On occasion, RPAs have simply escaped from human control. Over the course of eight hours on a late February day in 2009, for example, five different crews passed off the controls of a Predator drone, one to the next, as it flew over Iraq. Suddenly, without warning, the last of them, members of the North Dakota Air National Guard at Hector International Airport in Fargo, lost communication with the plane. At that point no one—not the pilot, nor the sensor operator, nor a local mission crew—knew where the drone was or what it was doing. Neither transmitting nor receiving data or commands, it had, in effect, gone rogue. Only later was it determined that a datalink failure had triggered the drone's self-destruct mechanism, sending it into an unrecoverable tailspin and crash within 10 minutes of escaping human control.
In November 2009, a Predator launched from Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan lost touch with its human handlers 20 minutes after takeoff and simply disappeared. When the mission crew was unable to raise the drone, datalink specialists were brought in but failed to find the errant plane. Meanwhile, air traffic controllers, who had lost the plane on radar, could not even locate its transponder signal. Numerous efforts to make contact failed. Two days later, at the moment the drone would have run out of fuel, the Air Force declared the Predator "lost." It took eight days for its wreckage to be located.
In mid-August 2004, while drone operations in the Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility were running at high tempo, a Predator mission crew began hearing a cascade of warning alarms indicating engine and alternator failure, as well as a possible engine fire. When the sensor operator used his camera to scan the aircraft, it didn't take long to spot the problem. Its tail had burst into flames. Shortly afterward, it became uncontrollable and crashed.
In January 2007, a Predator drone was flying somewhere in the CENTCOM region (above one of 20 countries in the Greater Middle East). About 14 hours into a 20-hour mission, the aircraft began to falter. For 15 minutes its engine was failing, but the information it was sending back remained within normal parameters, so the mission crew failed to notice. Only at the last minute did they become aware that their drone was dying. As an investigation later determined, an expanding crack in the drone's crankshaft caused the engine to seize up. The pilot put the aircraft into a glide toward an unpopulated area. Higher headquarters then directed that he should intentionally crash it, since a rapid reaction force would not be able to reach it quickly and it was carrying two Hellfire missiles as well as unspecified "classified equipment." Days later, its remains were recovered.
The Crash and Burn Future of Robot Warfare
In spite of all the technical limitations of remote-controlled war spelled out in the Air Force investigation files, the US is doubling down on drones. Under the president's new military strategy, the Air Force is projected to see its share of the budgetary pie rise and flying robots are expected to be a major part of that expansion.
Already, counting the Army's thousands of tiny drones, one in three military aircraft—close to 7,500 machines—are robots. According to official figures provided to TomDispatch, roughly 285 of them are Air Force Predator, Reaper, or Global Hawk drones. The Air Force's arsenal also includes more advanced Sentinels, Avengers, and other classified unmanned aircraft. A report published by the Congressional Budget Office last year, revealed that "the Department of Defense plans to purchase about 730 new medium-sized and large unmanned aircraft systems" during the next 10 years.
Over the last decade, the United States has increasingly turned to drones in an effort to win its wars. The Air Force investigation files examined by TomDispatch suggest a more extensive use of drones in Iraq than has previously been reported. But in Iraq, as in Afghanistan, America's preeminent wonder weapon failed to bring the US mission anywhere close to victory. Effective as the spearhead of a program to cripple al-Qaeda in Pakistan, drone warfare in that country's tribal borderlands has also alienated almost the entire population of 190 million. In other words, an estimated 2,000 suspected or identified guerrillas (as well as untold numbers of civilians) died. The populace of a key American ally grew ever more hostile and no one knows how many new militants in search of revenge the drone strikes may have created, though the numbers are believed to be significant.
Despite a decade of technological, tactical, and strategic refinements and improvements, Air Force and allied CIA personnel watching computer monitors in distant locations have continually failed to discriminate between armed combatants and innocent civilians and, as a result, the judge-jury-executioner drone assassination program is widely considered to have run afoul of international law.
In addition, drone warfare seems to be creating a sinister system of embedded economic incentives that may lead to increasing casualty figures on the ground. "In some targeting programs, staffers have review quotas—that is, they must review a certain number of possible targets per given length of time," The Atlantic's Joshua Foust recently wrote of the private contractors involved in the process. "Because they are contractors," he explains, "their continued employment depends on their ability to satisfy the stated performance metrics. So they have a financial incentive to make life-or-death decisions about possible kill targets just to stay employed. This should be an intolerable situation, but because the system lacks transparency or outside review it is almost impossible to monitor or alter."
As flight hours rise year by year, these stark drawbacks are compounded by a series of technical glitches and vulnerabilities that are ever more regularly coming to light. These include: 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," a friendly fire incident in which drone operators killed two US military personnel, increasing numbers of crashes, and the possibility of an Iranian drone-hijacking, as well as those more than 70 catastrophic mishaps detailed in Air Force accident investigation documents.
Over the last decade, a more-is-better mentality has led to increased numbers of drones, drone bases, drone pilots, and drone victims, but not much else. Drones may be effective in terms of generating body counts, but they appear to be even more successful in generating animosity and creating enemies.
The Air Force's accident reports are replete with evidence of the flaws inherent in drone technology, and there can be little doubt that, in the future, ever more will come to light. A decade's worth of futility suggests that drone warfare itself may already be crashing and burning, yet it seems destined that the skies will fill with drones and that the future will bring more of the same.
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 fifth 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. (To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Turse discusses why drone warfare is anything but failure-proof, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.