For its part, the United States initially claimed that its military had lost the drone while it was on a mission in western Afghanistan. Later, unnamed officials admitted that the CIA had, in fact, been conducting a covert spy operation over Iran.
The drone crash that led this piece did occur in Afghanistan -- Kandahar, to be precise -- in May of this year. It went unreported at the time and involved not a sleek, bat-winged RQ-170 Sentinel, but the older, clunkier, if more famous, MQ-1 Predator, a workhorse hunter/killer machine of the Afghan war and the CIA's drone assassination campaign in the Pakistani tribal borderlands.
A document detailing a U.S. Air Force investigation of that Predator crash, examined by TomDispatch, sheds light on the lifecycle and flaws of drones -- just what can go wrong in unmanned air operations -- as well as the shadowy system of bases and units scattered across the globe that keep those drones constantly in the skies as the U.S. becomes ever more reliant on remote-controlled warfare.
That report and striking new statistics obtained from the military offer insights into underexamined flaws in drone technology. They are also a reminder of the failure of journalists to move beyond awe when it comes to high-tech warfare and America's latest wonder weapons -- their curious inability to examine the stark limitations of man and machine that can send even the most advanced military technology hurtling to Earth.
According to statistics provided to TomDispatch by the Air Force, Predators have flown the lion's share of hours in America's drone wars. As of October 1st, MQ-1's had spent more than 1 million hours in the air, 965,000 of those in "combat," since being introduced into military service. The newer, more heavily armed MQ-9 Reaper, by comparison, has flown 215,000 hours, 180,000 of them in combat. (The Air Force refuses to release information about the workload of the RQ-170 Sentinel.) And these numbers continue to rise. This year alone, Predators have logged 228,000 flight hours compared to 190,000 in 2010.
An analysis of official Air Force data conducted by TomDispatch indicates that its drones crashed in spectacular fashion no less than 13 times in 2011, including that May 5th crash in Kandahar.
About half of those mishaps, all resulting in the loss of an aircraft or property damage of $2 million or more, occurred in Afghanistan or in the tiny African nation of Djibouti, which serves as a base for drones involved in the U.S. secret wars in Somalia and Yemen. All but two of the incidents involved the MQ-1 model, and four of them took place in May.
In 2010, there were seven major drone mishaps, all but one involving Predators; in 2009, there were 11. In other words, there have been 31 drone losses in three years, none apparently shot down, all diving into the planet of their own mechanical accord or thanks to human error.
Other publicized drone crashes, like a remotely-operated Navy helicopter that went down in Libya in June and an unmanned aerial vehicle whose camera was reportedly taken by Afghan insurgents after a crash in August, as well as the December 4th loss of the RQ-180 in Iran and an even more recent crash of a MQ-9 in the Seychelles, are not included in the Air Force's major accident statistics for the year.
The United States currently runs its drone war from 60 or more bases scattered across the globe. They range from sites in the American southwest with lines of trailers where drone pilots "fly" such aircraft via computer to those far closer to the battlefield where other pilots -- seated before a similar set up, including multiple computer monitors, keyboards, a joystick, a throttle, a rollerball, a mouse, and various switches -- launch and land the drones. On other bases, aspiring drone pilots are trained on simulators and the planes themselves are tested before being sent to distant battlefields.
The May 5th Predator crash about a half-mile short of a runway at Kandahar Air Field drives home just how diffuse drone operations have become, with multiple units and multiple bases playing a role in a single mission.
That Predator drone, for example, was an asset of the 3rd Special Operations Squadron, which operates out of Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico, and ultimately is part of Air Force Special Operations Command, based at Hurlburt Field in Florida. When it crashed, it was being flown by an in-country pilot from the 62nd Expeditionary Squadron at Kandahar Air Field, whose parent unit, the 18th Reconnaissance Squadron, makes its home at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, ground zero for the military's drone operations. The crewman operating the sensors on the drone, on the other hand, was a member of the Texas Air National Guard based at Ellington Field in Texas.
The final leg of the doomed mission -- in support of elite special operations forces -- was being carried out by a pilot who had been operating Predators for about 10 months and had flown drones for approximately 51 hours over the previous 90 days. With less than 400 total hours under his belt, he was considered "inexperienced" by Air Force standards and, during his drone launch and recovery training, had failed two simulator sessions and one flying exercise. He had, however, excelled academically, passed his evaluations, and was considered a qualified MQ-1 pilot, cleared to fly without supervision.
His sensor operator had been qualified by the Air Force for the better part of two years, with average or above average ratings in performance evaluations. Having "flown" a total of 677 hours -- close to 50 of them in the 90 days before the crash -- he was considered "experienced."