Brennan: A man and his drones

America’s covert drone war targeting Islamic militants could get a major boost in President Barack Obama’s second term. Powerful new technological hardware is now in use. Most important, John Brennan, a strong advocate for drone use, could hold sway over a major expansion of the scope and intensity of robotic strikes.

David Axe

The president has nominated Brennan, his White House counterterrorism adviser, to take over the Central Intelligence Agency. A top CIA official under President George W. Bush, Brennan, 57, has emerged as a major supporter of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).

Since 2001, missile and bomb attacks by the Air Force, Army and CIA drones have killed thousands of suspected militants in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and other battlegrounds. Hundreds of innocent civilians have also died. In 2012, American drones killed 246 people in Pakistan and 185 in Yemen, according to a count by the U.K. Bureau of Investigative Journalism. The bureau did not provide a figure for other countries where unmanned strikes have taken place.

If confirmed, Brennan could expand the use of armed, unmanned aircraft. He suggested as much in a speech at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington in June 2011. “Going forward,” Brennan said, “we will be mindful that if our nation is threatened, our best offense won’t always be deploying large armies abroad, but delivering targeted, surgical pressure to the groups that threaten us.”

Besides drones, in recent years that “targeted” approach has also included raids by Special Operations Forces ‑ such as the one that killed al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May 2011 ‑ or barrages of ship-launched cruise missiles, as have taken place in Somalia.


expressed his preference for drone strikes

in an address last year at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “Compared against other options,” he said, “a pilot operating this aircraft remotely, with the benefit of technology and with the safety of distance, might actually have a clearer picture of the target and its surroundings, including the presence of innocent civilians.”

He continued: “It’s this surgical precision, the ability, with laser-like focus, to eliminate the cancerous tumor called an al Qaeda terrorist, while limiting damage to the tissue around it, that makes this counterterrorism tool so essential.”

As CIA director, Brennan could have new, better robots to make this expansion possible. The agency, in conjunction with the military, has secretly been developing larger, faster and more capable drones to add to its existing fleet, most of which dates to the 1990s.

The confluence of Brennan’s leadership, new guidelines for drone usage and cutting-edge drone models could lead to more frequent, deadly and secretive robotic attacks in more countries suspected of harboring Islamic militants. The ratcheting up of the drone campaign would represent the culmination of technology and policy trends going back more than 20 years.

First strike

The first aerial attack by an armed UAV against a suspected terror target occurred in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on the night of Oct. 7, 2001. Earlier that day, U.S. Special Operations Forces had landed in Afghanistan, initiating the U.S.-led intervention that continues today. A CIA Predator drone ‑ a simple, propeller-driven robot fitted with video cameras and Hellfire missiles ‑ spotted a vehicle thought to belong to Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban, the Islamist regime harboring al Qaeda.

The CIA was the driving force behind the development of cutting-edge drones starting in the 1980s. The agency’s support for a renegade Israeli inventor named Abraham Karem resulted in a reliable, long-flying prototype robot that, in the early 1990s, evolving into the Predator, a 27-foot-long UAV that’s the gold standard for modern drone aircraft.

The Predator, which is built by California-based General Atomics, can fly for more than 24 hours, steered via remote radio signal by teams of operators on the ground. The UAV bounces a live video stream off satellites directly to analysts and leaders, who might be sitting thousands of miles away. “They don’t whine about having to go to the bathroom,” Air Force General Mike Hostage said of his service’s drones, which are identical to CIA models, said. “They don’t get tired, so I can put them over a target for 30 hours and cycle the crews out of the crew station.”

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In 1994 the CIA deployed its first batch of drones, bought for roughly $3 million each, to the Balkans. Air Force-owned UAVs soon joined the CIA robots, setting a profound precedent. For the next two decades the Pentagon and the CIA regularly collaborated on robot development, tactics and deployment. This blurred the line between the military and the intelligence service – though they are governed by separate, and sometimes incompatible, legal regimes.

The Predators arrived over Afghanistan in 2000, part of the CIA’s escalating search for bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders who two years prior had orchestrated the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing hundreds.

The early Predators, which were based in Uzbekistan for their patrols over Afghanistan, were unarmed. Twice in September 2000 the drones spotted bin Laden at his Kandahar compound, but lacking weapons they were unable to strike.

A frustrated Cofer Black, who headed the CIA’s hunt for bin Laden, demanded the Predators be pulled from Afghanistan until they could be armed. CIA Director George Tenet demanded “a capability to accurately and promptly respond to future sightings of high value targets,” as recounted by Stephen Coll in his book Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001.

On the CIA’s behalf, the Air Force launched a crash program to fit the one-ton drones with Hellfire missiles. Bristling with weaponry, the drones returned to Afghanistan in time for the initial U.S. assault in October 2001. The night of the invasion, Army General Tommy Franks, in charge of U.S. Central Command, gave the order. The drone fired a missile at Omar, missing the Taliban chief but killing two of his bodyguards.

With practice and more advanced technology, the CIA’s drone success rate quickly improved. In Yemen in November 2002, an agency Predator killed Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, mastermind of the October 2000 bombing of the U.S. Navy destroyer Cole. Al-Harethi was the first of scores of suspected terrorist leaders to die in drone strikes over the next decade.

The number of armed UAVs grew, as did the CIA’s constellation of secret drone bases stretching across Africa, the Middle East and Central and Southeast Asia. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism counted at least 414 confirmed robotic strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia from 2002 to 2013. [here]

“It’s the only game in town, in terms of confronting or trying to disrupt the al Qaeda leadership,” then-CIA Director Leon Panetta said in 2009, referring to drone attacks.

Drone war 2.0

Those could be only the beginning. Recent policy developments plus newer robot technology now point the way to a wider drone war. If Brennan is confirmed as CIA director, he could have at his disposal all the resources and legal cover necessary to use drones in places previously considered impossible, striking targets that once lay out of reach.

Last year, Brennan led an interagency team in crafting a set of policies for so-called “targeting killings,” including drone strikes. The policies, which Obama is expected to sign off on, are meant to institutionalize what had been ad hoc efforts run by the Pentagon and intelligence agencies. This drone “playbook,” as it is known, establishes clearer and more rigorous procedures for the conduct of robotic attacks, as the Washington Post reported.

These new regulations are meant to impose order on the current uncoordinated mix of U.S. counterterrorism initiatives. While the new rules may appear to restrict the UAV campaign, in fact they could facilitate the escalation of robotic attacks by providing clear processes for using drones in new places against new targets.

The playbook represents “a step in exactly the wrong direction,” Hina Shamsi, a drone critic at the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Post.

The CIA possesses new UAV models with which to carry out an expanded campaign of targeted killings. The Predator, plus a larger variant of the same drone called the Reaper, apparently make up the majority of the agency’s drone force, which includes potentially dozens of robots plus the hundreds of pilots, ground crew and imagery analysts who operate them.

The prop-driven Predators and Reapers, which cruise no faster than 200 miles per hour, are easily tracked by radar and other sensors and are vulnerable to gunfire and shoulder-fired missiles. During the Balkans war, the Serbian military was able to shoot down a Predator by firing a machine gun out the open side door of a helicopter. Air Force General Hostage said the basic Predator “is not relevant” against any serious defenses. In short, there are a lot of places many drones can’t go.

The Pentagon and the CIA recognized this problem by the late 1990s, so they directed the defense giant Lockheed Martin to develop a jet-powered UAV with some of the same radar-evading qualities as the Air Force’s B-2 stealth bomber. The unarmed Sentinel drone, likely fitted with cameras and radars, operated in near-total secrecy for a decade, participating in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and other conflicts before being photographed by a journalist at the NATO-run Kandahar airfield in Afghanistan in 2007.

The Air Force finally admitted it had the Sentinel in 2009. The flying branch shares an estimated 20 Sentinels with the CIA, apparently flying the stealthy robots from the same bases that house Predators and Reapers.

A Sentinel reportedly kept watch overhead during the May 2011 Navy SEAL raid that killed bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, a bustling city that’s home to the Pakistan military’s officer academy. In December 2011, one of these batwing drones crashed along the Afghanistan-Iran border, possibly while spying on Tehran’s nuclear program. That loss aside, the Sentinel proved it could fly, and survive, in defended air space ‑ and laid the groundwork for the even more sophisticated drones to come.

Around 2008 the Air Force and CIA commissioned Northrop Grumman to build a new, presumably jet-powered stealth drone capable of carrying weapons, according to an investigation by Bill Sweetman of Aviation Week. With the help of engineer John Cashen, the man most responsible for the B-2′s radar-defeating shape, Northrop Grumman produced a prototype drone that Sweetman claimed is now being tested at the secretive Air Force facility in Groom Lake, Nevada. If and when it enters service with the CIA, this new UAV could give the agency increased access to even the most heavily defended airspace, such as that over Iran, North Korea and the unstable but heavily armed states of the Middle East and North Africa.

With this latest generation of pilotless planes, the Obama administration can virtually write a new drone playbook. Under Brennan’s pro-robot leadership, the next phase of the CIA’s drone campaign could be far deadlier than the first.

PHOTO (Top): House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan (R) listens as U.S. President Barack Obama nominates him to become the next CIA director at the White House in Washington January 7, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

PHOTO (Insert A): U.S. Predator unmanned drone armed with a missile stands on the tarmac of Kandahar military airport June 13, 2010. REUTERS/Massoud Hossaini/Pool

PHOTO (Insert B): Three small test drones are shown at the U.S. Air Force Micro Air Vehicles lab of the Air Force Research Laboratory, at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, July 11, 2011. REUTERS/Skip Peterson

PHOTO (Insert C); Launch crew prepares a Northrop Grumman X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator for its first land-based catapult launch in this U.S. Navy handout photo taken at Patuxent River, Maryland November 29, 2012. REUTERS/U.S. Navy/Courtesy of Northrop Grumman/Alan Radecki/Handout