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

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The first use of modern drones came during the Vietnam War, when the Pentagon tested unmanned aerial vehicles for what the military called ISR: intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. "Vietnam was decisive to the development of drones as the perfect tools to perform dangerous missions without the risk of losing a pilot," says aviation historian David Cenciotti. By the war's end, drones had flown some 3,500 recon missions in Vietnam. The Air Force also developed two attack drones – the BGM-34A and BGM-34B Firebee – but never used them in combat: The sensors weren't yet capable of identifying and hitting camouflaged targets with the accuracy the military needed.

In the years after Vietnam, many of the technological advances on drones were made by Israel, which has used them to monitor the Gaza Strip and carry out targeted assassinations. During the 1980s, the Israeli air force sold several of its models to the Pentagon, including a drone called the Pioneer. The Pioneer, which could be launched from naval vessels or from military bases, had a flight range of 115 miles. The Americans quickly put it to use during the First Gulf War: In one of the more absurd moments of the conflict, a group of Iraqi soldiers surrendered to a Pioneer, waving white bedsheets and T-shirts at the drone as it circled overhead. The Pioneer would eventually be used in more than 300 missions in the Persian Gulf, and would later be deployed in efforts to stabilize Haiti and the Balkans during the 1990s.

By 2000, the Pentagon was pushing for a massive expansion of the drone program, hoping to make a third of all U.S. aircraft unmanned by 2010. But it was the War on Terror that finally enabled the military to weaponize drones, giving them the capability to take out designated targets. The first major success of killer drones was a Predator strike on a convoy in 2002, which assassinated the leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen. By 2006, the Pentagon had upped its goal, aiming to convert 45 percent of its "deep-strike" aircraft into drones. "Before drones, the way you went after terrorists was you sent your troops," says Goure. "You sent your Navy, you sent your Marines, like Reagan going after Qaddafi in the Eighties. You bombed their camp. Now you have drones that can be operated by the military or the CIA from thousands of miles away."

The low cost and lethal convenience of drones – death by remote control – have made them a must-have item for advanced military powers and tin-pot despots alike. The global market for unmanned aerial vehicles is now $6 billion a year, with more than 50 countries moving to acquire drones. Over the past decade, the military has tested a wide variety of unmanned aircraft – from microdrones that run on tiny batteries to those with 200-foot wingspans, powered by jet fuel or solar energy. The drones used in Iraq and Afghanistan – the Predator and the Reaper – look like large model planes and cost $13 million apiece. A drone the size of a 727, the Global Hawk, was used after the tsunami in Japan and the earthquake in Haiti to provide rescue operations with a bird's-eye view of the disasters. One of the largest drones in development today is the SolarEagle, designed by Boeing and DARPA, the experimental research wing of the Defense Department. With a wingspan of more than 400 feet, the SolarEagle will be able to stay in the air for five years at a time, essentially replacing surveillance satellites, which are costly to put into orbit.

At first, many pilots resisted the advance of drones, viewing them as nothing but a robotic replacement for highly trained fighter jocks. "There is a strong cultural struggle," says Doug Davis, director of the Global Unmanned Aircraft Systems Strategic Initiatives program at New Mexico State University, the nation's only civilian test area for drones. "No one likes to think of being phased out of their job." The tensions were only exacerbated when the Air Force selected drone operators on a "nonvoluntary basis," yanking them out of a cockpit and placing them in a control room against their will. Now, given the high profile and future prospects of drones, pilots are lining up to operate them, volunteering for an intensive, one-year training course that includes simulated missions. "There is more enthusiasm for the job," says Lt. Gen. David Deptula, a fighter pilot who ran the Air Force's surveillance drone program until 2010. "Many pilots are excited about operating these things."

For a new generation of young guns, the experience of piloting a drone is not unlike the video games they grew up on. Unlike traditional pilots, who physically fly their payloads to a target, drone operators kill at the touch of a button, without ever leaving their base – a remove that only serves to further desensitize the taking of human life. (The military slang for a man killed by a drone strike is "bug splat," since viewing the body through a grainy-green video image gives the sense of an insect being crushed.) As drone pilot Lt. Col. Matt Martin recounts in his book Predator, operating a drone is "almost like playing the computer game Civilization" – something straight out of "a sci-fi novel." After one mission, in which he navigated a drone to target a technical college being occupied by insurgents in Iraq, Martin felt "electrified" and "adrenalized," exulting that "we had shot the technical college full of holes, destroying large portions of it and killing only God knew how many people."

Only later did the reality of what he had done sink in. "I had yet to realize the horror," Martin recalls.

Both the Pentagon and the CIA like to brag about drone strikes that have successfully taken out enemy combatants in the War on Terror. The RQ-170 Sentinel was deployed in the raid that killed bin Laden, and U.S. officials boast of eliminating two more of Al Qaeda's top operatives in Pakistan in recent months. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has called drones "the only game in town," and President Obama recently dismissed concerns about civilian casualties, insisting that he is not ordering "a whole bunch of strikes willy-nilly."

But for every "high-value" target killed by drones, there's a civilian or other innocent victim who has paid the price. The first major success of drones – the 2002 strike that took out the leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen – also resulted in the death of a U.S. citizen. More recently, a drone strike by U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2010 targeted the wrong individual – killing a well-known human rights advocate named Zabet Amanullah who actually supported the U.S.-backed government. The U.S. military, it turned out, had tracked the wrong cellphone for months, mistaking Amanullah for a senior Taliban leader. A year earlier, a drone strike killed Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the Pakistani Taliban, while he was visiting his father-in-law; his wife was vaporized along with him. But the U.S. had already tried four times to assassinate Mehsud with drones, killing dozens of civilians in the failed attempts. One of the missed strikes, according to a human rights group, killed 35 people, including nine civilians, with reports that flying shrapnel killed an eight-year-old boy while he was sleeping. Another blown strike, in June 2009, took out 45 civilians, according to credible press reports.

Obama actually inherited two separate drone programs when he took office – and at the urging of Vice President Joe Biden, who has pressed hard for a greater emphasis on counterterrorism tactics, he has dramatically expanded them both. The first program, under the purview of the Pentagon, is focused primarily on providing reconnaissance and airstrikes to protect U.S. troops on the ground. "The major success of the drones is in keeping American soldiers alive," says Goure. The Pentagon's program, which operates more or less in the open, is based at more than a dozen military centers around the globe, from Nevada to Iraq. In one large hangar at Al Udeid Air Force Base in Qatar, three JAG lawyers are on call around the clock, ready to sign off on drone strikes. The lawyers, who are required to take a class about complying with the Geneva Conventions, follow standard operating procedures similar to those used in calling in a traditional airstrike. "There's a set of legal checks and balances that the Air Force does each time," says Pratap Chatterjee, an investigative reporter who sits on the board of Amnesty International. "It's an open secret – the manual is online."

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