January 2012, Week 3


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Mon, 16 Jan 2012 21:26:37 -0500
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The Crash and Burn Future of Robot Warfare: What
Seventy Downed Drones Tell Us About the New American
Way of War 

by: Nick Turse
Monday 16 January 2012 

TomDispatch | News Analysis


A member of the 214th Reconnaissance Group flies a
Predator aircraft drone in support of ground troops in
Iraq and Afghanistan at Davis-Monthan Air Base in
Tucson, March 10, 2009. (Photo: Jim Wilson / The New
York Times)

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

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

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

How missions are carried out -- and sometimes fail --
is apparent from the declassified reports, including
one provided to TomDispatch by the Air Force detailing
a June 2011 crash.  Late that month, a Predator drone
took off from Jalalabad Air Base in Afghanistan to
carry out a surveillance mission in support of ground
forces.  Piloted by a member of the 432nd Air
Expeditionary Wing out of Whiteman Air Force Base in
Missouri, the robotic craft ran into rough weather,
causing the pilot to ask for permission to abandon the
troops below.

His commander never had a chance to respond.  Lacking
weather avoidance equipment found on more sophisticated
aircraft or on-board sensors to clue the pilot in to
rapidly deteriorating weather conditions, and with a
sandstorm interfering with ground radar, "severe
weather effects" overtook the Predator.  In an instant,
the satellite link between pilot and plane was severed.
 When it momentarily flickered back to life, the crew
could see that the drone was in an extreme nosedive. 
They then lost the datalink for a second and final
time.  A few minutes later, troops on the ground
radioed in to say that the $4 million drone had crashed
near them.

A month earlier, a Predator drone took off from the
tiny African nation of Djibouti in support of Operation
Enduring Freedom, which includes operations in
Afghanistan as well as Yemen, Djibouti, and Somalia,
among other nations.  According to documents obtained
via the Freedom of Information Act, about eight hours
into the flight, the mission crew noticed a slow oil
leak.  Ten hours later, they handed the drone off to a
local aircrew whose assignment was to land it at
Djibouti's Ambouli Airport, a joint civilian/military
facility adjacent to Camp Lemonier, a U.S. base in the

That mission crew -- both the pilot and sensor operator
-- had been deployed from Creech Air Force Base in
Nevada and had logged a combined 1,700 hours flying
Predators.  They were considered "experienced" by the
Air Force.  On this day, however, the electronic
sensors that measure their drone's altitude were
inaccurate, while low clouds and high humidity affected
its infrared sensors and set the stage for disaster.

An investigation eventually found that, had the crew
performed proper instrument cross-checks, they would
have noticed a 300-400 foot discrepancy in their
altitude.  Instead, only when the RPA broke through the
clouds did the sensor operator realize just how close
to the ground it was.  Six seconds later, the drone
crashed to earth, destroying itself and one of its
Hellfire missiles.

Storms, clouds, humidity, and human error aren't the
only natural dangers for drones.  In a November 2008
incident, a mission crew at Kandahar Air Field launched
a Predator on a windy day.  Just five minutes into the
flight, with the aircraft still above the sprawling
American mega-base, the pilot realized that the plane
had already deviated from its intended course.  To get
it back on track, he initiated a turn that -- due to
the aggressive nature of the maneuver, wind conditions,
drone design, and the unbalanced weight of a missile on
just one wing -- sent the plane into a roll. Despite
the pilot's best efforts, the craft entered a tailspin,
crashed on the base, and burst into flames.

Going Rogue

On occasion, RPAs have simply escaped from human
control.  Over the course of eight hours on a late
February day in 2009, for example, five different crews
passed off the controls of a Predator drone, one to the
next, as it flew over Iraq.  Suddenly, without warning,
the last of them, members of the North Dakota Air
National Guard at Hector International Airport in
Fargo, lost communication with the plane.  At that
point no one -- not the pilot, nor the sensor operator,
nor a local mission crew -- knew where the drone was or
what it was doing.  Neither transmitting nor receiving
data or commands, it had, in effect, gone rogue.  Only
later was it determined that a datalink failure had
triggered the drone's self-destruct mechanism, sending
it into an unrecoverable tailspin and crash within 10
minutes of escaping human control.

In November 2009, a Predator launched from Kandahar Air
Field in Afghanistan lost touch with its human handlers
20 minutes after takeoff and simply disappeared.  When
the mission crew was unable to raise the drone,
datalink specialists were brought in but failed to find
the errant plane.  Meanwhile, air traffic controllers,
who had lost the plane on radar, could not even locate
its transponder signal.  Numerous efforts to make
contact failed.  Two days later, at the moment the
drone would have run out of fuel, the Air Force
declared the Predator "lost."  It took eight days for
its wreckage to be located.

Crash Course

In mid-August 2004, while drone operations in the
Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility were
running at high tempo, a Predator mission crew began
hearing a cascade of warning alarms indicating engine
and alternator failure, as well as a possible engine
fire.  When the sensor operator used his camera to scan
the aircraft, it didn't take long to spot the problem. 
Its tail had burst into flames.  Shortly afterward, it
became uncontrollable and crashed.

In January 2007, a Predator drone was flying somewhere
in the CENTCOM region (above one of 20 countries in the
Greater Middle East).  About 14 hours into a 20-hour
mission, the aircraft began to falter.  For 15 minutes
its engine was failing, but the information it was
sending back remained within normal parameters, so the
mission crew failed to notice.  Only at the last minute
did they become aware that their drone was dying.  As
an investigation later determined, an expanding crack
in the drone's crankshaft caused the engine to seize
up.  The pilot put the aircraft into a glide toward an
unpopulated area.  Higher headquarters then directed
that he should intentionally crash it, since a rapid
reaction force would not be able to reach it quickly
and it was carrying two Hellfire missiles as well as
unspecified "classified equipment."  Days later, its
remains were recovered.

The Crash and Burn Future of Robot Warfare

In spite of all the technical limitations of
remote-controlled war spelled out in the Air Force
investigation files, the U.S. is doubling down on
drones.  Under the president's new military strategy,
the Air Force is projected to see its share of the
budgetary pie rise and flying robots are expected to be
a major part of that expansion.

Already, counting the Army's thousands of tiny drones,
one in three military aircraft -- close to 7,500
machines -- are robots.  According to official figures
provided to TomDispatch, roughly 285 of them are Air
Force Predator, Reaper, or Global Hawk drones.  The Air
Force's arsenal also includes more advanced Sentinels,
Avengers, and other classified unmanned aircraft.  A
report published by the Congressional Budget Office
last year, revealed that "the Department of Defense
plans to purchase about 730 new medium-sized and large
unmanned aircraft systems" during the next 10 years.

Over the last decade, the United States has
increasingly turned to drones in an effort to win its
wars.  The Air Force investigation files examined by
TomDispatch suggest a more extensive use of drones in
Iraq than has previously been reported.  But in Iraq,
as in Afghanistan, America's preeminent wonder weapon
failed to bring the U.S. mission anywhere close to
victory.  Effective as the spearhead of a program to
cripple al-Qaeda in Pakistan, drone warfare in that
country's tribal borderlands has also alienated almost
the entire population of 190 million.  In other words,
an estimated 2,000 suspected or identified guerrillas
(as well as untold numbers of civilians) died.  The
populace of a key American ally grew ever more hostile
and no one knows how many new militants in search of
revenge the drone strikes may have created, though the
numbers are believed to be significant.

Despite a decade of technological, tactical, and
strategic refinements and improvements, Air Force and
allied CIA personnel watching computer monitors in
distant locations have continually failed to
discriminate between armed combatants and innocent
civilians and, as a result, the judge-jury-executioner
drone assassination program is widely considered to
have run afoul of international law.

In addition, drone warfare seems to be creating a
sinister system of embedded economic incentives that
may lead to increasing casualty figures on the ground. 
"In some targeting programs, staffers have review
quotas -- that is, they must review a certain number of
possible targets per given length of time," The
Atlantic's Joshua Foust recently wrote of the private
contractors involved in the process.  "Because they are
contractors," he explains, "their continued employment
depends on their ability to satisfy the stated
performance metrics. So they have a financial incentive
to make life-or-death decisions about possible kill
targets just to stay employed. This should be an
intolerable situation, but because the system lacks
transparency or outside review it is almost impossible
to monitor or alter."

As flight hours rise year by year, these stark
drawbacks are compounded by a series of technical
glitches and vulnerabilities that are ever more
regularly coming to light.  These include: 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," a friendly fire incident in
which drone operators killed two U.S. military
personnel, increasing numbers of crashes, and the
possibility of an Iranian drone-hijacking, as well as
those more than 70 catastrophic mishaps detailed in Air
Force accident investigation documents.

Over the last decade, a more-is-better mentality has
led to increased numbers of drones, drone bases, drone
pilots, and drone victims, but not much else.  Drones
may be effective in terms of generating body counts,
but they appear to be even more successful in
generating animosity and creating enemies.

The Air Force's accident reports are replete with
evidence of the flaws inherent in drone technology, and
there can be little doubt that, in the future, ever
more will come to light.  A decade's worth of futility
suggests that drone warfare itself may already be
crashing and burning, yet it seems destined that the
skies will fill with drones and that the future will
bring more of the same.


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