This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
American fighter jets screamed over the Iraqi countryside heading for the MQ-1 Predator drone, while its crew in California stood by helplessly. What had begun as an ordinary reconnaissance mission was now taking a ruinous turn. In an instant, the jets attacked and then it was all over. The Predator, one of the Air Force's workhorse hunter/killer robots, had been obliterated.
An account of the spectacular end of that nearly $4 million drone in November 2007 is contained in a collection of Air Force accident investigation documents recently examined by TomDispatch. They catalog more than 70 catastrophic Air Force drone mishaps since 2000, each resulting in the loss of an aircraft or property damage of $2 million or more.
These official reports, some obtained by TomDispatch through the Freedom of Information Act, offer new insights into a largely covert, yet highly touted war-fighting, assassination, and spy program involving armed robots that are significantly less reliable than previously acknowledged. These planes, the latest wonder weapons in the US military arsenal, are tested, launched, and piloted from a shadowy network of more than 60 bases spread around the globe, often in support of elite teams of special operations forces. Collectively, the Air Force documents offer a remarkable portrait of modern drone warfare, one rarely found in a decade of generally triumphalist or awestruck press accounts that seldom mention the limitations of drones, much less their mission failures.
The aerial disasters described draw attention not only to the technical limitations of drone warfare, but to larger conceptual flaws inherent in such operations. Launched and landed by aircrews close to battlefields in places like Afghanistan, the drones are controlled during missions by pilots and sensor operators—often multiple teams over many hours—from bases in places like Nevada and North Dakota. They are sometimes also monitored by "screeners" from private security contractors at stateside bases like Hurlburt Field in Florida. (A recent McClatchy report revealed that it takes nearly 170 people to keep a single Predator in the air for 24 hours.)
In other words, drone missions, like the robots themselves, have many moving parts and much, it turns out, can and does go wrong. In that November 2007 Predator incident in Iraq, for instance, an electronic failure caused the robotic aircraft to engage its self-destruct mechanism and crash, after which US jets destroyed the wreckage to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. In other cases, drones—officially known as remotely piloted aircraft, or RPAs—broke down, escaped human control and oversight, or self-destructed for reasons ranging from pilot error and bad weather to mechanical failure in Afghanistan, Djibouti, the Gulf of Aden, Iraq, Kuwait, and various other unspecified or classified foreign locations, as well as in the United States.
In 2001, Air Force Predator drones flew 7,500 hours. By the close of last year, that number topped 70,000. As the tempo of robotic air operations has steadily increased, crashes have, not surprisingly, become more frequent. In 2001, just two Air Force drones were destroyed in accidents. In 2008, eight drones fell from the sky. Last year, the number reached 13. (Accident rates are, however, dropping according to an Air Force report relying on figures from 2009.)
Keep in mind that the 70-plus accidents recorded in those Air Force documents represent only drone crashes investigated by the Air Force under a rigid set of rules. Many other drone mishaps have not been included in the Air Force statistics. Examples include a haywire MQ-9 Reaper drone that had to be shot out of the Afghan skies by a fighter jet in 2009, a remotely-operated Navy helicopter that went down in Libya last June, an unmanned aerial vehicle whose camera was reportedly taken by Afghan insurgents after a crash in August 2011, an advanced RQ-170 Sentinel lost during a spy mission in Iran last December, and the recent crash of an MQ-9 Reaper in the Seychelles Islands.
You Don't Need a Weatherman... Or Do You?
How missions are carried out—and sometimes fail—is apparent from the declassified reports, including one provided to TomDispatch by the Air Force detailing a June 2011 crash. Late that month, a Predator drone took off from Jalalabad Air Base in Afghanistan to carry out a surveillance mission in support of ground forces. Piloted by a member of the 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing out of Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, the robotic craft ran into rough weather, causing the pilot to ask for permission to abandon the troops below.
His commander never had a chance to respond. Lacking weather avoidance equipment found on more sophisticated aircraft or on-board sensors to clue the pilot in to rapidly deteriorating weather conditions, and with a sandstorm interfering with ground radar, "severe weather effects" overtook the Predator. In an instant, the satellite link between pilot and plane was severed. When it momentarily flickered back to life, the crew could see that the drone was in an extreme nosedive. They then lost the datalink for a second and final time. A few minutes later, troops on the ground radioed in to say that the $4 million drone had crashed near them.
A month earlier, a Predator drone took off from the tiny African nation of Djibouti in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, which includes operations in Afghanistan as well as Yemen, Djibouti, and Somalia, among other nations. According to documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, about eight hours into the flight, the mission crew noticed a slow oil leak. Ten hours later, they handed the drone off to a local aircrew whose assignment was to land it at Djibouti's Ambouli Airport, a joint civilian/military facility adjacent to Camp Lemonier, a US base in the country.
That mission crew—both the pilot and sensor operator—had been deployed from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada and had logged a combined 1,700 hours flying Predators. They were considered "experienced" by the Air Force. On this day, however, the electronic sensors that measure their drone's altitude were inaccurate, while low clouds and high humidity affected its infrared sensors and set the stage for disaster.
An investigation eventually found that, had the crew performed proper instrument cross-checks, they would have noticed a 300-400 foot discrepancy in their altitude. Instead, only when the RPA broke through the clouds did the sensor operator realize just how close to the ground it was. Six seconds later, the drone crashed to earth, destroying itself and one of its Hellfire missiles.
Storms, clouds, humidity, and human error aren't the only natural dangers for drones. In a November 2008 incident, a mission crew at Kandahar Air Field launched a Predator on a windy day. Just five minutes into the flight, with the aircraft still above the sprawling American mega-base, the pilot realized that the plane had already deviated from its intended course. To get it back on track, he initiated a turn that—due to the aggressive nature of the maneuver, wind conditions, drone design, and the unbalanced weight of a missile on just one wing—sent the plane into a roll. Despite the pilot's best efforts, the craft entered a tailspin, crashed on the base, and burst into flames.