The Problem With the Predator
by Marc W. Herold
Departments of Economics and Women's Studies
Whittemore School of Business & Economics
University of New Hampshire
"Few things are as predictable as the excited bleats of Pentagon flacks touting the killing efficacy of new weapons systems every time the U.S. begins a military operation."1
A Predator that was reportedly downed in Iraq, 2001.
POSTED JANURARY 12, 2003 --
In December 2001, President Bush cited the Predator and Global Hawk drones -- which display the 'virtual reality' character of much of the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan2 -- as examples of the kind of 'transformational' defense technologies whose development the Pentagon must accelerate. But in spite of the recent highly-publicized success of a Predator drone in blowing up a carload of alleged Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen, the system described by the Pentagon as "its eyes in the sky" has for the most part proven to be unreliable and laughably inaccurate.
This New Year was ushered in with yet another Predator falling from the sky into the remote village of Bashir Khan Jikhrani, a few miles from the U.S. air base in Jacobabad, Pakistan.3 Since military operations began in Afghanistan, U.S. forces have lost both of their Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle [UAV] drones as well as six of the smaller Predator RQ-1 unmanned drones -- that is, more than 12 percent of the total Predator fleet of 48 drones has been lost. In early February, the Center for Defense Intelligence reported,
"As of the end of November, there were about a dozen Predators being flown by the CIA and U.S. Air Force in Afghanistan. However, there have been three Predator crashes so far (one in November and two in the last week of January), all reportedly the result of the UAVs reacting poorly to bad weather, so there are an estimated nine Predators in Afghanistan currently."
The total bill to U.S. taxpayers for lost drones in Afghanistan is over $55 million. The Global Hawk is manufactured by Northrup Grumman at Rancho Bernardo, CA, at a cost of $15 million each, while the Predator RQ-1 is made in San Diego, California, by General Atomics, with a unit price tag of $ 4.5 million.4
For a year before 9/11/2001, CIA-operated Predator drones flying over Afghanistan had occasionally picked up Bin Laden.5 Even before the U.S. bombing campaign against Afghanistan started, a CIA-operated RQ-1 Predator had crashed in Afghanistan on September 23, 2001. Such an inauspicious beginning was soon followed by another Predator crash on November 2, 2001 in Afghanistan, two more crashes during the week of January 21, 2002, and another crash on May 17, 2002 in the hills near the U.S. air base in Jacobabad, Pakistan. The big brother of the Predator, called the Global Hawk, has fared even worse. Both of the $15 million U.S. Air Force-operated unmanned craft have crashed -- the first on December 30, 2001, and the second on July 10, 2002, near another U.S. air base at Shamsi, Pakistan.
Table 1. Drones Lost in Afghan Theater, 2001-2002
|Unit cost||# deployed||# crashed||% destroyed|
|Global Hawk||$ 15 million||2||2||100%|
|Predator||$ 4.5 million||12||6||50%|
The U.S. Air Force has used Predator drones flying out of its bases in Uzbekistan [near the Afghan border] and Pakistan [Jacobabad and Shamsi]. Clear weather and the lack of Taliban anti-aircraft defenses allowed the drones to collect real-time imagery which was relayed to hovering strike aircraft. In the summer of 2001 some Predators were equipped with two of Lockheed's Hellfire AGM-114 laser-guided anti-tank missiles [$45,000 apiece]. So far there are four reported cases exist of the Predator-Hellfire combination being used. Two of these attacks resulted in the deaths of at least 13 innocent civilians. On February 4, 2002, a Predator Hellfire missile killed three Afghans scavenging for metal in the hills around Zhawar Kili, Paktia. On May 6,, 2002, a Predator fired a Lockheed missile at a convoy of cars in Kunar province, seeking to assassinate Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, but succeeded only in destroying a madrassah and killing at least 10 nearby civilians. On October 26,, 2001, the CIA sent a missile-armed Predator drone from Pakistan to protect Afghan opposition leader Abdul Haq, who at the time was being tracked by the Taliban. That mission failed.6
The lone reported 'success' of the Predator-Hellfire was the Wednesday, November 14, 2001, night attack upon a three-story hotel building south of Kabul, where fleeing Al Qaeda and Taliban had gathered and parked their SUVs. Predator imagery was used to call in F/A-18 jets, which bombed the building, reportedly killing a senior lieutenant of bin Laden, the Egyptian Mohammed Atef as well as others. As the survivors scattered Hellfire missiles struck fleeing vehicles.7
As reported by CounterPunch's Jeffrey St. Clair, the Pentagon's top systems officer, Thomas Christie, who is employed in the Department of Defense's Operational Test and Evaluation division, accurately highlighted the Predator's weaknesses:
"The system's limitations have a substantial negative impact on the Predator's ability to conduct its missions...poor target location accuracy, ineffective communications, and limits imposed by relatively benign weather, including rain, negatively impact missions such as strike support, combat search and rescue, area search, and continuous coverage."
The Associated Press's Matt Kelley, added
"The plane's video, infrared and radar cameras can provide live images but aren't accurate enough to pinpoint targets. Pushed from the rear by a propeller, the Predator can fly only about 90 mph and is most effective at [an altitude of] about 10,000 feet, within range of most anti-aircraft fire."8
In fact, about one-third of the 65 Predators which had been built by early 2002 had crashed. A report in Defense Week in May 2002 noted that of a fleet of 65 in toto, 23 Predator drones [or 35 percent] had gone down -- nine were shot down, eight experienced mechanical problems and/or bad weather, and six losses were chalked up to human error.9
On February 4, 2002, a Predator drone fired a Hellfire missile at 'three tall men' believed to be Al Qaeda members because they were clothed in long robes. The three men were later revealed to be poor people scavenging for metal in the Zhawar Kili battlefields:
"Two people were killed on the spot and one died on the way to hospital," the Afghan Islamic Press [AIP] said. AIP, citing tribal elders, identified the three dead men as Munir Ahmad, Jehangir Khan and Daraz Khan. "They were standing and chatting when hit by the missile," said the elders. They also said there were no al Qaeda people in the area, AIP said."
The antics engaged in by the Pentagon were neatly summarized by David Corn:
"The Washington Post reported on Monday that the three men killed on February 4 in the remote village of Zhawar by a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone were not Al Qaeda leaders, as the Pentagon had suggested. They were Afghan peasants foraging for scrap metal, and the group did not include Osama bin Laden. Media reports following the attack raised the possibility the Al Qaeda chief had been one of the dead. The Pentagon was slow to accept the idea that the Central Command and the CIA--which controls the Predator missiles --had goofed. Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem told journalists that US troops at the scene of the attack had found weapons, credit card applications, and airline schedules and asserted that this "would seem to say that these are not peasant people up there farming." But as a subsequent Post story noted, the area, once used by Al Qaeda as a training camp, had been virtually destroyed during the earlier US bombing campaign. In recent weeks, some local families had returned to the village. Consequently, finding signs of a past Al Qaeda presence at the site would have little bearing on the political loyalties of the three men killed. Several local villagers told Doug Struck of the Post that the three men were poor scavengers looking to recover remains of missiles they could sell in Pakistan."10
The Predator attack at 3 p.m. on February 4, 2002, upon three men standing high on a bluff above the Zhawar caves south of Khost, killed the men, who had walked 10 miles into the snowy mountains from their village of Lalazha, to salvage missile shrapnel. A camel-load of twisted steel brings 50 cents across the border in Pakistan. Families of the villagers were furious over the deaths of Daraz Khan, Jehangir Khan and Mir Ahmed. The 16 year-old niece of Daraz Khan said:
"Why did you do this? Why did you Americans kill Daraz? We have nothing, nothing, and you have taken from us our Daraz."
Pentagon Spokeswoman Victoria Clark responded to the incident, saying "We're convinced that it was an appropriate target...[although] we do not yet know exactly who it was."
The first U.S. Air Force Predator was lost in Afghanistan's notoriously bad winter weather on Friday, November 2, 2001.11 This was followed on December 30, 2001, with the crash of the much larger RQ-4A Global Hawk UAV during a routine surveillance flight.12 The U.S. Air Force had thus lost one of its two Global Hawks in the Afghan theater.
A month later, in just one week, two more Predator drones crashed. The first crashed in Pakistan on Tuesday, January 22, 2002, and the second fell in Afghanistan at 3 a.m. on Friday, January 25, 2002.13
President Bush's 2003 budget plan calls for spending $158 million to buy 22 more Predators and upgrade the existing drones. By mid-February, U.S. critics were arguing that the Predator, at a cost of $4 million each, and a Predator unit which includes four planes and a ground control unit costing $25 million each, was not worth the price.14 During the battles in the Shah-i-Kot mountains in March, U.S. troops said the Predator's live video gave them little useful information, and were sometimes a distraction, encouraging higher-level military staffers to micro-manage the fighting.15
On May 17, 2002, yet another Predator crashed, this time near the U.S. air base in Jacobabad.16 And again, two months later, a Northrup Grumman Global Hawk crashed on July 10, 2002, near the U.S air base in Shamsi, Pakistan.17 The sixth Predator crashed about 20 miles south of Khost on September 17, 2002.18
The soaring expense of building the UAVs -- no more seen as cheap, disposable unmanned substitutes for more expensive, conventional manned aircraft -- was deemed as too expensive to use in risky military theaters by a U.S. Congressional Committee in August 2002.19 The Air Force, which wants a fleet of 51 unmanned Global Hawks, was shocked to discover that the price of the planes has jumped from $15 million each to $75 million each, a cost officials warned could ultimately doom the aircraft.20
But more importantly, these weapons systems, like the much-heralded precision-guided bombs, are shockingly inaccurate. Innocent Afghans represent the human cost of the U.S. assault upon Afghanistan, and the American taxpayer foots the monetary bill. As the past year has revealed, ABC News was dead wrong in its prediction that the Predator "may turn out to be Osama Bin Laden's worst nightmare."
Osama rides and fallen Predators rust across Pakistan and Afghanistan.
-- 30 --
Read about the more than 20 drones that were lost by NATO during the war in Yugoslavia. http://www.geocities.com/fscswheelsvstracks/sodastrawuavs.htm
1. Jeffrey St. Clair, "Flying Blind. The Problem with the Predator," Counterpunch [October 30, 2001]. See also Mike Toner, "Warfare Tests New Technology," Atlanta Journal and Constitution [September 2, 2002] for an example of the mainstream press parroting the Pentagon's 'bleating.'
3. Unmanned U.S. Drone Crashes in Pakistan," Associated Press [January 1, 2003] http://abcnews.go.com/wire/World/ap20030101_725.html
4. For details on the Predator, see Project on Government Oversight [POGO], "Fighting with Failures Series: Case Studies of How the Pentagon Buys Weapons Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle" [March 25, 2002], at: http://www.pogo.org/p/defense/do-020311-failures-predator.htm
5. Neil King Jr., "CIA Drones Spotted Bin Laden But Couldn't Shoot," Arizona Daily Star [November 23, 2001] CIA unit of its special activities division began infiltrating into Afghanistan on September 27 (Bob Woodward, "Secret CIA Units Playing a Central Combat Role," Washington Post, November 18, 2001.)
6. John Lumpkin, "CIA Sent Drone to Save Rebel Leader," Associated Press [October 29, 2001].
7. The attack is described in Stephen Grey, "Death of Bin Laden's Deputy: How the US Killed Al-Qaeda Leaders by Remote Control," Times of London [November 18, 2001].
8. Matt Kelly, "Pilotless Spy Plane Plagued by Flaws," Associated Press [February 5, 2002].
9. Ron Laurenzo, "Combat Losses Account for Most Downed Predators," Defense Week, May, 2002
11. "Unmanned Spy Plane Lost Over Afghanistan: Pentagon," Agence France-Presse [November 6, 2001 at 5:27 PM Manila Time]
12. Paul Richter, "Global Hawk Crashes in Afghanistan in a Setback for High-Tech Drones," Los Angeles Times [January 1, 2002]
13. "Karzai Calls for Additional Security," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel [January 26, 2002]
14. Chris Yagelo, "Are Predator Spy Craft Worth the Cost?" Capital News Service [February 15, 2002]
15. Thomas E. Ricks, "Beaming the Battlefield Home: Live Video of Afghan Fighting Had Questionable Effect," Washington Post [March 26, 2002]
16. "Unmanned U.S. Spy Plane Crashed in Southwestern Pakistan," Associated Press [May 18, 2002]
17. "US Spy Plane Crashes in Pakistan," Al-Muhajiroum [July 12, 2002]
18. "Unmanned Spy Plane Crashes," Associated Press, [September 18, 2002]
19. "Panel: Spy Plane Too Costly for OPS," Reuters [August 28, 2002 at 2:41 PM] at Yahoo! News Asia
20. Toner, op. cit.