For some reason, not one journalist saw fit to attend a gathering of those interested in Unmanned Aerial Vehicles – or drones – at the plush Waldorf Hilton in central London. Except me and my cameraman.
Perhaps one shouldn’t be surprised. The corporate media doesn’t seem too interested in the so-called surgical strikes carried out by the U.S. Air force as they buzz around the skies of Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan. No matter what the Pakistanis or the “Afghan government” says against these drone flights, President Obama and his administration are in love with drones – seemingly the universal panacea for killing the “enemy” without risking the lives of brave servicemen and women. It was back last summer when an official Afghan investigation headed by one Burhanullah Shinwari revealed that a US fighter aircraft had killed 47 civilians, including 39 women and children, as they were travelling to a wedding in Afghanistan. The groom survived but the bride died. The US military were quick to issue their initial denial that any civilians had been killed.
In Britain, one law-lord – a legal guardian in the arcane legal bureaucracy here — didn’t much like the sound of drones. Lord Bingham, the senior law-lord said to the British Institute of International and Comparative Law that drones were like landmines and cluster bombs, that they could be so “cruel as to be beyond the pale of human tolerance”.
“It may be – I’m not expressing a view – that unmanned drones that fall on a house full of civilians is a weapon the international community should decide should not be used.”
Israel, of course used them to kill Palestinian civilians during their bombardment of Gaza.
Something called the New America Foundation which doesn’t like planes with names like Predator and Reaper says that one in three people killed is a civilian and that the drone strikes have little effect in deterring terrorist activities in either Pakistan or Afghanistan.
Last June, a U.S. attack by unmanned aircraft hit the Pakistani village of Najmarai in South Waziristan and Pakistani intelligence claimed it killed up to 60 people at a funeral. Associated Press wired that Obama’s accession heralded a doubling of the number of drones operated by U.S. forces. The U.S. State Department’s Lawrence Richter, rubbished the remarks of Philip Alston, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions after his complaints about drone attacks. Alston said that the U.S. has created a “zone of impunity” and should track the number of civilians killed in its military operations abroad and limit collateral damage from unmanned drone attacks: “The government has failed to effectively investigate and punish lower-ranking soldiers for such deaths, and has not held senior officers responsible,” Alston said. “Worse, it has effectively created a zone of impunity for private contractors and civilian intelligence agents by only rarely investigating and prosecuting them.” His calls for a national commission to independently look into the policies and practices that are leading to the deaths was predictably, ignored.
Not that one would think there is much collateral damage when one interviews a man who commands the drone operators who work eight-hour shifts, five to six days a week. The lieutenant-colonel I met works at Creech Air Force Base, a little over fifty kilometers northwest of the roulette tables of Las Vegas. The base is named after General Wilbur L. “Bill” Creech, apparently known as the “Father of the Thunderbirds”, a reference not to the TV show with dolls moved by visible wires but a U.S. aerobatic team.
I talked to Lieutenant-Colonel Chris Gough of the 432d Wing that has an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Battlelab equipped with lots of laptops with attendant joysticks. He was in the ballroom at the Waldorf and like others at the meeting was upbeat. After all, Defense Secretary Gates’s new defense budget— “Aircraft Investment Plan, Fiscal Years (FY) 2011-2040,” paints a booming sector. In just ten years, the planners foresee U.S. taxpayers shelling out seven times more than they have been on drones as the numbers ordered increases six-fold. There’s also secret work ahead on an intercontinental nuclear/conventional bomber drone which will cost another couple of billion dollars. Northrup Grumman’s X-47C which increases the weight of the bombs able to be carried from five tons to 110 tons also looks interesting. However, Mark Kassner, Deputy VP of Northrop Grumman Integrated Systems was keen to stress the civilian uses of the drones – Internet shopping and delivery. Imagine the skies full of these unmanned aircraft delivering groceries and furniture to your garden or apartment building roof.
I went over to the decorated, Lieutenant-Colonel Gough and asked him a question. “You operate these systems in the battlefield. What’s it like?”
“I wouldn’t say it is immature,” Gough answered, “but it is maturing. My squadron has three combat caps, so three flights a day. We are 24-7, 365 days a year committed to the war in Afghanistan and it’s brilliant. The technologies, the architectures that are required to establish the cohesive support to the ground-fighters really are empowering. Every time my guys fly, we protect lives and we keep the bad guys on the run which is what we want to do.”
“What about the complications of the new technology talking to older aircraft?”
“The nice thing about this is that communications really are a strong point for these remotely piloted aircraft. You’ll hear these two terms: “remotely piloted” and “unmanned” – we prefer the term “remotely piloted” as language matters and it connotes that we have a lot of people in the system. On communications, there are radios on all of these aircraft. On manned aircraft, all you have is your radios. For us, we also have telephones, we have classified chat-rooms that we are using the whole time to extract information and we push that information to the end-users on the ground.”
Me: “But as for ‘classified’, the big scandal that broke months ago concerned encryption. Technology companies say they have ironed it all out and that it doesn’t take a $26 kit to look at what you are doing at Creech Air force Base.” I was referring to a Russian kit you can buy from skygrabber.com. In December, the Wall Street Journal said the U.S. the military had found “days and days and hours and hours of proof” that the feeds were being intercepted by the insurgents. Needless to say the Journal felt it necessary to quote unnamed sources who said that “some officials” concluded “that militant groups trained and funded by Iran were regularly intercepting feeds.”
Gough: “These are signals basically coming from line-of-sight communications, or from satellite communications and they are therefore subject to exploitation and there is an evolutionary argument, here. If the bad guys are going to evolve their technology, we better be a step ahead.”
Me: “But your enemy has been known to have laptops with information from your Air Force Base on it, according to the U.S. media.”
Gough: “According to U.S. media, that’s true! Now, I will say that the episodes they captured were administrative portions of flight. We have encryption algorithms that we always employ when we are taking these aircraft and using them tactically.”
Me: “There was a story in the Washington Post that the final kill order goes all the way to the top of the CIA? Is that kind of chain of command you employ? Is it a political decision?”
Gough:“No, we work purely for military channels. And so the military rules of engagement are scripted in a classified document that is issued by the commander of the air-component. SEAFAC is what we call him. He issues that down and depending on which target-sets we are empowered to engage with, or we are asked to engaged with, there will be an appropriate authorising body .“
Me: “I’m thinking of the Washington Post story in which an enemy leader in Afghanistan happened to be with his wife and it was Leon Panetta, himself, who said let’s do this – it had to be referred all the way to the top of the CIA?”
It was actually on August 5, 2009, that Baitullah Mehsud was apparently resting on the roof of his father-in-law’s house, hooked up to a drip to palliate a kidney problem. Panetta was pulled out of a White House meeting and on being told that Mehsud’s wife was also on the rooftop, giving her husband a massage, Panetta ordered the kill. Mehsud and his wife were both killed. Vowing revenge, Mehsud’s supporters within months planned a bombing at the turn of the year that killed seven CIA officers and contractors at a base in eastern Afghanistan.
“I’m unfamiliar with that specific case but I do know that if we are charged to deploy, then we do have the communications capability to allow us to talk to anybody up the chain of command that we would be required to so that we get the authorization to engage.”
Interestingly it was the New York Times that said that the company formerly known as Blackwater has taken over quite a bit of CIA business which means one could forgive the soldier for not being aware of the case. According to The Times, drones fly from hidden bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the company’s contractors assemble and load Hellfire missiles and 500-pound laser-guided bombs on remotely piloted Predator aircraft. Those drones operate out ofa remote base in Shamsi in Pakistan and one in Jalalabad in Afghanistan rather than the deserts of Nevada.
I decided to ask about the training at Creech Air Force Base and how difficult it was to learn how to target and kill with drones.
“The actual mechanization of the aircraft and the cameras actually makes it pretty simple,” Gough replied, “the challenge is taking all the information available and fusing it into something that’s usable and then practising and exercising the constraint or the lethal power to either preserve life or to prosecute an attack. And that is where the challenge really is, honing that warrior spirit — knowing when to say when.”
“What about the psychology behind it all? It’s presumably very different from actually flying in an aircraft and dropping a bomb? What does it do to your men and women?”
“Great question. What I’ve found through personal experience and I’ve been involved both in combat in manned aircraft and now in these remotely piloted aircraft is that I feel more connected with the ground fight than I ever did when I was flying over the top at 20,000 feet, the reason being that I am much involved in coordination and contact with those ground forces that are taking fire than I ever was in a F-16. Although, academically, it looks like you could make it sound like…
“A computer game?” I interrupted, “Which is, after all, the usual charge?”
“When you look at it from the outside, you could easily come to that conclusion but in fact it never occurs that way. There is an intense coordination with the ground. Through our training and the rigor of our exercising, we know that when I push the button, that I am taking life. So that is a very deliberate event and we always debrief and we always hold ourselves accountable to a very high standard and, like I said, the intense communication that we have with the ground party and the clearance authority – the authorizing agent of the strike – it comes together to create a much more tangible, much more real event, in my opinion, then I experienced when I was dropping bombs from F-16s.”
“Some U.S. personnel would certainly say it is definitely more tangible because retaliation is swift in Afghanistan where the U.S. is losing so many men and women. But what about government’s reactions to the use of UAV’s in the region. You know that politicians in Kabul and Islamabad don’t appreciate them?”
“Well, on retaliation, it certainly is quick. We are fighting a violent enemy and they have a deep desire to fight us. Our ability to prosecute is really unique because it’s less significant when we take a strike. What we really want to do when we attack these terrorist networks is not to take down the guy with the rifle. You want to track him down to his boss and then want to find his boss, the jackpot guy and that’s the guy you want to roll up. We’re never going to win this war with a Hellfire strike and so on retaliation, sometimes it’s better not to take action. Sometimes it is better to sit and watch and investigate the patterns of life so that I can go back there and grab the jackpot agent.
“That leads to the second point – regarding the responses of governments in the region: unlike all the other weapons systems out there, I can control collateral damage to a much greater degree in this and I can minimize it and negate it because if I see a high-value individual – one of those jackpot guys – that I want to prosecute an attack on I’m not limited by gas. I’m not limited by the physiological constraints of the air crew. I’ll swap another air crew out. I’ll bring another plane out and have them run in there and get a new GCUS and I will stay with that individual until the time is right by my making. “
“And what about mistakes?” I asked, “are there fewer now? Because hundreds of civilians have been killed in such strikes as well as hundreds of as you would put it, ‘the enemy’. “
It should be noted that exact figures are hard to come by which is why the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit to try to get the data on civilian casualties. U.S. federal agencies never answered a Freedom of Information Act request for an outline of the legal basis for the Predator drone program.
“What about people who you work with who cause collateral damage. How do they cope?” I added.
“The argument that we have executed collateral damage – I dispute that, honestly I have never seen it during the course of my two..”
“Wedding parties in Afghanistan?” I interjected.
“I have seen those reports in the media but I have never actually seen that in the course of events in my unit. And what I will say is that — and I have ample examples to bring forth — we have been engaging the enemy with ‘friendlies’ taking heavy fire from advancing parties of insurgents and we’ve actually called off strikes because we have seen kids with the insurgents. And so that level of fidelity – that I can have someone whose whole job in life is to look at pixels on a screen and determine whether that is farm equipment or whether that is a piece of anti-aircraft artillery or see if that is a child or someone actually carrying and employing a weapon — means I can make that call and I can isolate that event so that I don’t take a lethal action against those people. We’ve been able to minimize collateral damage to a degree that we have never experienced before in a combat environment. From my perspective, this is game-changing in nature, for many reasons and not least because in a counter-insurgency you need to win the hearts and minds of the people and the way you do that is to preserve what they hold dear which is mosques and schools and children and non-combatants and we do that with better than any other weapons system that’s ever been fielded. We do that.”
“What about other countries which use these UAV’s?”
“What I will say is that we know that this is proliferating and frankly it should be proliferating.”
Proliferating it certainly is. The White House is considering sending them to the Somalian government. Texas Governor Rick Perry wants them deployed on the border with Mexico. Pakistan is developing one. Israel is developing more and more of them. The ratio of civilian to military deaths in wars has been steadily rising and we can expect it to continue.
AFSHIN RATTANSI has helped launch and develop television networks and has worked in journalism for more than two decades, at the BBC Today program, CNN International, Bloomberg News, Al Jazeera Arabic, the Dubai Business Channel, Press TV and The Guardian. His quartet of novels, “The Dream of the Decade” is available on Amazon.com. He is co-host and executive producer of “Rattansi & Ridley” which broadcasts internationally, every Saturday at 2032 GMT on Press TV. Some of this interview was broadcast on the 3 April 2010 edition of the show. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org