Tag Archives: drone warfare

Confronting America’s Misguided Drone Program

Misguided Drone Program

Photo / Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt


“American citizens deserve to be protected and defended by our government, and that must never change.

But when the instrument that government and military leaders use to accomplish that goal instead causes serious emotional damage to the citizens operating the equipment, kills and alienates those we wish to protect overseas, and perversely creates more enemy fighters than it ever removes from the battlefield, dramatic changes are required.”

“The use of armed drone warfare by the United States has proliferated since 9/11. Advocates of the program say it is essential to American national security. These claims are far from convincing—more on that below. What gets very little examination one way or the other, however, is the effect these operations have on the U.S. personnel that serve within the drone-warfare system, and virtually none on the so-called “collateral damage” inflicted on innocents by errant or mistaken strikes.

That begins to change on Monday night, with the airing on PBS of National Bird, winner of the 2017 Ridenhour Documentary Film Award, a film that beautifully—and hauntingly—illuminates both.

Longtime investigative journalist and filmmaker Sonia Kennebeck was doing research on the drone program in 2013. “I had seen lots of commentary and opinion in media on the subject,” Kennebeck told me in a recent interview, “but couldn’t find a lot of verifiable facts or reactions from people directly involved.” The more she discovered, the more fascinating she found the subject matter, and the greater her interest in broadening the scope of the project. There came a key moment, however, when she realized the project deserved to be more than simply an opinion article.

One of the subjects of the film, Heather (only first names are used in the documentary), had recently left the Air Force after serving as an intelligence analyst in the drone program. “When I met Heather the first time she told me not only had she’d struggled with suicide because of all she had seen and experienced, three of her former Air Force colleagues from the program have already taken their own lives. At that point I knew I had to do a film,” Kennebeck explained.

As the documentary details, Heather struggled mightily after she left the Air Force because of the role she played in the deaths of numerous people that were killed in drone strikes. Very often, she explained, when targets were killed with the missile, many people around them were obliterated, body parts flying in all directions. The film also featured the experiences of two other American operators, Daniel and Lisa, who suffered trauma similar to Heather.

One of the reasons Kennebeck produced this film was to shine a light on aspects of the program that get little to no public exposure. “The public needs to understand how many people are being killed,” she said, “what countries drones are being operated in, and ultimately there needs to be more regulation because the technology has outpaced our legal and moral frameworks. Policy and rules need to catch up.”

The drone program’s efficacy in attaining U.S. security objectives desperately needs to be assessed. Advocates of drone warfare virtually dismiss the problems without examination, and instead focus on what they cite as the compelling justification. A Brookings report in defense of drone warfare argued that the United States “cannot tolerate terrorist safe havens in remote parts of Pakistan and elsewhere, and drones offer a comparatively low-risk way of targeting these areas.” Like other reports advocating the use of drones, the Brookings study cites the body count as evidence of success.

“U.S. drones have killed an estimated 3,300 al Qaeda, Taliban, and other jihadist operatives in Pakistan and Yemen,” the report’s authors claim. What is not addressed, however, is the extent to which these operations reduce terrorist threats to the United States. By any rational assessment, the terrorist threat has continued to dramatically increase—not decline—as the use of drones has risen. If more than three thousand Al Qaeda terrorists had been killed, we should have seen a serious degradation in their capability and a corresponding increase in our security. Instead, Dr. Michael Shank, professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs, has considerable experience on the ground in the locations where many drone strikes occur, and provides a sobering on-the-ground perspective.

“Working in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan, it’s clear that drones are creating more enemies than the U.S. claims to ever kill,” Dr. Shank wrote in a recent email message. “Drones are quickly turning the general population – many of whom the U.S. would classify as the ‘good guys’ – against America.”

The United States generally considers its enemy population to be a finite number of bad people that can be eliminated, he explained, but such thinking exposes a limited understanding of physics (for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction) and psychology. “For every so-called ‘bad guy’ killed by a drone strike,” Dr. Shank wrote, “there will be another person who witnessed that strike and who is motivated to assume the newly dead adversary’s antagonism.”

National Bird provides a moving example of how American drones impact those we otherwise seek to defend. In 2010, the United States admitted it accidentally struck a three-vehicle convoy in Afghanistan with Hellfire missiles and rockets that it mistakenly thought was affiliated with the Taliban. Instead, the vehicles contained mostly members of an extended family—twenty-three of whom were killed in the attack, including a number of children—that had no relation to the insurgency. There is a telling moment in the film when the surviving members are sitting outside, telling the story of that day, when helicopters happen to fly overhead. Their faces immediately register palpable fear as they relive that harrowing moment.”

National Bird premieres on Independent Lens Monday, May 1, 2017, 10:00-11:30 PM ET (check local listings) on PBS.

Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after twenty-one years, including four combat deployments.

Image: An MQ-9 Reaper flies a combat mission over southern Afghanistan. U.S. Air Force Photo / Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt


The Pentagon Needs Help To Take Down Small Drones

Drones dangerous-payloads-en

Image:  Accutech.com


“Tiny drones are proliferating and making their way onto the battlefield.

The Pentagon calls for solutions.

The FAA isn’t the only government body worried about the harm that small drones could cause. On Thursday, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA,released a request for information for new measures to defeat small UAVs, which, they say, are “creating new asymmetric threats for warfighters.”

Small “UASs’ size and low cost enable novel concepts of employment, which present challenges to our current defense systems,” according to the request.

DARPA is looking for technology to “detect, identify, track, and neutralize these systems on the move, on a compressed timeline, and while mitigating collateral damage and providing flexibility to operations in multiple mission environments.”

More than a few technologies exist to counter drone threats, but jamming can pose a threat to nearby electrical and computer equipment. One of the more interesting solutions so far comes out of Japan where Tokyo police are deploying drones armed with nets to capture other drones.

By itself, most small drones don’t pose a great danger but they can easily be modified with a variety of payloads. Pro-Russian forces fighting in Ukraine use drones to spot and target enemy positions. Last August, a group of hackers at DEF CON unveiled a small garage-built drone that flies around looking for vulnerabilities in computer networks.

Isreali Aerospace Industries markets something that they call a multi-rotor loitering munition for ground forces, basically a quadcopter with a bomb strapped to it that hovers in the air until the operator decides to kill someone with it. Hamas and Hezbollah’s use of small drones goes back to 2004. ISIS, too, is experimenting with small intelligence drones (and possibly armed ones as well). In July, the Pentagon switched $20 million toward a new anti-drone effort.

Any drone under 55 lbs is considered small by FAA standards. The agency projects that more than seven million small UAVs could cloud America’s skies by the year 2020. The development community for small drones is also growing rapidly, bolstered by trends in 3D printing and tiny off-the-shelf computer systems like the Raspberry Pi. Anybody with an internet connection can create their own drone at minimal cost. As large as seven million sounds, the figure might be woefully conservative.”



Three Questions Must Be Asked About Drone War


Drone Rules


“It is now clear that even successful drone strikes do not advance American strategic interests.

They almost never cause more than temporal harm to the enemy, and usually result in hardening their resolve and making them more violent.

It is discouraging that in a country that justly prides itself on producing great scientific minds and creative thinkers, that on a few key substantive issues we fail to ask—much less answer—crucial questions. Drone strikes are one of the most glaring and egregious examples of this.

These acts—which are sometimes called targeted killings, UCAV (unmanned combat aerial vehicle) strikes, or precision targeting—are at their most elementary level, killing human beings via remote control at a great distance from the target. In that sense, they are no different than an infantryman firing a rifle at an enemy combatant from three hundred meters away, a tank gunner destroying an enemy vehicle and its crew from four kilometers out or firing an artillery piece at enemy troops from a distance of over thirty kilometers. The justification for using drones, however, can be radically different from the standard we apply to ground combat.

The Laws of War govern the behavior of ground troops, airmen and sailors in armed conflict. The laws were designedto keep otherwise violent and bloody wars from descending into barbarism, which sometimes strips victors of their humanity. The Department of Defense has strictly enforced these laws on our troops during Desert Storm, the long Iraq conflict and the ongoing struggle in Afghanistan.

When troops are caught violating the strict DoD-crafted Rules of Engagement, they are punished, sometimes severely. That high standard seems to evaporate, however, when the violations are carried out from aerial platforms, controlled from a secret, remote location. The unwillingness to apply the same rules of engagement and standards of conduct to the use of drones is damaging America’s hard-fought reputation and, emotional arguments aside, is ineffective in accomplishing U.S. objectives. In fact, it is usually counterproductive.

Chas W. Freeman, one of America’s most experienced living diplomats, gave a speech at The Center for The National Interest last week stating that the decision to begin expanding the use of drone warfare in 2002 was one of the nation’s greatest strategic blunders since 9/11. He remarked, “This turn toward robotic warfare has evolved into a program of serial massacres from the air in a widening area of West Asia and northern Africa. It is a major factor in the metastasis of anti-Western terrorism with global reach.”

Freeman added that “The terrorist movements U.S. interventions have spawned now have safe havens not just in Afghanistan, but in the now-failed states of Iraq and Syria, as well as Chad, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Sinai, Somalia…and a toehold among Muslim Americans…We are creating more terrorists than we are killing.”





Targeted Killings “TK”, Drones, and the Myth of Precision



She Kills People From 7,850 Miles Away


“Different instruments exist for targeted killing (TK) operations that can be used in counter terrorism.

As the challenges for justifying the use of UAVs in kinetic strikes mounts, it is time to look seriously to better applications of this technology.

The omnipresence of drones hovering over communities can change them forever. They have a profound effect on the way that people live. This give us a picture of drones always hovering overhead is a similar account of the changes that can result from years of occupation.

A number of different instruments exist for targeted killing (TK) operations that can be used in counterterrorism (CT) and counterinsurgency (COIN) operations: targeted killings in the form of helicopter attacks; unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or “drones”; targeted bombings; targeted shootings; and Special Forces operations. The sophistication of each of them varies, with each presenting a different and unique role given the context in which it’s applied. The precision of these methods also varies considerably.

A still-perplexing aspect of this collection of CT and COIN instruments is the collateral damage rates (if even speculated) associated with each of them: for UAVs, challenging questions about prevision quickly emerge; for Special Forces operations, TK success rates measure very high and with extremely low collateral damage, yet they receive the least attention; for helicopter attacks, the rates are often reversed, yet they receive the majority of attention.

UAVs have received a significant level of treatment in the overall story of TK and have come to define the practice/policy option. This leads us to consider this as a matter of selection. It is precisely this issue that bleeds into another body of challenges about TK, especially within CT and COIN contexts. Special Forces operations (i.e., raids) offer CT and COIN actors the distinctive opportunity to incorporate the security and military forces of states such as Afghanistan and Iraq, so that they can receive valuable tactical training and strategic learning in vital campaigns.

A black box in research concerns the effects/impact of TK and drones operations on civilian populations (which often become involved one way or another in CT and COIN operations, and that should come as no surprise), in terms of radicalization – an idea expressed through David Kilkullen’s Accidental Guerilla. These are side effects of strikes tantamount to collateral damage but effects of which can come about over time – two, five, even ten years later. There is also no guarantee that terrorists or insurgents will play by the rules of the game established through UAV strikes.

What we expect is that jihadists will either be killed in UAV strikes or simply renounce their violence. But UAV strikes, rather than dissuading would-be terrorists or killing more than they manufacture, perform contra to their desired outcome. Through a different measurement of unintended effects, UAV campaigns can alter the nature of terrorists in two distinct ways. First, they could simply be displaced. In this sense, they deem the territory in which they operate too dangerous to exist and therefore move to a different location and become involved in a different violent conflict. Second, instead of being jihadists, UAV strikes can pressure terrorists to look to other forms of criminality such as running prostitution rings, human trafficking, or drug smuggling. Thus, some militants are benefiting from intensive and extensive UAV campaigns.

Indirect victims of a drone strike (i.e., an individual who incurs injuries) can become the next jihadi leader. There appears to be no way to avert this kind of unintended consequence of kinetic strikes, despite the very obvious objective and aim of such operations in mitigating terrorism and insurgency in the first place.

A dangerous recourse to the use of UAVs centers on the use of non-weaponized or surveillance UAVs, which by their very basic association, push the stigmatization of drone usage in spite of the (at least superficially) peaceful use but potentially longer-term role as supporters or facilitators of eventual violence.  Thus, UAVs are a sort of occupation. They’re threat assessors and therefore in essence armed to perform a task that would eventually lead to the same result as that of an armed drone.

There is still intense debate over the accuracy of UAV strikes and the level of collateral damage associated with them. Whether kinetic strikes always achieve their intended outcomes or not is still a contentious matter and even more so when attempting to connect tactical operations and their effectiveness with the much broader strategic outcome.

There is an uncomfortable tension between the indiscriminate consequences and discriminate intentions on the part of kinetic strike designers. Soldiers, despite their military status may never become violent actors or they may never see combat. But his or her presence within a military structure or institution implies his or her intentionality. This is the case because the main purpose of such an institution is to harm states. Mark Maxwell stated that, “the status of someone can be targeted” precisely because his or her “function is to perform hostilities.”

His subsequent assertion raises further tension: “the test for status must be the threat posed by the group and the member’s course of conduct which allows that threat to persist.” There are further difficulties to address when considering the impacts on indiscriminate intentions when the threat posed by that group or individual exceeds so-called tolerable levels. Who decides and if the threat perception is not shared among states of the same or different alliances or groups could produce too many negative knock-on effects.

If the idea of “selective violence” implies that several, even numerous, forms of violence lend themselves to states as policy options, it is puzzling why murder is typically the form of violence selected, especially when CT and COIN actors can really profit from capturing leaders and militants. As the challenges for justifying the use of UAVs in kinetic strikes mounts, it is time to look seriously to better applications of this technology. UAVs have an extensive role to play in terms of force protection. They are critical to the protection and welfare of friendly soldiers on the battlefield and particularly in the event of critical injuries.

In Afghanistan UAVs have shown a remarkable ability to assist in tactical operations of military forces on the ground. In Pakistan, reports of kinetic strike success have been both bright and lackluster. In Yemen, they have been proven “effective” in as much as they have resulted in some sort of effect. Yet, that effect is, in and of itself, counterproductive on a strategic level. UAV usage has also been criticized for constraining military options, resulting in a more reductive approach to countering terrorism.

Having produced a record of achievement in support operations, UAVs show a great deal of promise in the surveillance field even despite the view that UAVs loitering directly above create a host of problems. One possible example is their maritime use in military hotbeds such as the South China Sea and elsewhere in the Pacific. Navy drone development (like the X-47B) can fit nicely into a long-term defense program for the US. In fact, the Pentagon has stated its interest in developing armed UAVs that can be launched from carriers by 2019. Notwithstanding the weaponry aspect of this endeavor, long-range UAVs operating at sea could greatly enhance existing US power on land, at sea, and in the air.

Longer striking range, greater visibility, different strike capabilities, and greater flexibility while adjusting to the reality that the United States cannot simply sail into the coastal waters of rising powers as if might have been able to a few decades ago are corollaries of UAV application in this regard. It might not offer the desired precision when it comes to UAVs, but it could provide a positive case for further UAV development (even for drifting away from UAVs as the only means of conducting TK operations), particularly given the pace of UAV development by other states around the world.”


A Military-Grade Drone That Can Be Printed Anywhere



“We have 3-D printed keys, guns and shoes—now a research team at the University of Virginia has created a 3D printed UAV drone for the Department of Defense.

In the works for three years, the aircraft, no bigger than a remote-controlled plane, can carry a 1.5-pound payload. If it crashes or needs a design tweak for a new mission, another one can be printed out in a little more than a day, for just $2,500. It’s made with off-the-shelf parts and has an Android phone for a brain.

“We weren’t sure you could make anything lightweight and strong enough to fly,” says David Sheffler, who led the project. Sheffler is a former engineer for Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce who now teaches at the university. After he created a 3-D printed jet engine in one of his classes, the MITRE Corporation, a DoD contractor, asked him to create a 3-D printed UAV that could be easily modified and built with readily available parts.

The first prototype, the orange and blue model seen in the video above, was based on a conventional radio-controlled (RC) aircraft made of balsa wood, which is much lighter and stronger than the ABS plastic used in the university’s 3-D printers. The same plane made of plastic would have weighed five times as much as the wood version. “You’re printing out of a material that’s really not well-suited to making an airplane,” Sheffler explains. On top of that, the way 3-D printing works—building things in layers—led to structural weaknesses in the aircraft.

To account for those downsides, Sheffler’s team reworked the design. They settled on a “flying wing” design, in which the whole aircraft is basically one big wing, and called it the Razor. The latest (third) prototype is made of nine printed parts that click together like LEGO. The center of the plane is all one piece, with a removable hatch that offers access the inner cargo bay. All of the electronics live in there, including a Google Nexus 5 smartphone running a custom-designed avionics app that controls the plane, and an RC-plane autopilot that manages the control surfaces with input from the phone. The Razor’s wing structure is one piece, with an aileron, winglets, and mount for the small jet engine that clip on.

“This program was really tasked with showing what is possible.”

The aircraft, with a four-foot wingspan, weighs just 1.8 pounds. Loaded with all the electronics gear, it comes in at just under 6 pounds. That lets it fly at 40 mph for as long as 45 minutes, though the team’s working to get that up to an hour. An earlier prototype could top 100 mph, and the team believes the plane could hit 120 mph, at the cost of a very quickly drained battery.

It can carry 1.5 pounds, so attaching a camera to it would be no problem. The batteries take two hours to fully charge and are easily swapped out, so if you’ve got three or four packs on hand, the Razor can be in the air nearly continuously. The plane can be controlled from up to a mile away, or fly on its own using preloaded GPS waypoints to navigate. The team uses the Nexus smartphone’s 4G LTE as well, meaning commands could be sent from much farther away, though FAA guidelines have kept them from long-distance testing.

Here’s where the 3-D printing really comes in handy: The design can be modified—and reprinted—easily, to be bigger or smaller, carry a sensor or a camera, or fly slower or faster. The plane can be made in 31 hours, with materials that cost $800. Electronics (like the tablet-based ground station) push the price to about $2,500. That’s so cheap, it’s effectively disposable, especially since you can make another one anywhere you can put a 3-D printer. If one version is flawed or destroyed, you can just crank out another.

Though the team’s research contract has run out, they’re hoping to get another one next year. If Sheffler’s right about how the technology will evolve, MITRE and the DoD would be wise to extend the partnership. “3-D printing is at the phase where personal computers were in the 1980s,” Sheffler says. “The technology is almost unbounded.”

“This program was really tasked with showing what is possible.”