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The Rise of the Killer Drones: How America Goes to War in Secret

An inside look at how killing by remote control has changed the way we fight

An MQ-1 Predator drone goes through post-flight maintenance in Iraq.
U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Christopher Griffin
April 16, 2012 8:00 AM ET

One day in late November, an unmanned aerial vehicle lifted off from Shindand Air Base in western Afghanistan, heading 75 miles toward the border with Iran. The drone's mission: to spy on Tehran's nuclear program, as well as any insurgent activities the Iranians might be supporting in Afghanistan. With an estimated price tag of $6 million, the drone was the product of more than 15 years of research and development, starting with a shadowy project called DarkStar overseen by Lockheed Martin. The first test flight for DarkStar took place in 1996, but after a crash and other mishaps, Lockheed announced that the program had been canceled. According to military experts, that was just a convenient excuse for "going dark," meaning that DarkStar's further development would take place under a veil of secrecy.

Inside Obama's War Room

The drone that was headed toward Iran, the RQ-170 Sentinel, looks like a miniature version of the famous stealth fighter, the F-117 Nighthawk: sleek and sand-colored and vaguely ominous, with a single domed eye in place of a cockpit. With a wingspan of 65 feet, it has the ability to fly undetected by radar. Rather than blurting out its location with a constant stream of radio signals – the electronic equivalent of a trail of jet exhaust – it communicates intermittently with its home base, making it virtually impossible to detect. Once it reached its destination, 140 miles into Iranian airspace, it could hover silently in a wide radius for hours, at an altitude of up to 50,000 feet, providing an uninterrupted flow of detailed reconnaissance photos – a feat that no human pilot would be capable of pulling off.

Not long after takeoff – a maneuver handled by human drone operators in Afghanistan – the RQ-170 switched into a semiautonomous mode, following a preprogrammed route under the guidance of drone pilots sitting at computer screens some 7,500 miles away, at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. But before the mission could be completed, something went wrong. One of the drone's three data streams failed, and began sending inaccurate information back to the base. Then the signal vanished, and Creech lost all contact with the drone.

America's Last Prisoner of War

Today, even after a 10-week investigation by U.S. officials, it's unclear exactly what happened. Had the Iranians, as they would later claim, hacked the drone and taken it down? Did the Chinese help them? If so, had they pulled off a sophisticated attack – breaking open the drone's encrypted brain and remotely piloting it to the ground – or a cruder assault that jammed the drone's signal, causing it to crash? Or did the drone operators back at Creech simply make a mistake, sparking a glitch that triggered the aircraft to land? "After a technical fuck-up, people panic and start trying to fix it, doing things they shouldn't have done," says Ty Rogoway, a drone expert who runs an industry website called Aviation Intel. "It was fishy from Day One."

What we do know is that the government lied about who was responsible for the drone. Shortly after the crash on November 29th, the U.S.-led military command in Kabul put out a press release saying it had lost an "unarmed reconnaissance aircraft that had been flying a mission over western Afghanistan." But the drone wasn't under the command of the military – it was operated by the CIA, as the spy agency itself was later forced to admit.

Ten days after the crash, the missing drone turned up in a large gymnasium in Tehran. The Iranian military displayed the captured aircraft as a trophy; an American flag hung beneath the drone, its stars replaced with skulls. The drone looked nearly unscathed, as if it had landed on a runway. The Iranians declared that such surveillance flights represented an "act of war," and threatened to retaliate by attacking U.S. military bases. President Obama demanded that Iran return the drone, but the damage was done. "It was like when someone from Apple left a prototype of the next iPhone at a bar," says Peter Singer, a defense specialist at the Brookings Institute and the author of Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century. "It was a propaganda win for Iran."

The incident also underscored the increasingly central role that drones now play in American foreign policy. During the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the military conducted only a handful of drone missions. Today, the Pentagon deploys a fleet of 19,000 drones, relying on them for classified missions that once belonged exclusively to Special Forces units or covert operatives on the ground. American drones have been sent to spy on or kill targets in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Somalia and Libya. Drones routinely patrol the Mexican border, and they provided aerial surveillance over Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. In his first three years, Obama has unleashed 268 covert drone strikes, five times the total George W. Bush ordered during his eight years in office. All told, drones have been used to kill more than 3,000 people designated as terrorists, including at least four U.S. citizens. In the process, according to human rights groups, they have also claimed the lives of more than 800 civilians. Obama's drone program, in fact, amounts to the largest unmanned aerial offensive ever conducted in military history; never have so few killed so many by remote control.

The use of drones is rapidly transforming the way we go to war. On the battlefield, a squad leader can receive real-time data from a drone that enables him to view the landscape for miles in every direction, dramatically expanding the capabilities of what would normally have been a small and isolated unit. "It's democratized information on the battlefield," says Daniel Goure, a national security expert who served in the Defense Department during both Bush administrations. "It's like a reconnaissance version of Twitter." Drones have also radically altered the CIA, turning a civilian intelligence-gathering agency into a full-fledged paramilitary operation – one that routinely racks up nearly as many scalps as any branch of the military.

But the implications of drones go far beyond a single combat unit or civilian agency. On a broader scale, the remote-control nature of unmanned missions enables politicians to wage war while claiming we're not at war – as the United States is currently doing in Pakistan. What's more, the Pentagon and the CIA can now launch military strikes or order assassinations without putting a single boot on the ground – and without worrying about a public backlash over U.S. soldiers coming home in body bags. The immediacy and secrecy of drones make it easier than ever for leaders to unleash America's military might – and harder than ever to evaluate the consequences of such clandestine attacks.

"Drones have really become the counterterrorism weapon of choice for the Obama administration," says Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown law professor who helped establish a new Pentagon office devoted to legal and humanitarian policy. "What I don't think has happened enough is taking a big step back and asking, 'Are we creating more terrorists than we're killing? Are we fostering militarism and extremism in the very places we're trying to attack it?' A great deal about the drone strikes is still shrouded in secrecy. It's very difficult to evaluate from the outside how serious of a threat the targeted people pose."

The idea of aerial military surveillance dates back to the Civil War, when both the Union and the Confederacy used hot-air balloons to spy on the other side, tracking troop movements and helping to direct artillery fire. In 1898, during the Spanish-American War, the U.S. military rigged a kite with a camera, producing the first aerial reconnaissance photos. When airplanes were introduced to warfare in the First World War, they charted the same pattern later followed by drones – technology deployed first as a means of surveillance, then as a means to kill the enemy.

During World War II, Nazi scientists experimented with radio-controlled missiles for their bombardment of England – creating, in essence, the first kamikaze drones. But it wasn't until the end of the 1950s, when America and Russia were competing to conquer space, that scientists figured out how to fly things without a human onboard: launching satellites, for instance, or remotely controlling the path of rockets and missiles. There were also significant technological shifts that began to make drones feasible. "We were building smaller engines and guidance systems, and we were upgrading our communication and computing abilities," says Goure.

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