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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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See Note for TomDispatch Readers below.


It's 10 pm.  Do you know where your drone is?

Oh, the confusion of it all!  The U.S. military now insists it was deeply befuddled when it claimed that a super-secret advanced RQ-170 Sentinel drone (aka "the beast of Kandahar") which fell into Iranian hands on December 4th -- evidently while surveying suspected nuclear sites -- was lost patrolling the Afghan border.  The military, said a spokesman, "did not have a good understanding of what was going on because it was a CIA mission."

Whatever happened, that lost drone story hit the headlines in a way that allowed everyone their Warholian 15 minutes of fame.  Dick Cheney went on the air to insist that President Obama should have sent Air Force planes into Iran to blow the grounded Sentinel to bits.  (Who cares about sparking off hostilities or sending global oil prices skyrocketing?)  President Obama formally asked for the plane's return, but somehow didn't have high hopes that the Iranians would comply.  (Check out Gary Powers and the downing of his U-2 spy plane over Russia in 1960 for a precedent.)  Defense Secretary Leon Panetta swore we would never stop our Afghan-based drone surveillance of Iran. Afghan President Hamid Karzai asked that his country be kept out of any "adversarial relations between Iran and the United States."  (Fat chance!) The Iranians, who displayed the plane, insisted proudly that they had hacked into it, "spoofed" its navigational controls, and brought it in for a relatively soft landing.  And Kim Kardashian... oops, wrong story.

All in all, it was a little robotic circus.  All three rings' worth.  Meanwhile, drones weren't having such a good time of it elsewhere either, even if no one was paying much attention.  The half-hidden drone story of the week wasn't on the Iranian side of the Afghan border, but on the Pakistani side.  There, in that country's tribal borderlands, the CIA had for years been conducting an escalating drone air campaign, hundreds of strikes, often several a week, against suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban militants.  In the wake of an "incident" in which U.S. air strikes killed 24 Pakistani troops at two border posts, however, the Pakistanis closed the border to U.S. supplies for the Afghan war (significantly increasing the cost of that conflict), kicked the U.S. out of Shamsi air base, the CIA's main drone facility in the country, and threatened to shoot down any U.S. drones over its territory.  In the process, they seem to have forced the Obama administration to shut down its covert drone air campaign.  At this point, there have been no drone attacks for almost a month.

When he was still CIA Director, Leon Panetta termed the Agency's drone campaign the "only game in town." Now it's "on hold."  ("There is concern that another hit [by the drones] will push US-Pakistan relations past the point of no return," one official told The Long War Journal. "We don't know how far we can push them [Pakistan], how much more they are willing to tolerate.")  After those hundreds of strikes and significant civilian casualties, which have helped turn the Pakistani public against the U.S. -- according to a recent poll, a staggering 97% of Pakistanis oppose the attacks -- it's a stunning reversal, however temporary and little noted. 

In other words, we've come a long way, baby, since the moment in 2001 when Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage reportedly stormed into the office of Pakistan's intelligence director and told him to either ally with Washington in the fight against al-Qaeda or prepare to be bombed "back to the Stone Age."  As the U.S. leaves Iraq with its tail between its legs, the setback in Pakistan (as in Iran) should be considered a gauge of just how little Washington's massive high-tech military edge, drones and otherwise, has been able to alter the shifting power equation on the planet.

In the latest piece in his new changing-face-of-empire series, TomDispatch Associate Editor Nick Turse explores why, despite its advocates' claims, America's newest wonder weapon will never prove a game changer.  Tom

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: "Tis the season, of course, and it's clear that some of you feel in an end-of-the-year giving mood, which is wonderful for TomDispatch and our future operations.  If others among you are suddenly gripped by the giving spirit, do visit our donation page where, for $75 or more, you can get a signed copy of my new book, The United States of Fear.  By the way, for those of you who have written in and asked, it's now available in e-book form.  Just click here to check it out.]

The Drone That Fell From the Sky
What a Busted Robot Airplane Tells Us About the American Empire in 2012 and Beyond
By Nick Turse

The drone had been in the air for close to five hours before its mission crew realized that something was wrong.  The oil temperature in the plane's turbocharger, they noticed, had risen into the "cautionary" range. An hour later, it was worse, and it just kept rising as the minutes wore on.  While the crew desperately ran through its "engine overheat" checklist trying to figure out the problem, the engine oil temperature, too, began skyrocketing.

By now, they had a full-blown in-flight emergency on their hands. "We still have control of the engine, but engine failure is imminent," the pilot announced over the radio.

Almost two hours after the first signs of distress, the engine indeed failed.  Traveling at 712 feet per minute, the drone clipped a fence before crashing.

Land of the Lost Drones

The skies seem full of falling drones these days.  The most publicized of them made headlines when Iran announced that its military had taken possession of an advanced American remotely piloted spy aircraft, thought to be an RQ-170 Sentinel. 

Questions about how the Iranians came to possess one of the U.S. military's most sophisticated pieces of equipment abound.  Iran first claimed that its forces shot the drone down after it "briefly violated" the country's eastern airspace near the Afghan border.  Later, the Islamic Republic insisted that the unmanned aerial vehicle had penetrated 150 miles before being felled by a sophisticated cyber-attack.  And just days ago, an Iranian engineer offered a more detailed, but as yet unsubstantiated, explanation of how a hack-attack hijacked the aircraft.

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