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The Drone That Fell From the Sky

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Posted on Dec 21, 2011
Swamibu (CC-BY)

By Nick Turse, TomDispatch

(Page 3)

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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Remotely piloted aircraft have regularly been touted, in the press and the military, as wonder weapons, the way, not so long ago, counterinsurgency tactics were being promoted as an elixir for military failure.  Like the airplane, the tank, and nuclear weapons before it, the drone has been touted as a game-changer, destined to alter the very essence of warfare.

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  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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drbhelthi's avatar

By drbhelthi, December 23, 2011 at 12:38 am Link to this comment

I meant to say “for every High Value enemy combatant”  Cliff Carson

When we carefully view those who are depicted by the current U.S.
“administration” to be “high value terrorists”, - seems to me that the innocent
civilians who are murdered more nearly approaches a figure between 1,000 -
10,000.  Perhaps as high as 100,000. 

I wonder how much USTaxpayer money was wasted on the Obama Hollywood
production in Pakistan when a fill-in for Osama bin Laden was allegedly
Especially, since Osama bin Laden died of renal failure on 19 Dec 2001, after two
failed kidney transplants and two years on dialysis.

“They will believe anything we tell them - - ”  is no longer accurate.

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By Cliff Carson, December 22, 2011 at 10:53 pm Link to this comment

By Cliff Carson, December 22 at 4:39 pm

“My guess is that for every enemy combatant killed by drones in excess of 100 or more non-combatants are killed.”

I meant to say “for every High Value enemy combatant”...

The reason is that whenever a drone attack occurs the claim is that the drone stuck “militants”, etc. In other words only when the bodies of children and women, or their body parts, are displayed are there admissions of “collateral damage”.  All men killed in drone attacks are by definition of the military - militants, known in the press as terrorists.

Sadly our Military Leaders and many in our Congress need to be brought before the International Court as War Criminals.

They have brought about the deaths of well over a million innocent people in the last 30 years.

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By John Kace, December 22, 2011 at 9:38 pm Link to this comment

How long until the drones are used against us? We will be held responsible for the cia undercover governments activity as we should be. We are pathetic cockroaches and need a tax break or a hand-out. Vote Libertarian.

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By Cliff Carson, December 22, 2011 at 5:39 pm Link to this comment

I think this is a good article and forbidding.  The article does give much insight about the limitations of drones and other “Robot” warfare.

However it did fail to mention some very salient facts:

These very drones are flying the skies above the United States also, right now.  Wonder why?

There is a multitude of “Robot” weapons ( other than aircraft drones)out there being used around the world for all kinds of reasons both “good” and “bad”.  These could also be used in the US if the CIA decided to do that.  I seriously doubt that they would tell you that.

All wireless operation can be hacked and don’t think that the U S has the brightest and best scientists, because there are other nationalities who have such, it seems that the US is involved in trying to assassinate any foreign scientist that could give them worry - and as a result those countries are becoming more dangerous every passing hour to the susceptibility of the US.

China has developed the fastest operating computer in the world.  These drones not very far from the operation site need to use satellite feeds to operate.  You might recall that China a few years back blew a satellite out of orbit as a military exercise.  Without communication those “Robots” would go dark when the satellites were blown out of orbit.  And this is just one of the means to defeat robots.

Finally the drones are not nearly so surgical as presented by our “Good” guys.

Thousands of innocent civilians have been killed in these Mid-East countries.  My guess is that for every enemy combatant killed by drones in excess of 100 or more non-combatants are killed. By the way is an insurgent a bad guy when fighting to force the invaders out of his country?

And the Drone does not distinguish between enemy fighters and women and children.  I realize that our Government claims to take all precautions, etc, but that is not provable by the fact that the majority of the dead are women and children.  Envision children sitting at the breakfast table being blown to bits by a Predator bomb.  Or surviving with missing limbs or horrible burns. 

Think for a moment - which country that is having its people bombed by drones invaded the U S?

What would be our response if one of those countries started sending drones over America killing our neighbors?  Have we not become their enemy?

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moonraven's avatar

By moonraven, December 22, 2011 at 11:55 am Link to this comment

Who gives a damn?  Drones or clubs and stones—the gringos will continue to commit genocide against all non-whites on the planet until someone simply

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drbhelthi's avatar

By drbhelthi, December 22, 2011 at 3:19 am Link to this comment

The status quo of the USA and the world is readily comprehended, if one is
acquainted with the history of the CIA, Operation Paper Clip, the history of the
GHWBushSr family, and the history of the current occupant of the u. s.  presidency. 

Former CIA station chief, John Stockwell has made several videos that are revealing.

The WWII NAZI clan did not “give up.”  They transferred their HQ from Berlin to D.C., and cities in Alabama and Texas.  NASA was constructed by WWII NAZI-types and the 200 initial German (NAZI) scientists originally snuck into the US with falsified family histories and passports.  Take the alleged “Father of Space Medicine,” for example, Hubertus Strughold, MD.  He murdered innocent Jewish and other folk at the Dachau death facility with his experiments, and should have been sentenced with his colleagues at Nuremburg.  Yet, a Hubertus Strughold Day was declared in Texas and is celebrated.  Can hypocracy get worse?

Doctor Werner von Braun grew to love the U.S. and Americans so much, that months prior to his death via cancer, he charged a close acquaintance with the task of informing Americans and the world of the NAZI plan to overtake the world.  Dr. Carol Rosin has videos that provide additional detail.

One of John Stockwell´s former C.I.A. contemporaries, “Chip” Tatum, provides careful documentation.  Several years back, the remains of Chip Tatum washed onto the shore of a Caribbean beach.  The NAZI C.I.A. machine has murdered hundreds of former insiders, for having revealed inside information.  And threatened thousands more with death and family mayhem.

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By diamond, December 22, 2011 at 12:54 am Link to this comment

What you need to understand about the drone war is that it is the CIA’s war. They own the drones and they decide when they fly. Now just stop and think about what the CIA did in Vietnam. Think about what they did in Iraq and Afghanistan. Are you happy to have the CIA controlling these drones? It conjures up the specter of a future where these endless wars, fought for profit, will be run by covert operatives not answerable to anyone, and will be completely remote controlled. What the ‘collateral murder’ video showed was the extent to which that is already happening and that is what a lot of people found so shocking about that video. Many people simply don’t understand that the CIA has become a law unto itself, an organization that government fears and does not control.

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By Wingnut, December 21, 2011 at 6:23 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I think the drones, technologically speaking, are amazing.  Redundant flight control systems, massive fuel tanks, satellite uplink/downlink telemetry, weather resistance, weapons systems, its just amazing that the program is plausible whatsoever.  And I bet there’s some autonomy involved too, or at least planned.  These drones might look for suspicious activity all on their own, and even try to fly home if contact is lost.  And I bet some all-solar-powered versions have at least been considered.  Of course, how would I know?  While I was in the Air Force, there was a general rumor that only the lower 50% of the tech… was known about.  In other words, black ops has just as much tech hidden from ALL VIEW… as what was in-view.

I think we’ll see drones, guided missiles, and smart-bullet tech… merge to a degree, in the future.  I don’t like to think about it, so I’ll quit right here and now.  smile

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A Khokar's avatar

By A Khokar, December 21, 2011 at 4:13 pm Link to this comment

There is no doubt US has upper hand in drones technology and is free to carry out strikes under self proclaimed CIA’s judge-jury-executioner assassination program in the lands which may offer less or no resistance to drone operation for lack of their ability or other constraints like in Pakistan to counter drone attacks.

But I don’t think that those days are too far off when these defenceless countries would also be having this technology in hand and places like Creech air base in Nevada will be equally be surveiled and attacked by the other adversaries.

I mean they don’t have to reinvent the wheel Simple hacking may bring down the drone to add to their inventory like Iranians they did

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A Khokar's avatar

By A Khokar, December 21, 2011 at 4:12 pm Link to this comment

There is no doubt US got an upper hand in drones technology and is free to carry out strikes under self proclaimed ‘CIA’s judge-jury-executioner assassination program’ in the lands which may offer less or no resistance to drone operation for lack of their ability or other constraints like in Pakistan to counter drone attacks.

But I don’t think that those days are too far off when these defenceless countries would also be having this technology in hand and places like Creech air base in Nevada will be equally be surveiled and attacked by the adversaries.

I mean they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Simple hacking may bring down the drone to add to their inventory like Iranians they did

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By Litl Bludot, December 21, 2011 at 3:50 pm Link to this comment

It’s puzzling to have an article mix supposed facts with fiction. Just a quick read provides a few propaganda nuggets, among them:
The Iranians have
shown the drone in video and pictures. It’s pristine condition proves that it did not
“crash”. So why does the author use that word? What’s the story in this article?

He also states that the war in Libya was “won” by drones. WTF? Won?

So again, what’s this article about?

Truthdig is becoming more curious every day.

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drbhelthi's avatar

By drbhelthi, December 21, 2011 at 2:30 pm Link to this comment

Predictably, more drones will be lost due to “warping and deforming,” and the overtaking of control of the drones by cyber attacks of the indigenous folk whose airspace is being violated.  Many of which folk have clearly indicated that they do not care for the Obama/Clinton version of “democracy.”  As have many Americans.

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By gerard, December 21, 2011 at 2:02 pm Link to this comment

After the crash of one drone mentioned in the article, an investigation revealed that “Significant overheating had, it was discovered, warped and deformed the machinery. “
  I would suggest at this point that “significant overheating” of war-prone and profits-driven pressures are driving human “drones” in the MIC, and that the “machinery” of war-promotion is “warped and deformed.”

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