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The Drone That Fell From the Sky
Posted on Dec 21, 2011
By Nick Turse, TomDispatch
Eventually, the Air Force ruled that a cooling system malfunction had led to engine failure. An accident investigator also concluded that the pilot had not executed proper procedures after the engine failure, causing the craft to crash just short of the runway, slightly damaging the perimeter fence at Kandahar Air Field and destroying the drone.
The clear conclusion reached by accident investigators in this crash stands in stark contrast to the murkiness of what happened to the advanced drone now in Iranian hands. Whether the latter crashed thanks to a malfunction, was shot down, felled by a cyberattack, or ended up on the ground for some other reason, its loss and that of the special ops drone are reminders of just how reliant the U.S. military has become on high-tech robot planes whose major accidents now exceed those of much more expensive fixed-wing aircraft. (There were 10 major airborne mishaps involving such Air Force aircraft in 2011.)
Robot War: 2012 and Beyond
The failure to achieve victory in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with a perceived success in the Libyan war—significantly fought with airpower including drones—has convinced many in the military not to abandon foreign wars, but to change their approach. Long-term occupations involving tens of thousands of troops and the use of counterinsurgency tactics are to be traded in for drone and special forces operations.
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Instead, like the others, it has increasingly proven to be a non-game-changer of a weapon with ordinary vulnerabilities. Its technology is fallible and its efforts have often been counterproductive in these last years. For example, the inability of pilots watching computer monitors on the other side of the planet to discriminate between armed combatants and innocent civilians has proven a continuing problem for the military’s drone operations, while the CIA’s judge-jury-executioner assassination program is widely considered to have run afoul of international law—and, in the case of Pakistan, to be alienating an entire population. The drone increasingly looks less like a winning weapon than a machine for generating opposition and enemies.
In addition, as flight hours rise year after year, the vulnerabilities of remotely piloted missions are ever more regularly coming to light. These have included Iraqi insurgents hacking drone video feeds, a virulent computer virus infecting the Air Force’s unmanned fleet, large percentages of drone pilots suffering from “high operational stress,” increasing numbers of crashes, and the possibility of Iranian drone-hijacking.
While human and mechanical errors are inherent in the operation of any type of machinery, few commentators have focused significant attention on the full spectrum of drone flaws and limitations. For more than a decade, remotely piloted aircraft have been a mainstay of U.S. military operations and the tempo of drone operations continues to rise yearly, but relatively little has been written about drone defects or the limits and hazards of drone operations.
Perhaps the Air Force is beginning to worry about when this will change. After years of regularly ushering reporters through drone operations at Creech Air Force Base and getting a flood of glowing, even awestruck, publicity about the glories of drones and drone pilots, this year, without explanation, it shut down press access to the program, moving robotic warfare deeper into the shadows.
The recent losses of the Pentagon’s robot Sentinel in Iran, the Reaper in the Seychelles, and the Predator in Kandahar, however, offer a window into a future in which the global skies will be filled with drones that may prove far less wondrous than Americans have been led to believe. The United States could turn out to be relying on a fleet of robots with wings of clay.
Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com. An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. This article is the fourth in his new series on the changing face of American empire, which is being underwritten by Lannan Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter @NickTurse, on Tumblr, and on Facebook.
Copyright 2011 Nick Turse
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