Drones, baby, drones
Andrew Cockburn on Obama’s remote-controlled wars
It’s generally assumed that with the Iraq War officially over and troops withdrawing from Afghanistan, US defence spending will drop. Obama’s reference in his State of the Union address to ‘saving half a trillion dollars’ from the defence budget encouraged this assumption, as have Republican complaints that such cuts would ‘decimate’ the nation’s defences. But, as the president himself pointed out when introducing the new strategy, the Pentagon will get more money, not less: ‘Over the next ten years, the growth in the defence budget will slow, but the fact of the matter is this, it will still grow.’ In the past five years the US has spent $2.59 trillion on defence. The new plans call for an allocation of $2.725 trillion between 2013 and 2017 – less than the $3 trillion envisaged in previous budget plans but still an increase of 5 per cent.
The budget will grow, but the military will shrink. There will be no more ‘nation-building’, with its long and expensive occupations. Overall troop levels will be cut by about a hundred thousand soldiers and marines. Fewer new planes will be built. America will no longer be equipped to fight two full-scale wars at the same time – an official requirement for decades. Falling into Pentagon-speak, Obama talked of an ‘agile, flexible’ military that would ‘invest in the capabilities that we need for the future, including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), counter-terrorism, countering weapons of mass destruction and the ability to operate in environments where adversaries try to deny us access’. The defence secretary, Leon Panetta, echoed the president, promising a ‘leaner’ force that would be ‘more agile, more flexible … innovative’, especially in ‘new technologies like ISR and unmanned systems’.
The bin Laden mission was a particular coup f0r Obama, along with other actions by elite commando units such as the recent hostage rescue mission in Somalia. ‘Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example,’ he said in the State of the Union speech. One supportive commentator, Michael Lind of Salon, called the new strategy, with its stress on agility and flexibility, ‘the greatest revolution in American foreign policy in a generation’.
Yet the president’s words have a familiar ring. In September 1999 George W. Bush, then a presidential candidate, introduced his defence programme at the Citadel military school in Charleston. ‘Our forces in the next century must be agile, lethal, readily deployable,’ he said. ‘Our military must be able to identify targets by a variety of means, then be able to destroy those targets almost instantly … We must be able to strike from across the world with pinpoint accuracy … with unmanned systems.’ Bush was taking his cue from a concept known as the ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’. The phrase had been popularised in defence circles in the 1980s by Andrew Marshall, a former Rand analyst who headed the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment. Marshall believed that new technologies in surveillance, communication and missile targeting had fundamentally changed the nature of warfare because they made it possible to locate, identify and strike enemies by remote control. American initiatives in Vietnam had anticipated this development. Igloo White, which cost $7 billion, was an early attempt to automate the battlefield: tens of thousands of sensors, designed to pick up sound or movement, each one in radio contact with computers in Thailand, were scattered around the jungles of Vietnam and Laos in the hope of locating and targeting enemy supply columns on the Ho Chi Minh trail. But the Vietnamese quickly learned to move the sensors or make them send false signals and the experiment was abandoned in 1972.
In the first Gulf War, US military technology was more successful, indeed it seemed to function flawlessly. TV images relayed from cameras mounted on bombs as they homed in on their targets turned the war into a spectator sport, and the swift victory did much to dispel memories of Vietnam. A coterie of airforce officers who’d helped plan the bombing campaign – notably an ambitious lieutenant colonel called David Deptula – saw the victory as proof of the virtues of what they called ‘Effects Based Operations’. Advances in technology, they reported, meant that the US could locate strategic targets and destroy them with absolute precision. It was now possible, Deptula later wrote, ‘not just to impede the means of the enemy to conduct war or the will of the people to continue war, but the very ability of the enemy to control its vital functions’. War, as waged by America, could become quick, tidy and, above all, predictable.
Subsequent official but unpublicised investigations, notably by the US Government Accounting Office, showed that these methods hadn’t had the decisive effect that Deptula and his colleagues claimed, and that the bombing of strategic targets had done little to hinder the leadership’s capacity to function. Attacks against Iraqi formations in the desert by low-flying jets were effective, but the destruction of supposedly crucial targets such as power stations had little military effect (though it did cause a great deal of civilian misery). Determined efforts to destroy enemy ‘command and control’ by locating and killing Saddam Hussein failed entirely. But it continued to be asserted that these weapons had changed the nature of warfare – a claim that appealed to weapons manufacturers and their partners in Washington and the Pentagon, for whom the collapse of the USSR threatened hard times.
William Perry, an affable engineer who presided over the Pentagon for much of the Clinton era, was a firm believer in remote-control systems and encouraged continued investment in them even as the post-Cold War defence budget was being slashed. His approach seemed to be vindicated by the 1999 air war against Serbia, in which not a single American was killed. Deptula, by now a brigadier general, wrote that particular targets had been attacked ‘to achieve a specific effect within the parent system’. There had been a concerted campaign of ‘crony targeting’: businesses owned by Milosevic’s friends were hit in the hope that they would urge him to give up. As with the Gulf War, later investigations threw cold water on these reports: the heavily targeted Serb army emerged from Kosovo relatively unscathed (a total of 12 tanks were destroyed); Milosevic caved in only when his Russian sponsors abandoned him for reasons of their own. Nevertheless, Deptula declared that the war had ‘incrementally improved’ his strategy.
Marshall’s ideas were especially popular among Washington neocons, who had been campaigning for higher defence spending since the 1970s and in 1997 founded the Project for the New American Century, best known for its advocacy of regime change in Iraq. As is often the case in Washington, ideology blended neatly with the interests of the industry funding the ideologues. Bruce Jackson, a founding member of the project, was vice-president for strategic planning at Lockheed Martin, a staunch lobbyist for Nato expansion in Eastern Europe (a fruitful market for Lockheed products) and head of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. Another member was Donald Rumsfeld. Reappointed defence secretary by Bush in 2001, Rumsfeld paid tribute to Andrew Marshall and announced that he would effect ‘transformation’ on the Pentagon. This provoked resistance: the military leadership had no objection to receiving more money but resented Rumsfeld’s efforts to assert more control over the way they spent it. The army, in particular, wasn’t keen on his goal of reducing troop numbers and relying on elite special forces. Rumsfeld was quick to give credit for the collapse of the Taliban in November 2001 to ‘a combination of the ingenuity of the US Special Forces, the most advanced precision guided munitions in the US arsenal … and the courage of valiant one-legged Afghan fighters on horseback’. (He was much taken with reports of one Northern Alliance fighter who had a prosthetic limb.) He didn’t mention CIA cash bribes to Afghan warlords, encouraging them to change sides, or that Pakistan’s ISI had instructed the Taliban to lie low.
The availability to the supreme command of live battlefield video from Afghanistan gave America’s leaders an extraordinary – and illusory – sense of direct control over what was going on. Tommy Franks, the commanding general, later reported that on the first night of the war he and other senior officials sat in their offices watching pictures relayed from a Predator drone of a ‘suspicious’ convoy of cars and trucks driving towards Kandahar. Unsure whether to target the convoy, Franks consulted Rumsfeld, who called Bush, who gave his assent for the vehicles and passengers to be obliterated. Having the president of the United States decide whether or not to bomb some trucks at least had the merit of novelty.
Convinced of his own wisdom by events in Afghanistan, Rumsfeld set out to invade Iraq with as few troops as he could get away with: precise targeting in a ‘shock and awe’ assault would do the job. Just like Obama today, Rumsfeld and Bush distrusted the idea of ‘nation-building’. The unexpected resistance following the invasion was a setback, but counter-insurgency operations continued to emphasise the importance of identifying ‘high-value targets’. Underpinning the effort was the belief that with sufficient surveillance and information-processing technology it would be possible to identify and locate targets behind enemy attacks, leaving only their killing or capture to commandos.
While American and British casualties on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan ticked upwards, the skies grew dark with target-seeking aircraft, manned and unmanned, operating under such codenames as Constant Hawk and Angel Fire. Many of these systems were vastly expensive: one airborne system for detecting roadside bombs, Compass Call, cost $70,000 an hour. In 2007, an intelligence unit in Baghdad called the Counter-IED Operations Integration Center analysed hundreds of these missions and concluded that most of them had ‘no detectable effect’ on the enemy. They investigated the records of two hundred official killings of high-value targets in Iraq between 2005 and 2007 and discovered that in the areas where the ‘hits’ had taken place roadside bomb attacks had gone up, not down: attacks within three miles of a targeted killing increased by an average of 20 per cent. The reasons were obvious. Dead enemy leaders tended to be replaced rapidly, usually within 24 hours. The new man was inevitably motivated to react aggressively. ‘Our principal strategy in Iraq is counterproductive,’ one COIC analyst reported, ‘and needs to be evaluated.’ But the advice was ignored. Deptula, who in 2006 became a lieutenant general and deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (a newly created post), explained his thinking: ‘If you know where an improvised explosive device went off, you can “rewind the tapes” and see where the activity was and what led to it.’ The guilty party could be dispatched by a Special Forces squad in a night raid.
Deptula made no secret of his desire to turn the entire business over to remote control as soon as possible. The technicians operating drones from US soil, he told an interviewer, were ‘very comfortable with the responsibilities of finishing the kill chain when called upon to do so’. He retired from the air force as a three-star general in 2010 and became chief executive of MAV 6, a company describing itself as a provider of ‘enhanced situational understanding’ of battlefields. MAV 6 now has a $211 million contract to develop Blue Devil Block 2, an unmanned airship 350 feet long that will carry automated intelligence collection systems capable of intercepting and tracing a high-value target’s mobile phone, recording video of his location, and relaying that information to drone operators. Hovering four miles above Afghanistan for days at a time, Blue Devils will cover huge areas and transmit enormous quantities of digitised images back to the US – the daily equivalent, according to Deptula’s airforce successor, of ‘53,000 full-length feature movies’.
The Gorgon Stare surveillance system, which is destined to be carried by the Blue Devils, was developed at a cost of $500 million and can supposedly keep cars and people across an entire city under constant video surveillance. Civil libertarians, apprehensive about the expansion of the ‘surveillance state’, have objected to its being deployed inside the US. But a December 2010 report by a specialised airforce testing unit in Florida suggests they have little cause for worry. Gorgon Stare’s camera images could not distinguish humans from bushes, or one vehicle from another. It had severe problems working out where it was. It broke down, on average, 3.7 times per sortie. The testing unit recommended that it shouldn’t be deployed, advice rejected by higher authorities, who quickly dispatched it to Afghanistan.
After the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, predicted to take place by 2014, America’s wars will be handed over to drones. Deptula’s dream of a completed ‘kill-chain’ has already been fulfilled in Pakistan and Yemen by the CIA, which, according to the Washington Post, has killed two thousand people with drones since 9/11, many of them civilians. Moreover, the US, while claiming to take a ‘back seat’ or ‘supporting role’ in last year’s war in Libya, launched 145 Predator strikes there. One of them hit Gaddafi’s convoy as he fled Sirte, allowing his pursuers to catch up and execute him.
Time and again, the military has claimed that advances in technology have finally made warfare predictable and precise. That was the promise of Igloo White in Vietnam, the video-game spectacle of the Gulf War, the war for Kosovo and the counter-guerrilla wars of the past ten years. Time and again, the military’s claims have been disproved. Will drones change everything? Robert Gates, secretary of defence from 2006 to 2011, expressed the official view in his address to the CIA Officers Memorial Foundation annual dinner last March. Confessing that he hadn’t initially done enough to quash resistance to innovation from ‘flyboys in silk scarves’, Gates said: ‘From now on, it’s drones, baby, drones.’
Gates also paid tribute in his speech to seven CIA officers killed at an Afghan border post in an attack by a suicide bomber in revenge for drone strikes. Numerous reports attest that the drones have inflamed public opinion across Pakistan as well as Afghanistan. It may be true, as Obama has claimed, that ‘most of al-Qaida’s top lieutenants have been defeated,’ but we don’t know who has replaced them. In Afghanistan, large numbers of local Taliban leaders have been killed, only to be replaced, so local observers agree, by a younger and far more militant class, less interested in negotiation or peace.
Despite all this, Gates’s successors remain entranced by the technology, as does the popular imagination. Congressman Brian Bilbray has said that the Predator (built in California) has become a ‘folk hero’ for many Americans. ‘If you could register the Predator for president, both parties would be trying to endorse it,’ he told the Los Angeles Times. During his aborted campaign for president, Rick Perry criticised the flow of illegal immigrants across the Mexican border (actually at a forty-year low) and pledged to deploy Predators to stem the menace. Yet when the Department of Homeland Security compared the relative performance of unmanned Predators and manned light Cessna aircraft in detecting illegal border crossings, it found the old-fashioned plane to be ten times as effective and 30 times cheaper. (Keeping a drone in the air involves two or three times as much backup manpower as a jet fighter like the F-16.)
Drones have turned out to be expensive and delicate instruments. Predators, the most common model, manage 20 hours in the air a month before they have to go back to the shop. The air force has lost at least a fifth of its drones to crashes, usually while landing – always a tricky manoeuvre when using remote control – or because the signal link with controllers half a world away was interrupted. The second problem is likely to become an increasing worry: the Iranians deliberately interrupted the signal when they captured a ‘stealth’ reconnaissance drone in December. According to the Iranians’ account, they jammed the aircraft’s signal to its controllers, which meant that it reverted to automatic pilot, pre-programmed to return the drone to Kandahar under GPS guidance. But GPS depends on radio signals from satellites orbiting 20,000 kilometres above the earth. Because a satellite’s power supply is limited the signals are weak, and the Iranians were able to override them with false signals that caused the robot aircraft to think it was headed for Kandahar when it was in fact cruising to land somewhere in Iran.
However ingenious the Iranians were, the vulnerabilities of drone control and GPS are inherent and pretty widely known. (In a less publicised incident last March, an American reconnaissance plane over South Korea suddenly returned to base on discovering that its GPS was being jammed, an imprudent move since it confirmed to the North Koreans the effectiveness of their methods.) None of this is likely to have much effect on the robot aviation industry, however, which has now acquired its own congressional lobby, the Unmanned Systems Caucus. The military can be sure that whatever austerity is imposed elsewhere, drones and attendant surveillance systems will be funded.
Deficiencies, it seems, bring their own reward. The US air force recently announced that it would ground the current model of Global Hawk drones, which cost more than $200 million apiece, on grounds of poor performance, but immediately commissioned a new and even more expensive variant of the same machine. Deptula now acknowledges the problems of the current generation of drones, and is calling for the development of an entirely autonomous system that doesn’t rely on a ‘man in the loop’.