On September 11, 2012, then-US secretary of state Hillary Clinton called David Petraeus at the CIA. She wanted to make sure they were on the same page regarding an attack on the US diplomatic annex in Benghazi, Libya. US defense secretary Leon Panetta was also in the loop. The Pentagon was monitoring events. A US drone was pulled from surveillance near Derna to help see what was happening. The machine was already over the target by 5:11 p.m. Washington time. It was eleven in the evening in Benghazi. Buildings were burning.
It was too late for the men on the ground. US ambassador Chris Stevens was dead, along with three other Americans by the time the night was over. The Predator drone that provided surveillance was unarmed. Washington was also reticent to use drones to target the attackers. “The individuals related in the Benghazi attack, those that we believe were either participants or leadership of it, are not authorized use of military force,” Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said in October 2014. The US didn’t have the capability to find and kill them, he said, because the army wasn’t authorized to do so.
His statement was an extraordinary reversal of what had been years of US policy. Suddenly the armed drones had been muzzled and surveillance missions took precedence. In 2009, a US ScanEagle launched from Bainbridge helped in the rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama, after the cargo ship was hijacked by Somali-based pirates. The ScanEagle, one of a new generation of small, catapult-launched drones used by the navy since 2005, had seen some 500,000 combat hours during 56,000 flights.
The White House was gun shy. Mistakes kept being made. In 2015, a counterterror operation killed two hostages held by al-Qaeda: Dr. Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto. Obama’s use of drones became a major point of contention. Articles called his administration the “Reaper presidency,” and numerous reports chronicled the drone strikes that killed civilians in Pakistan and elsewhere. By one account, “between 2004 and 2014, US UAV strikes in Pakistan are estimated to have killed approximately 2,000 to 4,000 people, while US strikes in Yemen are estimated to have killed several hundred people.”
The new “dronephobia” came after years of success. In Libya, the UAVs helped topple dictator Muammar Gaddafi. After months in which the tyrant had been suppressing protests and rebels, he was riding in a convoy leaving Sirte on October 20, 2011, when a Predator droned him. He fled into a drainage ditch before being caught, sodomized, and killed by rebels. This ended four decades of Gaddafi rule of Libya.
Similarly, the Obama administration ramped up operations in Africa. David Petraeus, then at CENTCOM, pushed for a Joint Unconventional Warfare Task Force executive order. Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti became the hub of operations. Lemonnier is laid out like a long rectangle, abutting the water, with a runway parallel to the base’s housing and buildings. It’s a dry landscape, and there is a kind of trench separating the base from areas around it. The housing is a depressing series of containers laid out in a grid; a gym with StairMasters and weights gives soldiers stationed there something to do.
Joint Special Operations Task Force 84-4 would manage operations in Somalia and Yemen, which are separated only by a small amount of water: the Bab al-Mandab strait. More naval drones were involved as well, including the MQ-8 Scout, the ScanEagle and a helicopter. The MQ-8, built by Northrop Grumman since 2000, was introduced in 2009 and was supposed to provide an easy way for ships to host drones without using a runway. The Boeing ScanEagle, developed since 2002 was also used. The ScanEagle was built by Insitu, a Boeing subsidiary based out of Washington State and founded in 1994. It was originally designed to search for tuna at sea. Partnering with Boeing brought the machine to fruition. It looks like a large V with a bulb at the crest.
Some of the first strikes were carried out in Yemen, while dozens of strikes were carried out in Somalia. The African operations were never very large, and they were hampered by manned aircraft needing to operate over a huge expanse of land. There were only ten Predators and four Reapers in Djibouti in 2012. Reports on this largely clandestine operation say there were several drones in Ethiopia, a Predator in Niger, a Reaper in the Seychelles, and one Predator in Chad and Cameroon. This appealed to Washington’s desire to continue fighting terror, appear tough on al-Qaeda and leave a small footprint. While Osama bin Laden was killed in a Navy SEAL raid in 2011, his demise didn’t end the need for these operations. Instead, the US increased them as al-Qaeda’s various tentacles continued to function independently.
Public attention was concerned with controversies. On a relatively warm day in the hills of northwest Pakistan in October 2012, a sixty-eight-year old woman was killed in a drone strike. Her family wanted answers. Amnesty International tried to provide them, noting the poor people received no “justice or compensation” for the woman’s death. Her name was Mamana Bibi, and she was one of the more high-profile civilians killed by US drones that led to questions about whether their use was becoming too widespread and indiscriminate.
The Reaper or MQ-9 was specifically designed as a hunter-killer drone as opposed to a surveillance aircraft that missiles were added to. They would still be cheap, around $5 million each. By 2006, the Reapers were ready for action. With six pylons on the wings, they could carry more than a dozen missiles. The drone would have versatility in its weapons, like an F-15 fighter jet had in the 1980s and 1990s. It could carry Hellfires, Stingers, or Viper bombs and GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM). It seemed like more bang for the buck.
The Reaper’s Westinghouse radar and Raytheon laser designator were state-of-the-art. It was also intended to have better optics, with up to nine cameras, showing an image within a diameter of 3.8 km. (2.4 miles) of terrain. While the Reaper was giving US operators awesome killing power, it was also deceptively inviting for policymakers. As the Bush administration wrapped up its time in office, the incoming Obama team saw drones as way to hunt down terrorists without having to deal with troop casualties. They wanted to end the quagmire of Iraq and Afghanistan; wars that had cost trillions of dollars and where many lives had been lost. The global war on terror could now be won from the air.
This idea of winning from the air had also been a deceptive dream for American warriors in the 1990s, when the Clinton administration had carried out air-driven wars in the Balkans, Kosovo, and even against al-Qaeda. These interventions, born from US global hegemony, were based on a kind of new world order that prioritized humanitarian intervention. September 11th burst that illusion, exposing US vulnerability. Now the US was vulnerable again, this time to the doubt that came with not winning in Iraq.
If there would be no “mission accomplished,” at least there could be a mission. The Obama administration would use Reapers to deadly effect. In Pakistan, for instance, the Bush administration had carried out only 48 strikes. The first occurred on June 19, 2004. Under the Obama administration, there were 353 known attacks. Up to 2,683 terrorists would be killed by the Obama team, but concerns were raised that up to 162 civilians were also killed. The Obama team would concentrate on killing Taliban members.
Creech Air Force Base was the heart and soul of this operation. The pilots praised the Obama administration for never wavering in authorizing strikes on high-value targets. Crews rapidly expanded from seven or eight people in a squadron in 2010, to 250 or more, with one squadron having up to 500 members. “These are big organizations and they expanded quickly and there were growing pains. It was a small community and they were trying to train as many as they could,” recalled Captain B., whose full name can’t be printed for confidentiality reasons. “When I first went to Creech it looked different, they have demolished the buildings we used to fly in; they moved the buildings inland from the highway.” As the drone program expanded, the controversy about the operators expanded, and there were fears terrorists might target the base. “We flew a lot of important missions and I am proud of what we did and knocking out bad guys and I take a lot of pride in those missions.”
High-value strikes gave way to “signature” strikes, striking groups of fighters or alleged terrorists who followed a pattern. Days were spent with eyes on a target, from above and from other sources, sometimes on the ground. After the strike, the pilots, sensor operators and intelligence experts would watch those fleeing and kill the “squirters” who fled. They would debrief, go home and then work the same area the next day, following the funerals and waiting for another opportunity.
It was grueling work, and graphic: sitting at their screens, the pilot in the left seat and the sensor operator on the right, watching the enemy in the crosshairs, waiting for the order to pull the trigger. “Then the sensor operator guides the weapon... we have the option of the five-hundred-pound laser guided bomb and the three types of Hellfires,” explained Capt. Black. Reports hint at other clandestine weapons, never revealed to the public, that were used.
Most of the Obama administration’s strikes were carried out by 2012. “CIA attacks have struck Pakistan’s tribal areas on average once every five days,” a report noted. For instance, Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud was eviscerated in August 2009. The next year, another al-Qaeda operative, Ilyas Kashmiri, was met with a Hellfire missile.
Obama liked the precision of the strikes. He emphasized that this made civilian deaths less likely. The peak of the drone strikes was in 2010, with 128 strikes in Pakistan. John Brennan, national security advisor, said that the US was the first country to regularly conduct strikes using remotely piloted aircraft. But in 2012, he noted that the US must “use them responsibly” if America expected other countries to do so. The US became so concerned about implications it was running a “kill chain” that was out of control, it made sure to incorporate human controls into every aspect of drone warfare. Even though the intention was to show there were checks and balances, the emphasis created a perception that the US was doing something wrong. While Washington put the brakes on, other American enemies would continue to develop drone killing technology.
The battlefields of the drone wars rapidly expanded. UAVs were sent to Africa as part of operations in Libya and also to Niger and Camp Lemonnier. In 2014 they even flew over Chad.
There were 104 Reapers by 2010, and the Air Force wanted up to 346 of them by 2019. In 2011, these drones flew 2,227 missions for Operation Enduring Freedom in Iraq, and then flew 1,889 in 2012, including operations in support of “Copper Dune” in Yemen against al-Qaeda. The older Predators, by contrast, flew 7,797 sorties in 2012 in Iraq, of which 238 were to support Turkey’s anti-PKK operations (dubbed Nomad Shadow), and 1,119 to hunt down terrorists in Libya.
Turkey was so impressed, it kept pressing the US to buy them. Instead, the US provided Turkey intelligence from drones on the whereabouts of the PKK. In 2019, Washington stopped sharing the information after tensions rose with Ankara. Turkey responded by increasing its own drone arsenal, now made at home.
Congress and former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen loved the “game changing technology” so much that funding was increased by 75% in 2011. But the operations were taking a toll. Former NSA director Michael Hayden was concerned that the CIA was focusing too much on fighting terrorists, leaving the US handicapped in responding to the Arab Spring, the ISIS threat in 2014 and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Brennan, the national Security advisor, agreed, and the administration shifted to ending the CIA’s commitment to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Trump administration, coming to power in 2017 with an idea of ending the Afghan war, reduced drone strikes in Pakistan dramatically, until they appeared to end entirely in 2018.
The drone war saved American lives. By 2014, a total of 2,356 US servicemen had been killed in Afghanistan and 3,485 members of the Coalition. “The high number of militants killed helped reverse the Taliban’s momentum,” wrote author Christopher Fuller. Drones helped keep the US public from complaining about the never-ending war. The drone had become the “weapon of choice” for the war on terror, a US task force on drone policy concluded in 2015.
As the number of Reapers and Predators expanded to 303 aircraft in service, the number of missions they were doing rapidly increased. It had taken a decade-and-a-half to get to the million-flight-hours mark in 2011, but it would take just two more years to get to two million. The 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing at Creech Air Force Base flew 12,000 sorties in 2017, for 216,000 flight hours. The Air Force credits the machines with helping liberate vast areas of Iraq and Syria from ISIS – enabling millions of locals to return home. The drones had come of age, from precision strikes and being a novelty, to a war-winning system. Historically the US was getting more out of these sorties than the mass bombing missions of past wars.
The number of US drone units was expanding also. In addition to the 432nd, there were other units recruited for the drone wars: The 732nd Operations Group, the 17th, 22nd, and 867th attack squadrons with their Reapers, the 44th and the 13th reconnaissance squadron, which operate the Sentinel. There was even talk of a special medal for drone warriors.
The commander of the 432nd Wing in the US Air Force in 2020, Stephen Jones, was a member of the initial team that weaponized the Predator. “I can tell you this entire enterprise was born of innovation,” he said in an interview. At Creech he led 5,000 people in five groups and twenty-one squadrons. A graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, he was a B-1 pilot in the past and served at bases from Alabama to Ramstein. With more than 700-combat hours in Iraq and Afghanistan, he is one of the America’s most knowledgeable drone commanders.
“The RPAs we have fielded today are remarkably resilient: our fleet is airborne three-hundred-sixty-five days a year, with each platform airborne for sixteen to twenty hours at a time,” Jones says. “The aircrew of the 432nd Wing regularly top 350,000 combat hours per year and prove the versatility of the weapon system daily; CSAR and strike, coordination, and reconnaissance (SCAR) tactics are examples of how the MQ-9 is being utilized in ways never before realized.”
Drones were proving also that they would save the lives of pilots too. By 2018, some 254 large drones had crashed worldwide, with 196 of those being US drones such as the Predator or Reaper. Predators had a particularly bad time, with sixty-nine destroyed completely in crashes between 2009 and 2018. By contrast, known crashes show only a handful by Israel, India, Turkey, and Pakistan in the same period, illustrating the volume of use by the US.
The problem with discovering a new, relatively cheap, and expendable weapon, is that one can become addicted to it. As the US found itself hunting terrorists in up to eighty countries around the world, it became addicted to killing them in the easiest way possible, through Hellfire missiles and drones.
This article is extracted and adapted from the author’s new book, Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machines, Artificial Intelligence, and the Battle for the Future, © Post Hill Press, ISBN (eBook): 978-1-64293-676-6