StratCom: The Fulcrum for Drone Warfare

Loring Wirbel, Citizens for Peace in Space
Colorado Springs, Colorado

MQ-9 Reaper (Predator B) Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle

The speed with which Unpiloted Aerial Vehicles have transformed the face of war-fighting is almost as dazzling as the technology itself. Five years ago, these robot planes were still pretty much generally regarded as the stuff of science fiction. Today, however, unarmed reconnaissance drones (ranging in size from a dragonfly to almost the size of a two-seat Cessna) and the rarer armed drones (equipped with missiles or smart bombs) are staples of the Pentagon’s war-making efforts—their numbers and uses destined only to increase.

Just who in fact is controlling these unpiloted aircraft (and under what authority) is a subject that has importance though for those of us interested in complying with international rule of law, protecting our open system of government, and preventing the outbreak of still another war. 

In the early years of the ‘War on Terror,’ missions involving Unpiloted Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) could be divided into those sponsored directly by regional combat commands in the Pentagon, and the more covert missions planned and executed by the CIA—both of which were supported by space and intelligence assets. The Pentagon-conducted missions tended to adhere to stricter rules of military engagement, which meant that if a drone directly targeted an individual al-Qaida suspect, chances were good that the mission was clandestine and run by the CIA.

In recent months, however, a third level of management has emerged, raising even greater questions of responsibility and accountability. According to journalist Jeremy Scahill and several other sources, the Pentagon’s secretive “Joint Special Operations Command” (JSOC) manages unacknowledged armed UAV missions in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. These missions are run directly by Blackwater/Xe and several of its subsidiaries. Yet, because the ultimate authority for the missions goes back to JSOC, Strategic Command in Omaha (particularly its ‘Global Strike’ component) plays a more direct role in these even more deeply covert UAV strikes, than it does in CIA missions.

Demonstrators who went to the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia January 16 to protest the Agency’s drone attacks provided a rare and needed public face to these UAV missions which have become so commonplace in the past several years. Yet the protests only scratch the surface. The passing of armed-UAV authority among official combat commands, quasi-official CIA bases, and deniable JSOC/Blackwater missions allows the Pentagon to play a shell game that keeps activists from understanding who does what. And the central player shuffling the shells is Strategic Command.   

A Brief History of the UAV

How did UAVs come to play such a central role in warfare, and how did Strategic Command end up in a starring role? This story has roots going back to the mid-1990s, in the Bosnia and Kosovo conflicts. 

Drones slowly moved to center stage during the years of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, as the Bush/Cheney Administration sought to minimize body counts by making standoff robot war the primary means by which the U.S. sought to control events. Obama and CIA Director Leon Panetta accelerated this effort, when they saw that deniable drone strikes on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border represented a way to hopefully target leaders of the insurgency without (ideally) the collateral damage of large-scale F16 flights. In fact, since armed UAV missions escalated, the U.S. Commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, has tightened the rules for F16 sorties in support of ground troops, under the assumption that UAV attacks will all but eliminate piloted airborne assaults in the near future.

UAVs are used worldwide, by all major military states. They can trace a lineage back to the German V-1 ‘buzz bomb,’ but did not become effective in war until developments in microelectronics allowed full radar, image processing and intelligence-collection chips to be placed on an aerial platform smaller than a compact car. At the same time in the 1990s, advances in ‘smart bombs’ allowed ‘Hellfire missiles’ and gravity bombs fitted with JDAM guidance mechanisms to be used on unpiloted platforms and display a certain degree of intelligent targeting after being fired from the drone.  As these technologies started coming to fruition in the late 1990s, the Pentagon developed two designations for UAVs—the ‘RQ’ series referred to unarmed reconnaissance aircraft, while the ‘MQ’ series referred to armed drones.

The earliest small UAVs of the 1990s, including the TRW Hunter, TRW Pioneer, and Bombardier/Dornier QL-289, were scarcely autonomous platforms, and required significant guidance from ground-based pilots. The two primary platforms during the earlier stages of the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns were the high-altitude RQ-4 ‘Global Hawk,’ manufactured by Northrop Grumman and used solely for reconnaissance; and the low-altitude ‘Predator,’ manufactured by General Atomics and used in both RQ intelligence and MQ armed missions. These systems used ground-based pilots whose talents more closely resembled an expert video-game player than a traditional airplane pilot. The training schools established at locations such as Creech AFB in Nevada and Holloman AFB in New Mexico resembled video arcades—in fact, Air Force and even Army recruiters began scouting arcades in the early 2000s to find teenagers with fast eye-hand coordination to pilot these drones.

By the time the war expanded to Pakistan at the end of the decade, the Predator had gone through three generations: the MQ-1 Predator A, the MQ-9 Predator B or ‘Reaper,’ and the Predator C ‘Avenger’ (still in prototype stage). The targeting software for such systems is transitioning from stand-alone joystick applications on a laptop, to small touch-screen applications on platforms as small as an iPhone. Training, however, still requires a dedicated military staff familiar with using GPS-based navigational tools, which is why the role of StratCom continues to be important in coordinating drone-pilot education.

General Atomics’ dedicated work for the CIA began with a reconnaissance-only UAV called the ‘Gnat,’ used by some of the first CIA teams to go into Afghanistan post-9/11. The CIA made its first attempt at Mullah Muhammad Omar on October 7, 2001, the first day of coordinated air strikes across Afghanistan, but the delays experienced in gaining approval through the Pentagon chain of command allowed Omar to escape. 

Consequently, the CIA demanded new loosened rules of engagement, which led to a successful Predator assault on Mohammed Atef, who died November 15, 2001, and a broad-armed UAV assault on al-Qaida in November 2002. As new CIA bases were established in Djibouti and Qatar for the buildup prior to the Iraq invasion, the CIA gained its own dedicated arsenal of Predator drones, which were billed and inventoried in segmented fashion from those belonging to the Pentagon. However, this expansion also pointed out the lack of accountability in such assaults—on November 3, 2002, a Predator launched from the nearby CIA base in Djibouti shot a Hellfire missile at a car in Yemen with six alleged al-Qaida activists, killing all six. The Bush/Cheney Administration claimed at the time that the CIA did not need to seek pre-launch verification of identities. Since the importance of Yemen and the nearby Djibouti CIA base on the African Horn have seen their significance escalate recently, it is fair to ask where the accountability for future Yemen attacks may lie. 

Drone Warfare Today

Just considering unarmed spy drones, the Pentagon’s use of such UAVs has escalated nearly exponentially since the start of the Iraq War. In 2003, 35,000 flight hours were logged by spy drones over Iraq and Afghanistan. By 2008, that number had increased to more than 800,000 flight hours in one year. While the first Predator was useful as a direct-assault drone, the new Predator B ‘Reaper’ is the first true ‘hunter-killer,’ which can dwell over an area in a reconnaissance mission, and then shift to attack. The 27-ft.-long Reaper with its expanded payload can carry to up to 14 missiles and two 2500-lb. gravity bombs. Two years ago, the first-generation Predator started making way for Reaper, which could fly up to 250 mph while transmitting up to 10 full-motion video images. The armed version of Reaper does not have to sacrifice any surveillance capability for the addition of missiles—one system can serve both ends. By 2009, the ‘Air Education and Training Command’ announced that more pilots were being trained for ground-based UAV control than for actual airborne flying missions. The AETC regularly coordinates with Strategic Command, in particular Global Strike, to integrate GPS and space-based assets with ground-based control of drones.

It is important to recognize the support role in robotic assault that can be played by unarmed drones and by ground-based electronics that help drones find their targets. The high-altitude Global Hawk, for example, is often considered a system meant only for snooping. With a 44-ft.-long platform the size of a corporate jet, it can fly at altitudes as great as 35,000 feet. But Global Hawk also is used to provide targets for later Predator attacks. Global Hawk is being deployed in other regions, such as North Korea, with this hidden aspect in mind.

A new follow-on drone, the RQ-170 ‘Sentinel’ (nicknamed the ‘Beast of Kandahar’), was developed at the Lockheed Martin’s famed ‘skunk works’ research and development facility, and applies stealth technology to create the drone equivalent of a B-2—essentially a flying wing with no radar cross-section. Since Afghan Taliban forces have no significant radar assets, the primary reason for using the Sentinel seems to be to allow a drone to be flown in Pakistan without Pakistani military authorities being aware of it. Rumors persist that an armed MQ version of the Sentinel exists, and may already have been deployed.

This is where the JSOC and Blackwater come in. According to Jeremy Scahill’s article in the December 21/28, 2009 issue of The Nation magazine, JSOC established a deniable operation in Karachi, Pakistan, staffed exclusively by members of two Blackwater/Xe subsidiaries, ‘Blackwater Select’ and ‘Total Intelligence Solutions Inc.’ The teams at this office are involved in both extraordinary renditions of individuals and UAV bombing missions in the frontier areas of the Pakistan/Afghanistan border. This report coincides with back-to-back articles in The New York Times in August 2009 claiming that Blackwater was responsible for both an earlier ‘hit squad’ team organized out of then-Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, and a later armed UAV effort to augment the CIA’s own. In essence, the expansion of drone assaults by CIA and JSOC have made ground-based assassination squads largely unnecessary.

The CIA itself launches UAVs out of Shamsi and Jalalabad in Pakistan, but its operations have come under growing criticism in Pakistan, particularly since Obama and Panetta agreed to expand the program last January. Since that time, JSOC and Blackwater have taken over some managerial functions, and launch some drones independently from the CIA bases at Shamsi and Jalalabad, while using dedicated JSOC sites in or near Waziristan and other border provinces. And Strategic Command remains front and center in all three operations. 

StratCom, Front and Center

Thanks to an Internet portal from Lockheed Martin delivered to StratCom in the spring of 2009, the ‘Integrated Strategic Planning and Analysis Network Collaborative Information Environment’ (ISPAN-CIE), the Global Strike and Air Force Space Commands (as well as the component commands) have a central role in planning the missions and the targeting of all unarmed and armed UAVs—these include JSOC UAVs, and some indirect oversight, if not control, of CIA UAVs.  Access to these tools gives the StratCom authorities the illusion of still having a human in the command loop, which StratCom Commander General Kevin Chilton says has been reduced to microseconds. But many critics—even within the military—worry that the existence of three levels of armed UAV rules of engagement alongside the ability of hunter-killer drones to decide at will when to strike a particular target may allow many UAVs to make the decision to attack without any human intervention.

The issue of armed drones will come to a head during 2010, as President Obama adds another 35,000 troops to Afghanistan, and an armed version of the Sentinel UAV comes to Pakistan (perhaps adding stealth capability to a platform that has little human oversight). 

Peace activists concerned about drones need to focus as much attention on StratCom as they do on the CIA. Make no mistake about it—with multiple drone models out there and multiple layers of secrecy, finding solid information about the casualties caused by drones (and who is responsible for those casualties) will become progressively harder. But our only alternative is a runaway war, run by StratCom robots. 

Resources:

 Agence France Presse, ‘US Air Force confirms ‘Beast of Kandahar’,’ December 8, 2009

Mayer, Jane, ‘The Predator War,’ The New Yorker, Oct, 26, 2009, pg. 36

Mazzetti, Mark, ‘CIA Sought Blackwater’s Help to Kill Jihadists,’ New York Times, Aug. 19, 2009

Pincus, Walter, ‘Air Force Training More Pilots for Drones Than for Manned Planes,’ Washington Post, Aug. 11, 2009

Risen, James and Mazzetti, Mark, ‘CIA Said to Use Outsiders to Put Bombs on Drones,’ New York Times, Aug. 20, 2009

Scahill, Jeremy, ‘The Secret US War in Pakistan,’ The Nation, Dec. 21/28, 2009, pg. 11

Shachtman, Noah and Rawnsley, Adam, ‘Spy Chips Guiding CIA Drone Strikes, Locals Say,’ Wired Magazine Danger Room Blog, June 1, 2009

Singer, P.W., Wired for War–The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, NY: Penguin Books, 2009

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