

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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the technology could have some peaceful purposes, ... by molly cruz on Tuesday, Jan 17, 2012 at 3:01:14 PM
A drone doesn't have a family that gets upset when... by Arend Rietkerk on Tuesday, Jan 17, 2012 at 6:31:47 PM