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The Crash and Burn Future of Robot Warfare

What 70 downed drones tell us about the new American way of war.
 
 
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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 failures.

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 Islands.

 
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