War Stories

Dull Drone

Why unmanned U.S. aerial vehicles are a hazard to Afghan civilians.

In every U.S. war, one weapon gains superstar status. Ten years ago it was the Patriot missile. Now it’s the Predator armed drone. The Washington Post declared the Predator “a revolution in the sky over Afghanistan.”Time magazine recently named its creator as part of the “Time 100: Next Wave.” According to press reports, President Bush regularly watches live Predator video that’s been piped into the White House. But the Predator, like the Patriot, turns out to be less revolutionary and more risky than news accounts suggest.

Last month an armed Predator drone spotted what appeared to be a number of senior al-Qaida leaders. Time magazine ran a detailed account of the Feb. 4 incident:

After lurking for hours above the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, the Predator drone found its target: a truck surrounded by a group of suspected al-Qaeda terrorists who had been threading their way along precarious mountain roads amid 11,000-ft. peaks. From several miles away, the unmanned surveillance plane, operated by the CIA, locked in on the gathering. An agent somewhere in the region, viewing a live feed from the Predator’s belly-mounted camera, thought the men were wearing Arab—not Afghan—garb, and that the leader was tall. After conferring with U.S. Central Command officials at their Florida headquarters, the agent signaled the Predator to shoot.

A few weeks later, the Post’s Doug Struck hoofed it into the area and found that according to everybody in the neighborhood, the people killed weren’t al-Qaida. Instead, villagers said, the men were subsistence farmers gathering scrap metal.

The Pentagon says it’s trying to confirm the identities of the dead, but it maintains that whatever their names, they’re al-Qaida operatives. That contention has gained credibility since it turns out that the attack occurred in the Paktia province, where U.S. forces are currently slugging it out with al-Qaida troops.

Still, there are plenty of other cases in which Afghans have been collaterally damaged; it’s certainly possible that’s what happened here. If so, how could the military have mistaken a couple of scavengers for the world’s most wanted terrorists?

The press has speculated that it was bad intelligence, another case of Afghan allies feeding us bogus tips. But there’s another possible explanation: the drone.

That CIA agent must have had an eye for fashion, because the Predator doesn’t. According to a recent report by the Pentagon’s independent Office of Testing and Evaluation, Predator operators, who fly the drones from hundreds of miles away, frequently can’t tell what they’re looking at. The report states:

The Predator’s infrared camera could detect targets, but could classify [between wheeled versus tracked targets] only 21 percent of the time and recognize [the model of tank, i.e., Russian versus American] only 5 percent of the time. The Day TV camera could detect targets, but could not classify or recognize them.

In other words, a Predator can tell the difference between a Suburban and a Honda Civic, but don’t count on it to ID bad guys.

And that’s on a bright sun-shiny day. The report explains that the cameras “cannot operate in less than ideal weather,” thus the tests were scrubbed any time there were “adverse weather conditions.” The military hasn’t said what the weather was like on the day of the strike. But as Time noted, it occurred in the mountains at 11,000 feet,in an area that Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem characterized as “very tough climate-wise.”

(The Air Force contends that the September 2001 report is outdated. “They always say that,” says Philip Coyle, the Pentagon’s former chief tester.)

The CIA owns the only armed Predators. Those drones are designed to detect, target, and destroy their targets. The problem with that is that drones often need a helping hand. According to Coyle, “Somebody operating a Predator will see a bunch of vehicles and they’ll say, ‘We know they’re not ours.’ ” Coyle says that the Air Force’s standard tactics, apparently not followed by the CIA, specify that the next move is “to bring in other recon, like special operations teams, and try to figure out what they’re seeing. But to start with, all they know is that there’s movement.

“Looking through the Predator’s camera is somewhat like looking through a soda straw,” Coyle adds. “Your field of view tends to become distorted. I suppose you might be able to tell a Saudi headdress from an Afghan one. They are different. But it’d be pretty hard to do.”

The Predator is a valuable tool. But it’s not yet the superweapon that everybody’s touting. To the degree that CIA agents think it is, metal-scavengers beware.