The MasterBlog: Drones Are Weapons of Choice in Fighting Qaeda
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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Drones Are Weapons of Choice in Fighting Qaeda

March 17, 2009
Drones Are Weapons of Choice in Fighting Qaeda


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

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

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

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

"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

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

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."

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