Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Drone Warfare; The Unblinking Eye

From our regular contributor, Dr Hamid Hussain.

The Unblinking Eye
Hamid Hussain

“With the monstrous weapons man already has, humanity is in danger of being trapped in this world by its moral adolescents”.  General Omar Bradley

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) commonly known as drone is the most open secret of modern warfare.  UAV is primarily an intelligence platform but use of armed drones for target killing generates heated debate in public.  Opponents of armed drones consider it an indiscriminate killer while proponents claim that this is the cleanest way of eliminating opponents.  In the last fifteen years, information about several aspects of drone operations has become available to sketch a reasonable picture. In the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, U.S. intelligence community was busy capturing terrorists from all over the globe.  Existing legal system was seen as inadequate therefore detainees were kept at ‘black sites’ all over the globe. Several alleged prisoner abuse scandals sent shock waves and ‘jailers’ got a pretty bad name.  If you can’t jail the bad guys then the only other option is to eliminate them.  This is how the drone warfare started and then rapidly expanded.

In the last fifteen years, drones have evolved.  Initially drones were used for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and later some were weaponized for targeted strikes.  A number of unmanned aerial systems are operated by all branches of armed forces but Predator and Reaper became famous.  Army uses Hunter, Pointer, Raven and Shadow, air force uses Desert Hawk and Marine Corps uses Pioneer and Dragon Eye.

MQ-1 B Predator’s primary mission is ISR.  It is also armed with two AGM-114 Hellfire missiles (each missile costing $99’000).  MQ-1C Gray Eagle is advanced version with increased endurance, updated electronic equipment and armed with four Hellfire missiles. Unit cost of this bird is $4.98 million. MQ-1C will eventually replace MQ-1B.  MQ-9 Reaper is a larger version with double the speed of Predator and better surveillance and targeting systems.  It is armed with four AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, two 500 pound GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) or two GBU-12 Paveway II laser guided bombs. The unit cost of this exotic bird is $13.7 million and maintenance cost about $5 million per year.

UAV is a two operator craft with one piloting the aircraft and the other operating sensors.  Hellfire missile can be fired in several different modes depending on the location of the target.  Direct strike mode takes missile directly to the target and high mode drops missile vertically down on a target.  In indirect mode, missile dives to earth and then in low trajectory skims earth surface to hit the target under cover. UAVs need ground support systems that collect, analyze and process incoming data, disseminate to other entities and then direct strikes on specific targets. Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver (ROVER) used by soldiers on the ground can see the Predator feed in real time.

In the early season of hunting, CIA operated Predators and coordinated with Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).  Air Force, army and CIA waged some tough turf battles about who would control these new birds.  When it was suggested that all UAVs should be placed under air force command, army pushed back arguing that its own UAVs were now integral parts of the division.  A high level ISR task force was established at Pentagon to address these conflicts.  In the end, army ended up keeping Gray Eagle and Air Force getting Reaper. However, a percentage of drones controlled by air force are operated by CIA.  Inside CIA, there was also a fight between its paramilitary section known as Special Activities Division (SAD) and Counter Terrorism Center (CTC) over control of drones. In the end CTC got control over drones and eventually became the most powerful division. It rapidly expanded with a large budget and ever increasing number of personnel.  Anyone aspiring to climb the career ladder was rushing in for a stint at CTC.  Director of CTC became a powerful player inside and outside the agency. In 2006, a new director who was a convert to Islam and a strong proponent of assassination program took over. He served for long due to his connections with White House and Capitol Hill despite clashes with colleagues including director of the CIA.

A ‘targeted strike’ is elimination of a known high value target after prolonged surveillance.  A ‘signature strike’ is not a confirmed strike on a known target but simply targeting a suspicious activity. When it became evident that after the first strike, militants sealed off the area to hide the identity of the killed and therefore the initial crowd after the strike only consisted of bad guys, a new tactic of ‘follow up strike’ also called ‘double tap’ was implemented. Initially strikes were directed at buildings that inevitably resulted in death of civilians inhabiting the same building.  When pressure mounted regarding deaths of civilians, the process was refined and more strikes were directed at vehicles to avoid civilian casualties.

President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were executives before coming to White House while President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden are lawyers. The difference between Bush and Obama White House was difference between corporate and attorney cultures.  In case of drone warfare, Bush made the decision and let the agencies work out details.  When CIA needed legal cover, Bush would provide them necessary legal cover.  Obama looked at the problem with the eye of an attorney and first put in place all legal elements and then sat on top of the food chain personally signing off on almost all drone strikes.

Three days after his inauguration, President Obama authorized two drone strikes in North and South Waziristan. These were not directed at a high value target and several civilians were killed.  CIA director Michael Hayden went to White House to explain ‘signature strikes’ and Obama was not happy. He overhauled the whole process of selection and targeting.  Now, a whole bureaucracy nick named ‘Kill Chain’ is involved in the process.  The first part is ‘developing the target’ where intelligence community provides all the information about the target and risks it poses to U.S. national security. The second ‘authorization process’ starts from regional command and moves to Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC), Secretary of Defence, Principles Committee of National Security (consisting of National Security Advisor, CJCSC, Attorney General, Advisor of Counter Terrorism, Director National Intelligence, Secretaries of State, Defence, Homeland Security, Treasury, Ambassador to United Nations and White House Chief of Staff) and finally the President.  Final authorization has an expiration date of sixty days and if target is not eliminated in this time period the process starts all over again.  This gives a hint that there may be pressure on those executing the order to hit the target before the expiration date and in this rush ‘certainty’ bar may be lowered resulting in wrong strikes and death of civilians.

President Obama is a fan of St. Thomas Aquinas and his theory of just war is based on theory expounded by Aquinas. According to Aquinas, three requisites of a just war are authority of the prince, a just cause such as avenging an injury and a right intention of promoting good and avoiding evil. However, President Obama conveniently forgot other advice of Aquinas about excesses of war warning about “eagerness to hurt, bloodthirsty desire for revenge, an untamed and unforgiving temper, ferocity in renewing the struggle”. This was the case in many strikes in Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) of Pakistan where frustration, anger and revenge took precedence over use of a tactical weapon based on a meticulous and thoughtful strategy.

The case of Lebanese born British citizen Bilal Berjawi is a good case study to understand the new face of modern warfare.  He was travelling to Kenya and Somalia and attending all militant pow wows.  Berjawi was under British surveillance for over four years. From all the evidence collected over the years, it was quite clear that he had gone to the ‘dark side’.  However, he had not yet committed any crime and couldn’t be charged under existing laws. One the other hand from the profile developed over the years, it was clear that he will commit some violent act possibly in Britain.  In September 2010, Britain revoked his nationality and in January 2012, he was killed by a U.S. drone strike on his vehicle in Somalia.  After his death, militant group issued a statement confirming that he was a senior al-Qaeda commander in Somalia and released a video about plan of a suicide mission by Berjawi. Proponents and opponents of use of drones can study this case and suggest how these tricky issues can be addressed.

When any new weapon system is introduced, there is a risk of ‘infatuation’ resulting in overuse and runaway costs.  In April 2008, during the battle for Sadar City against a Shia militia, one army brigade was supported by two Predators from air force, two drones operated by Special Forces and several Shadow and Ravens of army. This was in addition to several manned platforms including intelligence aircrafts, U-2; six Apache attack helicopters and national satellite network.  Each party has a vested interest to exaggerate its importance in the battle therefore it is crucial to have independent supervision and audit. In addition, ‘obsession’ with the toy can cloud the judgment about the weakness of the system.  Feeds from the drones can be hacked by the third party and it was recently disclosed that United Kingdom and United States were able to hack the feeds from Israeli drones and watching feeds in real time. There are also serious issues about the stability of Reaper drones during flight and an unprecedented twenty Reapers crashed in 2015. Only money is burned in a crashed drone and no human life is lost but that should not be the case for complacency.

Earlier versions of drones carried a very small price tag compared to high ticket items such as fighter jets therefore major defense contractors had very little interest in the project.  However, when Pentagon bureaucracy fell in love with this new toy and willing to dole any amount of money, then major defense contractors jumped on the bandwagon with the thought that if they can make drones bigger and expensive as well as get into the support services business then it is worth the effort.  In 2008, a new ISR task force was established with acquisition authority.  In four years, the task force spent $10 billion.

Northrop Grumman manufactured Global Hawk at the cost of $300 million per piece.  Northrop also made two delta winged X-47 B for navy to be operated from an aircraft carrier at the cost of $1.7 billion. Battlefield Airborne Communication Node (BACN) covers areas out of range of normal systems. This was specific for mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Bombardier business jet was converted into an ISR platform.  Northrop Grumman got a $250 million contract for three BACN Bombardiers. Global Hawks were also fitted with BACN (EQ-4) by Northrop Grumman and fifty birds cost a staggering $10 billion.  Raytheon manufactures sensors and radars for the UAVs.  It provided Enhanced Integrated Sensor Suite (EISS) for Global Hawk. Initial cost estimate of $10 million skyrocketed to $233 million per copy. A stealth drone RQ-170 manufactured by Lockheed Martin is secret therefore cost is not publicly available but some estimates put the price tag at $200 million per copy.  

UAVs are only platforms and support systems are very costly.  Distributed Common Ground Systems (DCGS) is the nerve center and air force DCGS was primarily supporting airstrikes.  Other services also jumped in and army instituted its own DCGS-A at the cost of $2.3 billion and navy is not behind to create its own DCGS-N.  Air Force started to expand its ground networks supporting UAV missions called ‘reach back sites’.  EUR-I in Germany supports missions in Asia and Central Asia, EUR-2 in Italy for missions in Africa, PAC-1 at Kadena Air Force base in Japan and PAC-2 in Pacific Ocean for UAV flights over South East Asia and South China Sea.

Every system needs a cost benefit analysis as money cannot be thrown in a bucket with no bottom.  In one case, six hellfire missiles from Cobra attack helicopters and five from Predators were used to kill about a dozen low level foot soldiers in al-Qaim on Iraq-Syria border. Each Hellfire costs $ 99’000 and simple math tells us that one million dollar worth of ammunition was dropped on a dozen low level foot soldiers.  In another case, two GBU-12 bombs; each carrying a five hundred pound warhead and each with a price tag of $19’000 were dropped on two people in two tents in a remote area in Kunar in Afghanistan.  Only one bomb exploded while other was a dud but incidentally dropped directly on one tent killing its occupant. They forgot President Bush’s promise in September 2001 that “when I take action, I'm not going to fire a $2 million missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt”.

Drone is a tool of warfare like tanks, artillery and jet planes and like any instrument of war has its benefits and side effects.  It is easy to be mesmerized by a new war toy and loose the bigger picture.  On the other hand, it is also easy to denounce the tool because of its side effects or misuse.  UAV is an excellent ISR platform and there is enough proof that compared to all other options, armed drones had the major impact on disrupting militant activities in Pakistan’s tribal areas especially taking out high value targets.  However, it is also true that a large number of civilians were also killed.  In my view it was overused thus negating many of its benefits.  I think only about twenty five to thirty percent of the strikes were successful removing important leader’s especially foreign militants.  Killing of two to three hundred foot soldiers which could be easily replaced didn’t serve any strategic purpose.

A tactical weapon has an impact on strategy and just like introduction of artillery, tanks and fighter jets had an impact on the larger strategic canvass of the art of war, drones will also have a similar impact.  Like tactical nuclear weapons, the production and deployment of drones is going at a fast pace before its role in strategy is figured out.  Another area of concern is rapid escalation of cost and now all major defense contractors are in the game putting out products with marginal benefits but with an astronomical price tag.  This is right time for adult supervision at Pentagon to prevent establishment of another behemoth drone bureaucracy that can eventually become ‘too big to fail’. In addition to the military aspect, a broader discussion about legal, ethical and moral aspects need to involve broader segments of the society. UAV will ultimately settle down as ISR platform with marked reduction of use of armed drones.


- For specifics of Predator and Reaper, see air force fact sheets; http://www.af.mil/AboutUs/FactSheets/Display/tabid/224/Article/104470/mq-9-reaper.aspx
- http://www.af.mil/AboutUs/FactSheets/Display/tabid/224/Article/104469/mq-1b-predator.aspx

- The Drone Papers.  The Intercept,  https://theintercept.com/drone-papers/

- Lt. Colonel T. Mark McCurley and Kevin Maurer.  Hunter Killer: Inside America’s Unmanned Air War (New York: Dutton, 2015)

- William M. Arkin.  Unmanned: Drones, Data and the Illusion of Perfect Warfare (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2015)

- Andre Cockburn.  Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins (New York Henry Holt and Company, 2015)

- Chris Woods. Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015)

- Richard Whittle. Predator: The Secret Origins of Drone Revolution

- Jeremy Scahill.  Dirty Wars: The World is a battlefield (New York: Nation Books, 2013)

- Mark Mazzetti.  The Way Of The Knife (New York: The Penguin Press, 2013)

- Steve Coll.  The Unblinking Stare: The Drone War in Pakistan.  The New Yorker, November 24, 2014.

- Der Spiegel, December 04, 2013, Pakistani CIA Informant, http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/interview-pakistani-cia-informant-on-drone-warfare-and-taliban-a-937045.html

Hamid Hussain
February 27, 2016

Defence Journal, March 2016


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