By Steven R. Maher
“Unmanned Aerial Vehicles” have become the United States’ weapon of choice in the war on terror. Better known as “Predator drones”, these 8,000 remote controlled robots have devastated Al Qaeda, disrupted its chain of command, and played a large role in allowing American troops to be withdrawn from Iraq and now Afghanistan.
“According to data compiled by the New America Foundation from reliable news reports, 337 CIA drone strikes in Pakistan have killed an estimated 1,953 to 3,279 people since 2004, of which 1,526 – 2,649 were reported to be militants,” reports one Internet web site. “This means the average non-militant casualty rate over the life of the program is 18-23 percent. In 2012 it was around 10 percent, down sharply from its peak in 2006 of over 600 percent.”
“”In 2012 the USAF [United States Air Force] trained more drone pilots than ordinary jet pilots for the first time,” says Wikipedia.
What are drones made off and how do they work? What are the moral implications of “targeted killings”?
Drones were first used for high altitude surveillance in the 1990s. After 9/11, the drones were modified to include ordnance and automate the military’s “kill chain” – “find, fix, track, target, engage and assess” against high value, fleeting and time sensitive targets.
There is a large amount of Internet drone literature, including the Wikipedia entry and the U.S. Air Force web’s “fact sheets” on the nine drones in usage. Robert Valdes has published on Lafayette.edu an insightful article on drones. In an effort to convey to readers the essence of how drones operate, we boiled down the information available, summarizing data to reduce verbiage. Military acronyms are not used extensively. We concentrated on the RQ-1 predators.
“Following 2001, the RQ-1 Predator became the primary unmanned aircraft used for offensive operations by the USAF and the CIA in Afghanistan and the Pakistani tribal areas,” says Wikipedia.
The MQ1-B is an armed RQ-1. The change in designation came when the reconnaissance-purpose RQ-1 was armed with two Hellfire missiles in 2002, making it a multi-purpose device (hence the “M” re-designation). Not long afterwards, on November 2, 2002, a predator was first used outside the Afghan war drone, to kill in Yemen Qaed Senyan Al-Harthi, the Al-Qaeda commander of the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole.
“The MQ-1’s capabilities make it uniquely qualified to conduct irregular warfare Operations in support of Combatant
Commander objectives,” says the air force.
How it’s built
Operated in clusters of four, the MQ1-B is made by General Atomics Aeronautical at a fiscal 2009 cost of $20 million for four Predators, the ground control station, and the satellite link up.
The MQ-1B is two yards high, nine yards long, and with a wingspan of roughly nineteen yards. It looks smaller than it appears in pictures. Miniaturization and nano-technology allow packing this small device with much hardware.
• The front compartment contains a “Multispectral Targeting System” that includes the Hellfire missile targeting system; an electrical optical infrared system which can see through haze, smoke or clouds; a laser designator; and a laser illuminator. There is also a GPS system and an ice detector. The equipment in this section “paints the target” by shooting a laser beam, which electronically puts a bull’s eye on the object by sending a pulse from the target to the two Hellfire missiles attached to the Predator. A computer generated “firing solution” calculates the distance, trajectory, wind speed, and other variables to hit the target with pinpoint precision.
• The second compartment contains a satellite communications antenna, a videocassette recorder, the de-icer, flight sensors, a receiver/transmitter, a “friend or foe” transponder, an avionics tray, and a communications sensor.
• The next third of the drone consists of a fuel cell, fuel cell assembly, and accessory bay.
• The fourth compartment of the plane contains the engine cooling fan; the oil cooler/radiator; secondary control module; two eight pound battery backups; a power supply; and a four cylinder, 115 horsepower engine similar to the engines used to power snowmobiles. At the rear is a two-blade propeller providing the drive and lift, and attached is a rudder, which is used to navigate the vessel.
The two fuel tanks are rubberized bladders in the fore and aft sections of the Predator, capable of holding 665 pounds (100 gallons) of 100-octane gasoline. The craft is lubricated by 7.6 liters of standard oil. The de-icer operates through microscopic “weeping holes” on the wings through which an ethylene glycol solution drips out to melt ice accumulated at the 25,000 feet altitude at which the MQ-1B flies.
The rib cage, surrounding the Predator like an elongated oval shaped skeleton, is made up of carbon/glass fiber tape and aluminum. The sensor housing and wheels are aluminum, the edges of the wings titanium. Between the rib cage and operating devices is a layer of carbon and quartz fibers with a mix of Kevlar. Further insulating the components are layers of foam and wood laminate; a sturdy fabric is sandwiched between these layers.
Empty of fuel and ammunition, the MQ-1B weighs 1,130 pounds, a very light aircraft. Fueled, armed, locked and loaded with two Hellfire missiles with a 450-pound payload, the Predator weighs 2,250 pounds, still a lightweight.
How it works
A drone can be disassembled into six parts and loaded into a single container, which can be transported to a war drone in a C130 Hercules, or larger transportation aircraft. It can be reassembled in four to eight hours. It takes 82 men or women to operate one four Predator active service unit over a twenty-four hour period. The flight begins, from a minimum 5,000 feet long surfaced runway, when an operator attaches a power cord to the Predator and turns the drone on.
The MQ-1B has a range of 700 miles and a cruising speed of 135 MPH. This means it must be launched from relatively near the war drone. It takes three to operate a drone: a pilot sitting in front of a computer screen using a flight stick to guide the aircraft, and two sensor operators. The pilot can see what the Predator sees in “real time”, i.e., instantaneously.
Once out of line of sight from its take off point, a satellite transfers control to an operator in the continental United States. “[I]f a predator is lost in battle, military personnel can simply ‘crack another one out of the box’ and have it up in the air shortly – and that’s without the trauma of casualties or prisoners normally associated with an aircraft going down,” writes Valdes. For a casualty conscious military, the predators are the perfect weapons; operators are not exposed to enemy fire.
The MQ1-B then flies to a designated target area. There, it can “loiter”, sight unseen, for up to fourteen hours awaiting the arrival of the target. This means the MQ1-B can hover over a selected geographical site, fire at a target, levitate as it records the reaction to the initial strike, and then fire a second shot if the operator deems the people running to the site of the first blast are legitimate military targets.
The ability to “loiter” is critical to drone operation, and is another area being improved. On July 28, 2012 Popular Mechanics reported the success of an experiment to refuel a drone using lasers.
Laser Motive Company beamed via a “wireless extension cord” enough energy to a 17.5-pound drone to keep it aloft 48 hours – 46 hours longer than the drone can usually fly. “You’re plugging a system into a wall, taking that electricity, and converting it to a light and transmitting that light through open air to a receiver, which converts the light back into electricity,” said Laser Motive President Tom Nugent. After the laser beam test ended, the drone’s batteries held more energy than when the test began.
“With larger optics and more expensive lasers, the system’s range could be extended to hundreds of kilometers in a straight line, but the Earth’s atmosphere would limit how far away a drone could be from its power source when flying at lower altitudes,” observed Popular Mechanics. “A scaled up version of the laser charger could keep aircraft aloft indefinitely.”
Most military drones are not battery powered, and the battery size required to power a fully armed 2,250-pound MQ-1B might be considerable. So it might be some time before laser recharging of military drones becomes a reality. But when it does, another one of George Orwell’s predictions in his classic book “1984” will have come true. Orwell wrote that the scientists of the three major world powers would compete to build an “airplane as independent of its base as a ship.”
Borrowed Nixon’s strategy
The utility of drones was not fully exploited during the Presidency of George W. Bush. Until August 2008 the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, was notified in advance of drone strikes. Al-Qaeda sympathizers within the ISI tipped off the terrorists in advance of the strikes. Indeed, Bush appeared to place a higher premium on Pakistani goodwill than he did on killing Al-Qaeda high value targets. According to published reports, in 2005 U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld quashed a plan to capture Al-Qaeda’s number two man, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Rumsfeld felt that Pakistan would react too negatively.
President Barack H. Obama, as his May 1, 2011 killing of Osama Bin Laden showed, was less concerned about Pakistani goodwill. What Obama did was escalate the drone war dramatically. Obama’s overall strategy in the war against terror was borrowed from Richard M. Nixon’s Vietnam policy, something that went unnoted by mainstream historians, pundits, and columnists, who tend to be left of center.
In 1969 Nixon came to power after his predecessor got involved in a war on the Asian mainland that was draining America’s economy, bitterly dividing the country, and subjecting the United States to severe social strains – a situation comparable to the one Obama faced when he came to office forty years later, absent the financial collapse (in 1968 the U.S. did have a balanced budget).
Nixon advanced the air and naval power of the United States in Vietnam while training an indigenous force to fight the Soviet supported enemy (“Vietnamization”), simultaneous with the withdrawal of American land forces. This culminated in 1972 when Nixon blockaded North Vietnam by mining its ports, and in the controversial “Christmas bombing”, sent massive waves of B-52s to bomb the north into signing the January 1973 Paris peace accords. If Watergate had not happened and the Democratic Congress not cut off aid to South Vietnam in 1975, it is likely Vietnamization would have succeeded.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama has advanced the drones, while pulling back American troops and training local forces to fight Al-Qaeda and its affiliates. The list of drone kills compiled by the conservative web site New America, citing mainstream media reports, is most impressive (see accompanying story).
Obama has turned Afghanistan and Pakistan into an Orwellian nightmare for Al-Qaeda and affiliated groups. At any moment, death may rain down on them from the heavens. Targets of drone strikes don’t know there are Predators miles above them until the bombs start exploding. This has broken open deep fissures within the Jihadist movement, which turned paranoid in a hunt for informers.
“[P]redator strikes took such a toll on Al-Qaeda that militants began turning violently one another out of confusion and distrust,” says Wikipedia. “A senior U.S. counter-terrorism official said: ‘They have started hunting down people who they think are responsible’ for security breaches. ‘People are showing up dead, or disappearing.’”
All this makes it more difficult for Al-Qaeda to mount 9/11 style attacks inside the U.S. homeland. The group’s leaders are too busy trying to avoid Predators to spend the necessary time to organize such spectaculars.
The drone program does have its critics. Some believe that the strikes have killed too many non-combatants and others question targeted killings.
One cause of noncombatant deaths is that Al-Qaeda leaders live with their wives and children. Another is that most Predators are armed with 100-pound Hellfire missiles, ordnance capable of blowing up a tank or bunker. The military is working to reduce this problem by fitting drones with six Griffin missiles, allowing a more discriminate use of deadly force. Indeed, one of the options CIA Chief Leon Panetta gave Obama to kill Osama Bin Laden was to use a Griffin armed drone, an option rejected by Obama because he was not assured of success in hitting Bin Laden as he paced about his Abbottabad compound.
Targeted killings of opposing military leaders are as American as apple pie. Ten weeks after the Declaration of Independence, George Washington ordered a targeted killing when he sent a one-man submarine, the Turtle, to sink the HMS Eagle, the flagship of Admiral Richard Howe. The September 6, 1776 attack failed because the Turtle was unable to attach a depth charge to the Eagle. In April 1943 Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered American fighters to shoot down a plane carrying Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. This attack was successful.
The United Nations charter gives member nations the right to defend themselves. Al-Qaeda started this war. Now, the drones may end Al-Qaeda.
Partial listing of drone attacks
By Steven R. Maher
Below is a partial listing of President Barack H. Obama’s successful drone attacks targeting terrorists during his first four years in office. Most information here was cited on the web site “New America”, which cited the New York Times, Reuters, the BBC, and other mainstream media outlets as the sources of this information.
• January 1 2009 – Drone strikes killed Osama al Kini and Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan, who played central roles in the 1998 African embassy bombings that killed three hundred people. Al Kini was al-Qaeda’s chief of operations in Pakistan and Salim Swedan was his lieutenant.
• April 29, 2009 – Abu Sulayman al Jazairi, an Algerian Qaeda planner who American intelligence officials say they believe helped train operatives for attacks in Europe and the United States, was killed.
• August 5, 2009 – A drone strike killed Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan.
• September 14, 2009 – Islamic Jihad of Uzbekistan leader Nazimuddin Zalalov, a lieutenant of Osama Bin Laden, was killed by a drone strike.
• December 8, 2009 and December 17, 2012 – Drone strikes killed Saleh al-Somali, al Qaeda’s external operations chief and link between al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan and al Qaeda abroad; and Zuhaib al-Zahibi, an al Qaeda North Wazairistan comander.
• According to documents found in Osama Bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound, on some unknown date in 2009, Saad bin Laden, Osama Bin Laden’s son, was killed in a drone strike.
• Early January, 2010 – Mahmud Mahdi Zeidan, Jordanian Taliban commander was killed in a drone strike.
• February 17, 2010 – A predator killed Sheikh Mansoor, an Egyptian-Canadian al-Qaeda leader
• March 8, 2010 – Sadam Hussein Al Hussami, an al-Qaeda planner and explosives expert with contacts in Al-Qaeda in the Arabaian Pennsiular, the Afghan Taliban, and Pakistani Taliban was killed in a strike.
• May 21, 2010 – A high visibility target, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, al-Qaeda’s no. 3, was killed by a drone.
• August 14, 2010 – Amir Moawia, Taliban commander, killed in a Predator strike.
• September 26, 2010: Sheikh al-Fateh, al-Qaeda chief in Afghanistan and Pakistan, died after a drone attack.
• December 17, 2010 – Drone strike eliminates Ali Marjan, local LeI commander.
• June 3, 2011 – Ilyas Kashmiri, senior al-Qaeda commander in Pakistan, killed by a Predator.
• August 22, 2011 – High value target Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, promoted to be Al-Qaeda’s number two after the death several months early of Osama Bin Liaden, is killed by a drone.
• September 11, 2011 – Drone strike kils Abu Hafs al-Shahri, al-Qaeda’s chief of operations in Pakistan. Nineteen days later another drone kills Aleemullah (Halimullah) a senior Taliban commander.
• September 30, 2011 – American born Al-Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki is killed by a CIA operated drone.
• October 13, 2011: Janbaz Zadran, the Haqqani network’s third in command, is kiled by a drone.
• October 26, 2011 – A drone strike brings down Taj Gul Mehsud, a Taliban commander.
• October 27, 2011 – Drone strikes kill four Taliban commanders: Muhammad Khan, Hazrat Omar, Miraj Wazir and Ashfaq Wazir.
• January 10, 2012 – Aslam Awan, a senior operations organizer for al-Qaeda from Abbottabad, where Osama Bin Laden was killed by U.S. Navy Seals, is killed in a Predator attack.
• February 9, 2012 – Predator strike kills another high value target, Badar Mansoor, thought to be al-Qaeda’s most senior leader in Pakistan.
• March 13, 2012 – Drones kill two senior Taliban commanders, Shamsullah and Amir Hamza Toji Khel.
• June 4, 2012 – Abu Yahya al-Libi, al Qaeda’s new second-in-command and a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, is killed by drones.
• August 24, 2012 – Badruddin Haqqani, commander of military operations and third-in-command of the Haqqani Network dies after a drone strike.