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Filling the Skies with Robot Assassins: The Drone Wars Have Begun

Hunter-killer drones armed with Hellfire missiles are patrolling the Pentagon's expanding global battlefields: It's a scene right out of Terminator.

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Assassination by Air

Speaking of controlling those skies, let's get back to UAVs. As futuristic weapons planning went, they started out pretty low-tech in the 1990s. Even today, the most commonplace of the two American armed drones, the Predator, costs only $4.5 million a pop, while the most advanced model, that Reaper -- both are produced by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems of San Diego -- comes in at $15 million. (Compare that to $350 million for a single F-22 Raptor, which has proved essentially useless in America's most recent counterinsurgency wars.) It's lucky UAVs are cheap, since they are also prone to crashing. Think of them as snowmobiles with wings that have received ever more sophisticated optics and powerful weaponry.

They came to life as surveillance tools during the wars over the former Yugoslavia, were armed by February 2001, were hastily pressed into operation in Afghanistan after 9/11, and like many weapons systems, began to evolve generationally. As they did, they developed from surveillance eyes in the sky into something far more sinister and previously restricted to terra firma : assassins. One of the earliest armed acts of a CIA-piloted Predator, back in November 2002, was an assassination mission over Yemen in which a jeep, reputedly transporting six suspected al-Qaeda operatives, was incinerated.

Today, the most advanced UAV, the Reaper, housing up to four Hellfire missiles and two 500-pound bombs, packs the sort of punch once reserved for a jet fighter. Dispatched to the skies over the farthest reaches of the American empire, powered by a 1,000-horsepower turbo prop engine at its rear, the Reaper can fly at up to 21,000 feet for up to 22 hours (until fuel runs short), streaming back live footage from three cameras (or sending it to troops on the ground) --- 16,000 hours of video a month.

No need to worry about a pilot dozing off during those 22 hours. The human crews "piloting" the drones, often from thousands of miles away, just change shifts when tired. So the planes are left to endlessly cruise Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani skies relentlessly seeking out, like so many terminators, specific enemies whose identities can, under certain circumstances -- or so the claims go -- be determined even through the walls of houses. When a "target" is found and agreed upon -- in Pakistan, the permission of Pakistani officials to fire is no longer considered necessary -- and a missile or bomb is unleashed, the cameras are so powerful that "pilots" can watch the facial expressions of those being liquidated on their computer monitors "as the bomb hits."

Approximately 5,500 UAVs, mostly unarmed -- less than 250 of them are Predators and Reapers -- now operate over Iraq and the Af-Pak (as in the Afghanistan-Pakistan) theater of operations. Part of the more-than-century-long development of war in the air, drones have become favorites of American military planners. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in particular has demanded increases in their production (and in the training of their "pilots") and urged that they be rushed in quantity into America's battle zones even before being fully perfected.

And yet, keep in mind that the UAV still remains in its (frightening) infancy. Such machines are not, of course, advanced cyborgs. They are in some ways not even all that advanced. Because someone now wants publicity for the drone-war program, reporters from the U.S. and elsewhere have recently been given "rare behind-the-scenes" looks at how it works. As a result, and also because the "covert war" in the skies over Pakistan makes Washington's secret warriors proud enough to regularly leak news of its "successes," we know something more about how our drone wars work.

 
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