More Collateral Damage From Mad Rush to Rely on Drones

A drone crashed in Afghanistan earlier this week. (Wikimedia Commons photo via Bakhtar News)

Marcy already covered the very important Greg Miller Washington Post article on drones and the way the Obama administration is growing ever more reliant on their use. I would like to focus on more of the collateral damage from drone use as described in two Los Angeles Times articles from this week.  Today’s article discusses the growing reliance on civilian contractors in the use of drones.  Earlier in the week, we learned about the “death squads” roaming the tribal areas of Pakistan doling out revenge on those thought to have sold information used by the US in developing target information. Taken together, these articles demonstrate how the excessive reliance on drones is outstripping the military and CIA support infrastructure. This matter will be only be made worse by the fact that the number of US personnel on the ground within Pakistan to develop intelligence has been cut to one fourth the previous level.

Today’s LA Times article opens with a description of the difficulties that ensue when civilians take part in analysis of video feeds from drones that hit civilian targets:

After a U.S. airstrike mistakenly killed at least 15 Afghans in 2010, the Army officer investigating the accident was surprised to discover that an American civilian had played a central role: analyzing video feeds from a Predator drone keeping watch from above.

The contractor had overseen other analysts at Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field in Florida as the drone tracked suspected insurgents near a small unit of U.S. soldiers in rugged hills of central Afghanistan. Based partly on her analysis, an Army captain ordered an airstrike on a convoy that turned out to be carrying innocent men, women and children.

We learn in the article that maintaining drones in the air requires a very large contingent of ground support, with Predators requiring over 150 ground crew for a 24 hour flight and twice that amount for the larger drones. We are already short on these ground crews and yet the number of these medium and large drones is expected to go from the current 230 to 960 within ten years. But don’t worry, only 44 hours of training are required to certify a pilot!

In relying so heavily on civilian contractors, the US is flirting with breaking the international laws of war.  Also from today’s article:

By law, decisions to use military force must be made by the military chain of command or, in the case of CIA strikes, by civilian officials authorized to conduct covert operations under presidential findings or other specific legal mandates.

Writing in a military law journal in 2008, Lt. Col. Duane Thompson, chief lawyer for the Air Force Operations Law Division, warned that allowing nonmilitary personnel to communicate targeting information directly to pilots would violate international laws of war.

Moreover, civilians are not subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which subjects military personnel to prosecution for war crimes or for violations of rules of engagement on when to use force.

But this question of how we get to a kill decision has another facet to it as well. Earlier this week, the LA Times described the “death squads” roaming Pakistan’s tribal areas to extract revenge on those thought to have sold information to the US for use in targeting:

The death squad shows up in uniform: black masks and tunics with the name of the group, Khorasan Mujahedin, scrawled across the back in Urdu.

Pulling up in caravans of Toyota Corolla hatchbacks, dozens of them seal off mud-hut villages near the Afghan border, and then scour markets and homes in search of tribesmen they suspect of helping to identify targets for the armed U.S. drones that routinely buzz overhead.


Militant groups lack the ability to bring down the drones, which have killed senior Al Qaeda and Taliban commanders as well as many foot soldiers. Instead, a collection of them have banded together to form Khorasan Mujahedin in the North Waziristan tribal region to hunt for those who sell information about the location of militants and their safe houses.

Pakistani officials and tribal elders maintain that most of those who are abducted this way are innocent, but after being beaten, burned with irons or scalded with boiling water, almost all eventually “confess.” And few ever come back.

The deaths doled out by the Khorasan Mujahedin undoubtedly do not go into the official death tolls from drones, but it seems likely that they do indeed increase the death toll of innocent civilians. With the recent reduction of US personnel on the ground within Pakistan from 400 to 100, it now will be even more difficult to obtain human intelligence for use in target selection. Despite that complication, I’ve seen no indication that the US intends to back off from its current strategy of attacking both mid-level operatives and high-level commanders with drones.

Oh, and when getting targeting information directly from government sources in unstable areas, it seems the US is open to being played at times:

Top U.S. military leaders who oversaw missile strikes last year against al Qaeda targets in Yemen suspect they were fed misleading intelligence by the country’s government and were duped into killing a local political leader whose relationship with the president’s family had soured.

On May 25, 2010, a U.S. missile attack killed at least six people including Jabir Shabwani, the 31-year-old deputy governor of Yemen’s central Mareb province. The Yemeni government provided intelligence used in the strike but didn’t say Mr. Shabwani would be among those there, say several current and former U.S. military officials.

These people say they believe the information from the Yemenis may have been intended to result in Mr. Shabwani’s death. “We think we got played,” said one participant in high-level administration discussions.

Realizing just how stupid this made the US look, it appears that John Brennan was “pissed” about being played in this way (of course, Marcy figured out we got played months before the WSJ did):

“Permissions are harder to get,” a participant in the discussions said of the process of adding new targets. “Brennan wants to make sure we don’t get played again.”

However, as long as Brennan and Obama continue to expand the drone program beyond the infrastructure and intelligence gathering capabilities of the moment, more instances of incorrect targeting by both military and civilian analysts as well as “being played” by “allies” are inevitable. Despite the allure to Brennan and Obama that drones are somehow magic, clean ways to take out enemies, they are fraught with all the same real world problems as any other tool of war. Collateral damage is always a risk in actions of war and the damage is no less real when the weapons are controlled from a distance.

23 replies
  1. Arbusto says:

    With the Generals and Intl community given so much deference and Obama wanting to please Lockheed Martin, Honeywell, Boeing, et al. with increased profits, this nonsense will continue, especially since there are in effect no legal consequences.

  2. Bob Schacht says:

    Today’s article discusses the growing reliance on civilian contractors in the use of drones.

    When I read this, the third sentence of your article, alarm bells immediately rang in my head. This should not be happening. What will we do next, give a fleet of drones to Blackwater?

    Then you wrote,

    In relying so heavily on civilian contractors, the US is flirting with breaking the international laws of war.

    Flirting??? IMHO this is way past flirting. It’s more like rape.

    Bob in AZ

  3. GKJames says:

    Worse, the taxpayer is likely on the hook for indemnifying the “civilian contractors” (f/k/a mercenaries) in case of claims for getting it wrong. In fact, it would be an interesting exercise for journalists to demand public disclosure of the contractor contracts. And if past is prologue, it’s a safe bet that contractor liability is zero.

  4. rugger9 says:

    @GKJames: #5
    We already have the de facto result from the Nisour Square case decided this year [no responsibility or rules apply]. However, there is no good reason to keep the contract details secret, especially regarding liability and chain of command. Brennan’s smart enough to know that while military personnel may not be prosecuted for killing their enemies on a battlefield, civilian irregulars can be, especially when mistakes are made.

  5. earlofhuntingdon says:

    150 “crew members” for each sortie of a “pilotless” drone? The “magic” of Pentagon accounting never seems to fail. And who knew that a purportedly Democratic Barack Obama would be a better friend to military and government outsourcers than Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld?

  6. EH says:

    i wonder if any contractors get “points” on the equipment they sell to the military, receiving a bonus every time it works (kills someone).

  7. CTuttle says:

    Aloha, Jim…!

    This is a great bit of news on the Iranian front…

    Salehi: Iran ready to renew nuclear talks with world powers

    Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said that the Islamic Republic is prepared to renew talks with the p5+1 group of world powers over its controversial nuclear program, the Tehran Times reported on Friday.

    Speaking with Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Zhai Jun in Tehran, Salehi said that Iran was prepared to reenter negotiations with the group made up of the US, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany based on the “step by step” plan proposed by Moscow in July. The plan calls for a gradual easing of sanctions against Iran in exchange for the Islamic Republic disclosing details about its nuclear program

    One can only hope that Saner minds will prevail…!

  8. Quanto says:

    But this question of how we get to a kill decision

    That’s easy, if it moves, Kill It!

    Isn’t that the Army’s new mantra: kill them all and let god sort them out.

    We will be feeling the blow back from this for the next 50 years at least.
    The stupid never ends.

    And Happy New Year! but I can’t imagine how.

  9. Bob Schacht says:

    @P J Evans: I think the Bushies actually believed it. After all, their philosophy was that private enterprise could do anything better than government, and cheaper, too, they thought, because the standard thing in their myth of capitalism is that competition would drive down the price.

    Which reminds me, when Republicans blast Democrats for being pragmatists with no core values or principles, what they mean is that Republicans are totally committed to crazy-assed theories based on what sounds reasonable, without the bother of testing the theory against reality. E.g., their belief that “tax relief” for rich people increases employment.

    Bob in AZ

  10. Susan says:

    This week, 35 Kurds were killed by Pakistani airstrikes, because they thought they were PKK. This happened just over the border from Iraq. Turns out there were “smugglers” in that they were carrying fuel to their homes.

    But guess who told the Pakistani air force that there were insurgent/PKK folks there? The US drone surveillance team, which is now being run out of Pakistan and spying on Iraq.

    35 innocent people dead.

  11. Susan says:

    Also, in the LA article, they claim that it takes more personnel to keep the drones flying than fighter jets flying…. but I think if the fighter jets were running 24/7, the difference in staffing needs would disappear.

  12. Jim White says:

    @Susan: I had been wondering about that one myself. It would have been best if the article had mentioned how long the fighter flights were that were in the comparison. Since at least some fighters and bombers can be refueled during flight, it’s possible they could have been comparing 24 hour flights, but I doubt it since the article clearly attaches the 24 hour part only to the drones.

  13. P J Evans says:

    @Bob Schacht:
    They’ve been testing that one on real people for at least thirty years, and it still hasn’t worked for anyone but the guys with the most money. You’d think they’d figure out that it’s a failed theory.

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