Armed UAV Operations 10 Years On


One of the most iconic images of the American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — as well as global U.S. counterterrorism efforts — has been the armed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), specifically the MQ-1 “Predator” and the MQ-9 “Reaper.” Unarmed RQ-1 Predators (which first flew in 1994) were flying over Afghanistan well before the 9/11 attacks. Less than a month after the attacks, an armed variant already in development was deployed for the first time.

In the decade since, the Predator has clocked more than a million flight hours. And while U.S. Air Force procurement ceased in early 2011 — with more than 250 airframes purchased — the follow-on MQ-9 Reaper has already been procured in numbers and production continues. Predators and Reapers continue to be employed in a broad spectrum of roles, including close air support (CAS), when forward air controllers communicate with UAV operators to release ordnance with friendly troops in the vicinity (CAS is one of the more challenging missions even for manned aircraft because of the heightened risk of friendly casualties). Officially designated “armed, multi-mission, medium-altitude, long endurance, remotely piloted aircraft,” the second to last distinction is the Predator and Reaper’s principal value: the ability to loiter for extended periods, in some cases for more than 24 hours.

This ability affords unprecedented situational awareness and physical presence over the battlefield. The implications of this are still being understood, but it is clear that it allows, for example, the sustained and constant monitoring of main supply routes for attempts to emplace improvised explosive devices (IEDs) or the ability to establish a more sophisticated understanding of high-value targets’ living patterns. In addition, live, full-motion video for ground controllers is available to lower and lower echelons to an unprecedented degree.

As the procurement of Predators and Reapers and the training of operators accelerated — particularly under the tenure of former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, beginning in 2006 — the number of UAV “orbits” skyrocketed (an orbit is a single, continuous presence requiring more than one UAV airframe per orbit). There are now more than 50 such orbits in the U.S. Central Command area of operations alone (counting several maintained by the larger, unarmed RQ-4 “Global Hawk”). The U.S. Air Force expects to be capable of maintaining 65 orbits globally by 2013, with the combined total of flight hours for Predator and Reaper operations reaching about 2 million around the same time. In 2005, UAVs made up about 5 percent of the military aircraft fleet. They have since grown to 30 percent, though most are small, hand-launched and unarmed tactical UAVs.

The Counterterrorism Value

One of the most notable uses of the Predator and Reaper has been in the counterterrorism role, both as an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platform and as an on-call strike platform. These armed UAVs are operated both by the U.S. Air Force and, in some cases (as with operations conducted over Pakistan), the CIA. Even before the 9/11 attacks, the armed Predator then in development was being considered as a means not only of keeping tabs on Osama bin Laden but also of killing him. Since then, armed UAVs have proved their worth both in the offensive strike role against specific targets and as a means of maintaining a constant level of threat.

The value of the counterterrorism ISR that can be collected by large UAVs alone is limited since so much depends on how and where they are deployed and what they are looking for. This mission requires not only sophisticated signals but also actionable human intelligence. But as a front-line element of a larger, integrated collection strategy, the armed UAV has proved to be a viable and enduring element of the U.S. counterterrorism strategy worldwide.

The ability to loiter is central and has a value far beyond the physical capabilities of a single airframe in a specific orbit. Operating higher than helicopters and with a lower signature than manned, jet-powered fighter aircraft, the UAV is neither visibly or audibly obvious (though the degree of inconspicuousness depends on, among other things, weather and altitude). Because UAVs are so discreet, potential targets must work under the assumption that an armed UAV is orbiting within striking distance at all times.

Such a constant threat can place considerable psychological pressure on the prey, even when the predator is large and loud. During the two battles of Fallujah, Iraq, in April and November of 2004, AC-130 gunships proved particularly devastating for insurgents pinned in certain quadrants of the city, but AC-130s were limited in number and availability. When it was not possible to keep an AC-130 on station at night (in order to keep the insurgents’ heads down), unarmed C-130 transports were flown in the same orbits at altitudes where the distinctive sound of a C-130 could be clearly discerned on the ground, thus maintaining the perception of a possible AC-130 reprisal against any insurgent offensive.

Indeed, it is difficult to overstate the psychological and operational impact of this tactic on a group that experiences successful strikes on its members, even if the strikes are conducted only rarely. Counterterrorism targets in areas where UAVs are known to operate must work under tight communications discipline and constraints, since having their cellular or satellite phone conversations tapped risks not only penetration of communications but immediate and potentially lethal attacks.

The UAV threat was hardly the only factor, but consider how Osama bin Laden’s communiques declined from comparatively regular and timely videos to rare audiotapes. In 2001, bin Laden was operating with immense freedom of maneuver and impunity despite the manhunt already under way for him. That situation changed even as he fled to Pakistan, and the combination of aggressive signals as well as UAV- and space-based ISR efforts further constrained his operational bandwidth and relevance as he was forced to focus more and more on his own personal survival.

The UAV threat affects not only the targeted individuals themselves but also their entire organizations. When the failure to adhere to security protocols can immediately yield lethal results, the natural response is to constrict communications and cease contact with untrusted allies, affiliates and subordinates. When the minutiae of security protocols start to matter, the standard for having full faith, trust and confidence among those belonging to or connected with a terrorist organization become much higher. And the more that organization’s survival is at stake, the more it must focus on survival, thereby reducing its capacity to engage in ambitious operations. On a deeper level, there is also the value of sowing distrust and paranoia within an organization. This has the same ultimate effect of increasing internal distrust and thereby undermining the spare capacity for the pursuit of larger, external objectives.

The Evolving Geography

While armed Predators first operated in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater, it was the darkest days of the Iraq War, at the height of the violence there from 2005 to 2007, that saw the strongest demand for them. As the main effort shifted from Iraq to Afghanistan, UAV operations began to shift with them. While UAVs will remain in high demand in Afghanistan even as the drawdown of forces continues there in 2012, the end of armed UAV operations in Iraq and the continued expansion of the U.S. Air Force’s Reaper fleet mean that considerable bandwidth is being freed up for operations in other parts of the world. (In Iraq, some UAVs may continue to be operated over northern Kurdish areas in coordination with Turkey, and some private security contractors are operating a small fleet of unarmed UAVs as part of protection efforts in coordination with the U.S. State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service.)

There are obvious diplomatic and operational limitations to the employment of armed UAVs. Diplomatically, however, they also have demonstrated some value as an intermediate step between purely clandestine operations run by the CIA and the overt deployment of uniformed personnel and manned aircraft. Operationally, while Predators and Reapers lack the sort of low-observability profile of the RQ-170 (one of which was lost over Iran in 2011), UAVs lack pilots and pose no risk of human personnel being taken captive. A UAV that crashes in Iran has far fewer political ramifications than a piloted aircraft, making its deployment an easier decision for political leaders.

Indeed, the last decade has seen the maturation of the armed UAV, including its underlying architecture and doctrines. And while more than 50 Predators and Reapers have been lost in Iraq and Afghanistan and in training over the past decade, the aircraft are now essentially as safe and reliable as a manned F-16C/D but far cheaper to procure, maintain and operate. And over the next 10 years, the Pentagon plans to grow its UAV fleet about 35 percent. The U.S. Air Force plans to buy 288 more Reapers — 48 per year from now through 2016 — and money for UAVs has remained largely untouched even as budget cuts intensify at the Pentagon.

So while armed UAVs are merely one tool of a much broader and more sophisticated counterterrorism strategy, they can be expected to be valuable for the foreseeable future, and employed in areas of the world beyond Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen (even along the U.S.-Mexico border in an unarmed role for border patrol and counternarcotics missions). And despite an enormous breach in U.S.-Pakistani relations following the deaths of two dozen Pakistani military personnel in a cross-border incident in November and the consequent ejection of the CIA from Shamsi airfield in Pakistan (from which it had operated armed UAVs since October 2001), existing UAV orbits have been largely maintained. On Jan. 10, the first strike on Pakistani territory since November took place in North Waziristan agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

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