Thursday, June 14, 2012 2:28 PM
This post originally appeared on Tom Dispatch.
It looked like
a scene out of a Hollywood movie. In the inky
darkness, men in full combat gear, armed with automatic weapons and wearing
night-vision goggles, grabbed hold of a thick, woven cable hanging from a MH-47
Chinook helicopter. Then, in a flash, each “fast-roped” down onto a ship below.
Afterward, “Mike,” a Navy SEAL who would not give his last name, bragged to an
Army public affairs sergeant that, when they were on their game, the SEALs
could put 15 men on a ship this way in 30 seconds or less.
Once on the aft
deck, the special ops troops broke into squads and methodically searched the
ship as it bobbed in Jinhae Harbor,
Below deck and on the bridge, the commandos located several men and trained
their weapons on them, but nobody fired a shot. It was, after all, a training
All of those
ship-searchers were SEALs, but not all of them were American. Some were from
Naval Special Warfare Group 1 out of Coronado, California; others hailed from South Korea’s Naval Special
Brigade. The drill was part of Foal Eagle 2012, a multinational, joint-service
exercise. It was also a model for -- and one small part of -- a much publicized
U.S. military “pivot” from the Greater Middle East to Asia, a move that
includes sending an initial contingent of 250 Marines to Darwin, Australia,
basing littoral combat ships in Singapore, strengthening military ties with Vietnam and India, staging war games in the Philippines (as well as a
drone strike there), and shifting the majority of the Navy’s ships to the
Pacific by the end of the decade.
That modest training exercise also reflected another kind of pivot. The
face of American-style war-fighting is once again changing. Forget full-scale
invasions and large-footprint occupations on the Eurasian mainland; instead,
think: special operations forces working on their own but also training or
fighting beside allied militaries (if not outright proxy armies) in hot spots
around the world. And along with those special ops advisors, trainers, and
commandos expect ever more funds and efforts to flow into the militarization of
spying and intelligence, the use of drone aircraft, the launching of
cyber-attacks, and joint Pentagon operations with increasingly militarized
“civilian” government agencies.
Much of this
has been noted in the media, but how it all fits together into what could be
called the new global face of empire has escaped attention. And yet this
represents nothing short of a new Obama doctrine, a six-point program for
twenty-first-century war, American-style, that the administration is now
carefully developing and honing. Its global scope is already breathtaking, if
little recognized, and like Donald Rumsfeld’s military lite and David
Petraeus’s counterinsurgency operations, it is evidently going to have its day
in the sun -- and like them, it will undoubtedly disappoint in ways that will
surprise its creators.
For many years,
military has been talking up and promoting the concept of “jointness.”
An Army helicopter landing Navy SEALs on a Korean ship catches some of this
ethos at the tactical level. But the future, it seems, has something else in
store. Think of it as “blur-ness,” a kind of organizational version of
war-fighting in which a dominant Pentagon fuses its forces with other
government agencies -- especially the CIA, the State Department, and the Drug
Enforcement Administration -- in complex, overlapping missions around the
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld began his "revolution in military
affairs," steering the Pentagon toward a military-lite model of high-tech, agile forces. The concept came to a grim end in Iraq’s
embattled cities. A decade later, the last vestiges of its many failures
continue to play out in a stalemated war in Afghanistan against a rag-tag
minority insurgency that can’t be beaten. In the years since, two secretaries
of defense and a new president have presided over another transformation --
this one geared toward avoiding ruinous, large-scale land wars which the U.S. has
consistently proven unable to win.
Obama, the U.S.
has expanded or launched numerous military campaigns -- most of them utilizing
a mix of the six elements of twenty-first-century American war. Take the
American war in Pakistan
-- a poster-child for what might now be called the Obama formula, if not
doctrine. Beginning as a highly-circumscribed drone assassination campaign backed by
limited cross-border commando raids under the Bush administration,
U.S. operations in Pakistan have expanded into something close to a full-scale
robotic air war, complemented by cross-border helicopter attacks, CIA-funded “kill teams” of Afghan proxy forces, as well as
boots-on-the-ground missions by elite special operations forces, including the SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
The CIA has conducted clandestine intelligence and surveillance missions in Pakistan,
too, though its role may, in the future, be less important, thanks to Pentagon
mission creep. In April, in fact, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced the creation of a new CIA-like espionage agency
within the Pentagon called the Defense Clandestine Service. According to the Washington
Post, its aim is to expand “the military’s espionage efforts beyond war
Over the last
decade, the very notion of war zones has become remarkably muddled, mirroring
the blurring of the missions and activities of the CIA and Pentagon. Analyzing
the new agency and the “broader convergence trend” between Department of
Defense and CIA missions, the Post noted that the “blurring is also evident in
the organizations’ upper ranks. Panetta previously served as CIA director, and
that post is currently held by retired four-star Army Gen. David H. Petraeus.”
Not to be
outdone, last year the State Department, once the seat of diplomacy, continued
on its long march to militarization (and marginalization) when it
agreed to pool some of its resources with the Pentagon to create the Global Security Contingency Fund. That program will allow
the Defense Department even greater say in how aid from Washington
will flow to proxy forces in places like Yemen and the Horn of Africa.
One thing is
certain: American war-making (along with its spies and its diplomats) is
heading ever deeper into “the shadows.” Expect yet more clandestine operations
in ever more places with, of course, ever more potential for blowback in the
Light on “the Dark Continent”
likely to see an influx of Pentagon spies in the coming years is Africa. Under President Obama, operations on the
continent have accelerated far beyondthe more limited interventions of the Bush years.
Last year’s war in Libya; a regional drone campaign with missions run out of airports and
bases in Djibouti, Ethiopia, and the Indian Ocean archipelago nation of
Seychelles; a flotilla of 30 ships in that ocean supporting regional operations; a
multi-pronged military and CIA campaign against militants in Somalia, including
intelligence operations, training for Somali agents, secret prisons, helicopter attacks, and U.S. commando raids; a massive influx of cash for
counterterrorism operations across East Africa; a possible old-fashioned air war, carried out on the sly in the region
using manned aircraft; tens of millions of dollars in arms for allied mercenaries
and African troops; and a special ops expeditionary force (bolstered by State Department experts) dispatched to help capture or kill
Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony and his senior commanders, operating
in Uganda, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Central African Republic (where U.S. Special Forces now
have a new base) only begins to scratch the surface of Washington’s
fast-expanding plans and activities in the region.
Even less well
known are other U.S.
military efforts designed to train African forces for operations now considered
integral to American interests on the continent. These include, for example, a
mission by elite Force Recon Marines from the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground
Task Force 12 (SPMAGTF-12) to train soldiers from the Uganda People's Defense
Force, which supplies the majority of troops to the African Union Mission in Somalia.
year, Marines from SPMAGTF-12 also trained soldiers from the Burundi National
Defense Force, the second-largest contingent in Somalia; sent trainers into Djibouti
(where the U.S. already maintains a major Horn of Africa base at Camp
Lemonier); and traveled to Liberia where they focused on teaching riot-control
techniques to Liberia’s military as part of an otherwise State Department
spearheaded effort to rebuild that force.
The U.S. is also conducting counterterrorism training and equipping
militaries in Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad,
Mauritania, Niger, and Tunisia. In addition, U.S. Africa
Command (Africom) has 14 major joint-training exercises planned for 2012,
including operations in Morocco,
Cameroon, Gabon, Botswana,
South Africa, Lesotho, Senegal,
and what may become the Pakistan of Africa, Nigeria.
however, doesn’t encompass the full breadth of U.S.
training and advising missions in Africa. To
take an example not on Africom’s list, this spring the U.S. brought together 11 nations, including Cote d’Ivoire, The Gambia, Liberia, Mauritania,
and Sierra Leone
to take part in a maritime training exercise code-named Saharan Express 2012.
founding, the United States
has often meddled close to home, treating the Caribbean as its private lake and
intervening at will throughout Latin America.
During the Bush years, with
some notable exceptions, Washington’s
interest in America’s
“backyard” took a backseat to wars farther from home. Recently, however, the
Obama administration has been ramping up operations south of the border using
its new formula. This has meant Pentagon drone missions deep inside Mexico to aid that country’s
battle against the drug cartels, while CIA agents and civilian operatives from
the Department of Defense were dispatched to Mexican military bases to take part in the
country’s drug war.
In 2012, the
Pentagon has also ramped up its anti-drug operations in Honduras.
Working out of Forward Operating Base Mocoron and other remote camps
there, the U.S. military is
supporting Honduran operations by way of the methods it honed in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition, U.S.
forces have taken part in joint operations with Honduran troops as part of a
training mission dubbed Beyond the Horizon 2012; Green Berets have been assisting Honduran Special Operations forces in
anti-smuggling operations; and a Drug Enforcement Administration
Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team, originally created to disrupt the poppy
trade in Afghanistan, has joined forces with Honduras’s Tactical Response Team,
that country’s most elite counternarcotics unit. A glimpse of these operations
made the news recently when DEA agents, flying in an American helicopter, were involved in an aerial attack on civilians that killed two men and two pregnant women in the
remote Mosquito Coast region.
have been U.S. efforts in Guyana, where
Special Operation Forces have been training local troops in heliborne air
assault techniques.“This is the first timewe have
had this type of exercise involving SpecialOperations Forces
of the United States on such
a grandscale,” Colonel Bruce Lovell of the Guyana Defense
Force told a U.S.
public affairs official earlier this year. “It gives us a chance to validate
ourselves and see where we are, what are our shortcomings.”
The U.S. military has been similarly active
elsewhere in Latin America, concluding training exercises in Guatemala, sponsoring “partnership-building”
missions in the Dominican Republic,
El Salvador, Peru, and Panama, and reaching an agreement
to carry out 19 “activities” with the Colombian army over the next year,
including joint military exercises.
in the Middle of the Middle East
Despite the end
of the Iraq and Libyan wars, a coming drawdown of forces in Afghanistan, and
copious public announcements about its national security pivot toward Asia, Washington is by no means withdrawing
from the Greater Middle East. In addition to continuing operations in Afghanistan, the U.S. has consistently been at work
training allied troops, building up military bases, and brokering
weapons sales and arms transfers to despots in the region from Bahrain to
In fact, Yemen, like its neighbor, Somalia, across the Gulf of
Aden, has become a laboratory for Obama’s wars. There, the U.S. is
carrying out its signature new brand of warfare with “black ops” troops like
the SEALs and the Army’s Delta Force undoubtedly conducting kill/capture
missions, while “white” forces like the Green Berets and Rangers are training indigenous troops, and robot planes hunt and kill members of al-Qaeda and its affiliates,
possibly assisted by an even more secret contingent of manned aircraft.
The Middle East has also become the somewhat unlikely
poster-region for another emerging facet of the Obama doctrine: cyberwar
efforts. In a category-blurring speaking engagement, Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton surfaced at the recent Special Operations Forces Industry
Conference in Florida where she gave a speech talking up her department’s eagerness to join in the
new American way of war. “We need Special Operations Forces who are as
comfortable drinking tea with tribal leaders as raiding a terrorist compound,''
she told the crowd. “We also need diplomats and development experts who are up
to the job of being your partners."
Clinton then took the opportunity to tout her agency’s online efforts, aimed at websites used by
al-Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen.
When al-Qaeda recruitment messages appeared on the latter, she said, “our team plastered the same sites with altered
versions… that showed the toll al-Qaeda attacks have taken on the Yemeni
people.” She further noted that this information-warfare mission was carried
out by experts at State’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications
with assistance, not surprisingly, from the military and the U.S. Intelligence
on-line efforts join more potent methods of cyberwar being employed by the Pentagon and the CIA, including the recently revealed “Olympic Games,” a program of sophisticated
attacks on computers in Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities engineered and
unleashed by the National Security Agency (NSA) and Unit 8200, Israeli’s
equivalent of the NSA. As with other facets of the new way of war, these
efforts were begun under the Bush administration but significantly accelerated
under the current president, who became the first American commander-in-chief
to order sustained cyberattacks designed to cripple another country’s
Brushfires to Wildfires
globe from Central and South America to Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, the Obama administration is working out its formula
for a new American way of war. In its pursuit, the Pentagon and its
increasingly militarized government partners are drawing on everything from
classic precepts of colonial warfare to the latest technologies.
The United States
is an imperial power chastened by more than 10 years of failed, heavy-footprint
wars. It is hobbled by a hollowing-out economy, and inundated with hundreds of
thousands of recent veterans -- a staggering 45% of the troops who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq -- suffering from
service-related disabilities who will require ever more expensive care. No
wonder the current combination of special ops, drones, spy games, civilian
soldiers, cyberwarfare, and proxy fighters sounds like a safer, saner brand of
war-fighting. At first blush, it may even look like a panacea for America’s
national security ills. In reality, it may be anything but.
light-footprint Obama doctrine actually seems to be making war an ever more
attractive and seemingly easy option -- a point emphasized recently by former
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Peter Pace. "I worry about
speed making it too easy to employ force," said Pace when asked about recent efforts to make it
simpler to deploy Special Operations Forces abroad. "I worry about speed
making it too easy to take the easy answer -- let's go whack them with special
operations -- as opposed to perhaps a more laborious answer for perhaps a
better long-term solution."
As a result,
the new American way of war holds great potential for unforeseen entanglements
and serial blowback. Starting or fanning brushfire wars on several continents
could lead to raging wildfires that spread unpredictably and prove difficult,
if not impossible, to quench.
By their very
nature, small military engagements tend to get larger, and wars tend to spread
beyond borders. By definition, military action tends to have unforeseen
consequences. Those who doubt this need only look back to 2001, when three
low-tech attacks on a single day set in motion a decade-plus of war that has
spread across the globe. The response to that one day began with a war in Afghanistan, that spread to Pakistan, detoured to Iraq,
popped up in Somalia and Yemen, and so
on. Today, veterans of those Ur-interventions find themselves trying to
replicate their dubious successes in places like Mexico
and Honduras, the Central Africa
Republic and the Congo.
History demonstrates that the U.S. is not very good at winning
wars, having gone without victory in any major conflict since 1945. Smaller
interventions have been a mixed bag with modest victories in places like Panama and Grenada
and ignominious outcomes in Lebanon
(in the 1980s) and Somalia
(in the 1990s), to name a few.
The trouble is,
it’s hard to tell what an intervention will grow up to be -- until it’s too
late. While they followed different paths, Vietnam,
Afghanistan, and Iraq all began
relatively small, before growing large and ruinous. Already, the outlook for
the new Obama doctrine seems far from rosy, despite the good press it’s getting
today like a formula for easy power projection that will further U.S. imperial
interests on the cheap could soon prove to be an unmitigated disaster -- one
that likely won’t be apparent until it’s too late.
is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com. An award-winning journalist, his
work has appeared in the
Los Angeles Times, the
Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch.
He is the author/editor of several books, including the just published Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare,
2001-2050 (with Tom Engelhardt). This piece is the latest article in
his new series on the changing face of American empire, which is
being underwritten by Lannan
Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter @NickTurse,
and on Facebook.
Image by Charles
McCain, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, February 13, 2012 8:57 AM
This post originally appeared on
In late December, the lot was just a big blank: a few burgundy metal shipping containers sitting in an expanse of crushed eggshell-colored gravel inside a razor-wire-topped fence. The American military in Afghanistan doesn’t want to talk about it, but one day soon, it will be a new hub for the American drone war in the Greater Middle East.
Next year, that empty lot will be a two-story concrete intelligence facility for America’s drone war, brightly lit and filled with powerful computers kept in climate-controlled comfort in a country where most of the population has no access to electricity. It will boast almost 7,000 square feet of offices, briefing and conference rooms, and a large “processing, exploitation, and dissemination” operations center—and, of course, it will be built with American tax dollars.
Nor is it an anomaly. Despite all the talk of drawdowns and withdrawals, there has been a years-long building boom in Afghanistan that shows little sign of abating. In early 2010, the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) had nearly 400 bases in Afghanistan. Today, Lieutenant Lauren Rago of ISAF public affairs tells TomDispatch, the number tops 450.
The hush-hush, high-tech, super-secure facility at the massive air base in Kandahar is just one of many building projects the U.S. military currently has planned or underway in Afghanistan. While some U.S. bases are indeed closing up shop or being transferred to the Afghan government, and there’s talk of combat operations slowing or ending next year, as well as a withdrawal of American combat forces from Afghanistan by 2014, the U.S. military is still preparing for a much longer haul at mega-bases like Kandahar and Bagram airfields. The same is true even of some smaller camps, forward operating bases (FOBs), and combat outposts (COPs) scattered through the country’s backlands. “Bagram is going through a significant transition during the next year to two years,” Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Gerdes of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Bagram Office recently told Freedom Builder, a Corps of Engineers publication. “We’re transitioning... into a long-term, five-year, 10-year vision for the base.”
Whether the U.S. military will still be in Afghanistan in five or 10 years remains to be seen, but steps are currently being taken to make that possible. U.S. military publications, plans and schematics, contracting documents, and other official data examined by TomDispatch catalog hundreds of construction projects worth billions of dollars slated to begin, continue, or conclude in 2012.
While many of these efforts are geared toward structures for Afghan forces or civilian institutions, a considerable number involve U.S. facilities, some of the most significant being dedicated to the ascendant forms of American warfare: drone operations and missions by elite special operations units. The available plans for most of these projects suggest durability. “The structures that are going in are concrete and mortar, rather than plywood and tent skins,” says Gerdes. As of last December, his office was involved in 30 Afghan construction projects for U.S. or international coalition partners worth almost $427 million.
The Big Base Build-Up
Recently, the New York Timesreported that President Obama is likely to approve a plan to shift much of the U.S. effort in Afghanistan to special operations forces. These elite troops would then conduct kill/capture missions and train local troops well beyond 2014. Recent building efforts in the country bear this out.
A major project at Bagram Air Base, for instance, involves the construction of a special operations forces complex, a clandestine base within a base that will afford America’s black ops troops secrecy and near-absolute autonomy from other U.S. and coalition forces. Begun in 2010, the $29 million project is slated to be completed this May and join roughly 90 locations around the country where troops from Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan have been stationed.
Elsewhere on Bagram, tens of millions of dollars are being spent on projects that are less sexy but no less integral to the war effort, like paving dirt roads and upgrading drainage systems on the mega-base. In January, the U.S. military awarded a $7 million contract to a Turkish construction company to build a 24,000-square-foot command-and-control facility. Plans are also in the works for a new operations center to support tactical fighter jet missions, a new flight-line fire station, as well as more lighting and other improvements to support the American air war.
Last month, Afghan President Hamid Karzai ordered that the U.S.-run prison at Bagram be transferred to Afghan control. By the end of January, the U.S. had issued a $36 million contract for the construction, within a year, of a new prison on the base. While details are sparse, plans for the detention center indicate a thoroughly modern, high-security facility complete with guard towers, advanced surveillance systems, administrative facilities, and the capacity to house about 2,000 prisoners.
At Kandahar Air Field, that new intelligence facility for the drone war will be joined by a similarly-sized structure devoted to administrative operations and maintenance tasks associated with robotic aerial missions. It will be able to accommodate as many as 180 personnel at a time. With an estimated combined price tag of up to $5 million, both buildings will be integral to Air Force and possibly CIA operations involving both the MQ-1 Predator drone and its more advanced and more heavily-armed progeny, the MQ-9 Reaper.
The military is keeping information about these drone facilities under extraordinarily tight wraps. They refused to answer questions about whether, for instance, the construction of these new centers for robotic warfare are in any way related to the loss of Shamsi Air Base in neighboring Pakistan as a drone operations center, or if they signal efforts to increase the tempo of drone missions in the years ahead. The International Joint Command’s chief of Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) operations, aware that such questions were to be posed, backed out of a planned interview with TomDispatch.
“Unfortunately our ISR chief here in the International Joint Command is going to be unable to address your questions,” Lieutenant Ryan Welsh of ISAF Joint Command Media Outreach explained by email just days before the scheduled interview. He also made it clear that any question involving drone operations in Pakistan was off limits. “The issues that you raise are outside the scope under which the IJC operates, therefore we are unable to facilitate this interview request.”
Whether the construction at Kandahar is designed to free up facilities elsewhere for CIA drone operations across the border in Pakistan or is related only to missions within Afghanistan, it strongly suggests a ramping up of unmanned operations. It is, however, just one facet of the ongoing construction at the air field. This month, a $26 million project to build 11 new structures devoted to tactical vehicle maintenance at Kandahar is scheduled for completion. With two large buildings for upkeep and repairs, one devoted strictly to fixing tires, another to painting vehicles, as well as an industrial-sized car wash, and administrative and storage facilities, the big base’s building boom shows no sign of flickering out.
Construction and Reconstruction
This year, at Herat Air Base in the province of the same name bordering Turkmenistan and Iran, the U.S. is slated to begin a multimillion-dollar project to enhance its special forces’ air operations. Plans are in the works to expand apron space—where aircraft can be parked, serviced, and loaded or unloaded—for helicopters and airplanes, as well as to build new taxiways and aircraft shelters.
That project is just one of nearly 130, cumulatively valued at about $1.5 billion, slated to be carried out in Herat, Helmand, and Kandahar provinces this year, according to Army Corps of Engineers documents examined by TomDispatch. These also include efforts at Camp Tombstone and Camp Dwyer, both in Helmand Province as well as Kandahar’s FOB Hadrian and FOB Wilson. The U.S. military also recently awarded a contract for more air field apron space at a base in Kunduz, a new secure entrance and new roads for FOB Delaram II, and new utilities and roads at FOB Shank, while the Marines recently built a new chapel at Camp Bastion.
Seven years ago, Forward Operating Base Sweeney, located a mile up in a mountain range in Zabul Province, was a well-outfitted, if remote, American base. After U.S. troops abandoned it, however, the base fell into disrepair. Last month, American troops returned in force and began rebuilding the outpost, constructing everything from new troop housing to a new storage facility. “We built a lot of buildings, we put up a lot of tents, we filled a lot of sandbags, and we increased our force protection significantly,” Captain Joe Mickley, commanding officer of the soldiers taking up residence at the base, told a military reporter.
Decommission and Deconstruction
Hesco barriers are, in essence, big bags of dirt. Up to seven feet tall, made of canvas and heavy gauge wire mesh, they form protective walls around U.S. outposts all over Afghanistan. They’ll take the worst of sniper rounds, rifle-propelled grenades, even mortar shells, but one thing can absolutely wreck them—the Marines’ 9th Engineer Support Battalion.
At the beginning of December, the 9th Engineers were building bases and filling up Hescos in Helmand Province. By the end of the month, they were tearing others down.
Wielding pickaxes, shovels, bolt-cutters, powerful rescue saws, and front-end loaders, they have begun “demilitarizing” bases, cutting countless Hescos—which cost $700 or more a pop -- into heaps of jagged scrap metal and bulldozing berms in advance of the announced American withdrawal from Afghanistan. At Firebase Saenz, for example, Marines were bathed in a sea of crimson sparks as they sawed their way through the metal mesh and let the dirt spill out, leaving a country already haunted by the ghosts of British and Russian bases with yet another defunct foreign outpost. After Saenz, it was on to another patrol base slated for destruction.
Not all rural outposts are being torn down, however. Some are being handed over to the Afghan Army or police. And new facilities are now being built for the indigenous forces at an increasing rate. “If current projections remain accurate, we will award 18 contracts in February,” Bonnie Perry, the head of contracting for the Army Corps of Engineers’ Afghanistan Engineering District-South, told military reporter Karla Marshall. “Next quarter we expect that awards will remain high, with the largest number of contract awards occurring in May.” One of the projects underway is a large base near Herat, which will include barracks, dining facilities, office space, and other amenities for Afghan commandos.
Tell Me How This Ends
No one should be surprised that the U.S. military is building up and tearing down bases at the same time, nor that much of the new construction is going on at mega-bases, while small outposts in the countryside are being abandoned. This is exactly what you would expect of an occupation force looking to scale back its “footprint” and end major combat operations while maintaining an on-going presence in Afghanistan. Given the U.S. military’s projected retreat to its giant bases and an increased reliance on kill/capture black-ops as well as unmanned air missions, it’s also no surprise that its signature projects for 2012 include a new special operations forces compound, clandestine drone facilities, and a brand new military prison.
There’s little doubt Bagram Air Base will exist in five or 10 years. Just who will be occupying it is, however, less clear. After all, in Iraq, the Obama administration negotiated for some way to station a significant military force—10,000 or more troops—there beyond a withdrawal date that had been set in stone for years. While a token number of U.S. troops and a highly militarized State Department contingent remain there, the Iraqi government largely thwarted the American efforts—and now, even the State Department presence is being halved.
It’s less likely this will be the case in Afghanistan, but it remains possible. Still, it’s clear that the military is building in that country as if an enduring American presence were a given. Whatever the outcome, vestiges of the current base-building boom will endure and become part of America’s Afghan legacy.
On Bagram’s grounds stands a distinctive structure called the “Crow’s Nest.” It’s an old control tower built by the Soviets to coordinate their military operations in Afghanistan. That foreign force left the country in 1989. The Soviet Union itself departed from the planet less than three years later. The tower remains.
America’s new prison in Bagram will undoubtedly remain, too. Just who the jailers will be and who will be locked inside five years or 10 years from now is, of course, unknown. But given the history—marked by torture and deaths—of the appalling treatment of inmates at Bagram and, more generally, of the brutality toward prisoners by all parties to the conflict over the years, in no scenario are the results likely to be pretty.
Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com. An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. This article is the sixth in his new serieson the changing face of American empire, which is being underwritten by Lannan Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter @NickTurse, on Tumblr, and on Facebook.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.
Copyright 2012 Nick Turse
Image by wlodi, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, January 16, 2012 3:31 PM
This post originally appeared on
American fighter jets screamed over the Iraqi countryside heading for the MQ-1 Predator drone, while its crew in California stood by helplessly. What had begun as an ordinary reconnaissance mission was now taking a ruinous turn. In an instant, the jets attacked and then it was all over. The Predator, one of the Air Force’s workhorse hunter/killer robots, had been obliterated.
An account of the spectacular end of that nearly $4 million drone in November 2007 is contained in a collection of Air Force accident investigation documents recently examined by TomDispatch. They catalog more than 70 catastrophic Air Force drone mishaps since 2000, each resulting in the loss of an aircraft or property damage of $2 million or more.
These official reports, some obtained by TomDispatch through the Freedom of Information Act, offer new insights into a largely covert, yet highly touted war-fighting, assassination, and spy program involving armed robots that are significantly less reliable than previously acknowledged. These planes, the latest wonder weapons in the U.S. military arsenal, are tested, launched, and piloted from a shadowy network of more than 60 bases spread around the globe, often in support of elite teams of special operations forces. Collectively, the Air Force documents offer a remarkable portrait of modern drone warfare, one rarely found in a decade of generally triumphalist or awestruck press accounts that seldom mention the limitations of drones, much less their mission failures.
The aerial disasters described draw attention not only to the technical limitations of drone warfare, but to larger conceptual flaws inherent in such operations. Launched and landed by aircrews close to battlefields in places like Afghanistan, the drones are controlled during missions by pilots and sensor operators—often multiple teams over many hours—from bases in places like Nevada and North Dakota. They are sometimes also monitored by “screeners” from private security contractors at stateside bases like Hurlburt Field in Florida. (A recent McClatchy report revealed that it takes nearly 170 people to keep a single Predator in the air for 24 hours.)
In other words, drone missions, like the robots themselves, have many moving parts and much, it turns out, can and does go wrong. In that November 2007 Predator incident in Iraq, for instance, an electronic failure caused the robotic aircraft to engage its self-destruct mechanism and crash, after which U.S. jets destroyed the wreckage to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. In other cases, drones—officially known as remotely piloted aircraft, or RPAs—broke down, escaped human control and oversight, or self-destructed for reasons ranging from pilot error and bad weather to mechanical failure in Afghanistan, Djibouti, the Gulf of Aden, Iraq, Kuwait, and various other unspecified or classified foreign locations, as well as in the United States.
In 2001, Air Force Predator drones flew 7,500 hours. By the close of last year, that number topped 70,000. As the tempo of robotic air operations has steadily increased, crashes have, not surprisingly, become more frequent. In 2001, just two Air Force drones were destroyed in accidents. In 2008, eight drones fell from the sky. Last year, the number reached 13. (Accident rates are, however, dropping according to an Air Force report relying on figures from 2009.)
Keep in mind that the 70-plus accidents recorded in those Air Force documents represent only drone crashes investigated by the Air Force under a rigid set of rules. Many other drone mishaps have not been included in the Air Force statistics. Examples include a haywire MQ-9 Reaper drone that had to be shot out of the Afghan skies by a fighter jet in 2009, a remotely-operated Navy helicopter that went down in Libya last June, an unmanned aerial vehicle whose camera was reportedly taken by Afghan insurgents after a crash in August 2011, an advanced RQ-170 Sentinel lost during a spy mission in Iran last December, and the recent crash of an MQ-9 Reaper in the Seychelles Islands.
You Don’t Need a Weatherman . . . Or Do You?
How missions are carried out—and sometimes fail—is apparent from the declassified reports, including one provided to TomDispatch by the Air Force detailing a June 2011 crash. Late that month, a Predator drone took off from Jalalabad Air Base in Afghanistan to carry out a surveillance mission in support of ground forces. Piloted by a member of the 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing out of Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, the robotic craft ran into rough weather, causing the pilot to ask for permission to abandon the troops below.
His commander never had a chance to respond. Lacking weather avoidance equipment found on more sophisticated aircraft or on-board sensors to clue the pilot in to rapidly deteriorating weather conditions, and with a sandstorm interfering with ground radar, “severe weather effects” overtook the Predator. In an instant, the satellite link between pilot and plane was severed. When it momentarily flickered back to life, the crew could see that the drone was in an extreme nosedive. They then lost the datalink for a second and final time. A few minutes later, troops on the ground radioed in to say that the $4 million drone had crashed near them.
A month earlier, a Predator drone took off from the tiny African nation of Djibouti in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, which includes operations in Afghanistan as well as Yemen, Djibouti, and Somalia, among other nations. According to documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, about eight hours into the flight, the mission crew noticed a slow oil leak. Ten hours later, they handed the drone off to a local aircrew whose assignment was to land it at Djibouti’s Ambouli Airport, a joint civilian/military facility adjacent to Camp Lemonier, a U.S. base in the country.
That mission crew—both the pilot and sensor operator—had been deployed from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada and had logged a combined 1,700 hours flying Predators. They were considered “experienced” by the Air Force. On this day, however, the electronic sensors that measure their drone’s altitude were inaccurate, while low clouds and high humidity affected its infrared sensors and set the stage for disaster.
An investigation eventually found that, had the crew performed proper instrument cross-checks, they would have noticed a 300-400 foot discrepancy in their altitude. Instead, only when the RPA broke through the clouds did the sensor operator realize just how close to the ground it was. Six seconds later, the drone crashed to earth, destroying itself and one of its Hellfire missiles.
Storms, clouds, humidity, and human error aren’t the only natural dangers for drones. In a November 2008 incident, a mission crew at Kandahar Air Field launched a Predator on a windy day. Just five minutes into the flight, with the aircraft still above the sprawling American mega-base, the pilot realized that the plane had already deviated from its intended course. To get it back on track, he initiated a turn that—due to the aggressive nature of the maneuver, wind conditions, drone design, and the unbalanced weight of a missile on just one wing—sent the plane into a roll. Despite the pilot’s best efforts, the craft entered a tailspin, crashed on the base, and burst into flames.
On occasion, RPAs have simply escaped from human control. Over the course of eight hours on a late February day in 2009, for example, five different crews passed off the controls of a Predator drone, one to the next, as it flew over Iraq. Suddenly, without warning, the last of them, members of the North Dakota Air National Guard at Hector International Airport in Fargo, lost communication with the plane. At that point no one—not the pilot, nor the sensor operator, nor a local mission crew—knew where the drone was or what it was doing. Neither transmitting nor receiving data or commands, it had, in effect, gone rogue. Only later was it determined that a datalink failure had triggered the drone’s self-destruct mechanism, sending it into an unrecoverable tailspin and crash within 10 minutes of escaping human control.
In November 2009, a Predator launched from Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan lost touch with its human handlers 20 minutes after takeoff and simply disappeared. When the mission crew was unable to raise the drone, datalink specialists were brought in but failed to find the errant plane. Meanwhile, air traffic controllers, who had lost the plane on radar, could not even locate its transponder signal. Numerous efforts to make contact failed. Two days later, at the moment the drone would have run out of fuel, the Air Force declared the Predator “lost.” It took eight days for its wreckage to be located.
In mid-August 2004, while drone operations in the Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility were running at high tempo, a Predator mission crew began hearing a cascade of warning alarms indicating engine and alternator failure, as well as a possible engine fire. When the sensor operator used his camera to scan the aircraft, it didn’t take long to spot the problem. Its tail had burst into flames. Shortly afterward, it became uncontrollable and crashed.
In January 2007, a Predator drone was flying somewhere in the CENTCOM region (above one of 20 countries in the Greater Middle East). About 14 hours into a 20-hour mission, the aircraft began to falter. For 15 minutes its engine was failing, but the information it was sending back remained within normal parameters, so the mission crew failed to notice. Only at the last minute did they become aware that their drone was dying. As an investigation later determined, an expanding crack in the drone’s crankshaft caused the engine to seize up. The pilot put the aircraft into a glide toward an unpopulated area. Higher headquarters then directed that he should intentionally crash it, since a rapid reaction force would not be able to reach it quickly and it was carrying two Hellfire missiles as well as unspecified “classified equipment.” Days later, its remains were recovered.
The Crash and Burn Future of Robot Warfare
In spite of all the technical limitations of remote-controlled war spelled out in the Air Force investigation files, the U.S. is doubling down on drones. Under the president’s new military strategy, the Air Force is projected to see its share of the budgetary pie rise and flying robots are expected to be a major part of that expansion.
Already, counting the Army’s thousands of tiny drones, one in three military aircraft—close to 7,500 machines—are robots. According to official figures provided to TomDispatch, roughly 285 of them are Air Force Predator, Reaper, or Global Hawk drones. The Air Force’s arsenal also includes more advanced Sentinels, Avengers, and other classified unmanned aircraft. A report published by the Congressional Budget Office last year, revealed that “the Department of Defense plans to purchase about 730 new medium-sized and large unmanned aircraft systems” during the next 10 years.
Over the last decade, the United States has increasingly turned to drones in an effort to win its wars. The Air Force investigation files examined by TomDispatch suggest a more extensive use of drones in Iraq than has previously been reported. But in Iraq, as in Afghanistan, America’s preeminent wonder weapon failed to bring the U.S. mission anywhere close to victory. Effective as the spearhead of a program to cripple al-Qaeda in Pakistan, drone warfare in that country’s tribal borderlands has also alienated almost the entire population of 190 million. In other words, an estimated 2,000 suspected or identified guerrillas (as well as untold numbers of civilians) died. The populace of a key American ally grew ever more hostile and no one knows how many new militants in search of revenge the drone strikes may have created, though the numbers are believed to be significant.
Despite a decade of technological, tactical, and strategic refinements and improvements, Air Force and allied CIA personnel watching computer monitors in distant locations have continually failed to discriminate between armed combatants and innocent civilians and, as a result, the judge-jury-executioner drone assassination program is widely considered to have run afoul of international law.
In addition, drone warfare seems to be creating a sinister system of embedded economic incentives that may lead to increasing casualty figures on the ground. “In some targeting programs, staffers have review quotas—that is, they must review a certain number of possible targets per given length of time,” The Atlantic’s Joshua Foust recently wrote of the private contractors involved in the process. “Because they are contractors,” he explains, “their continued employment depends on their ability to satisfy the stated performance metrics. So they have a financial incentive to make life-or-death decisions about possible kill targets just to stay employed. This should be an intolerable situation, but because the system lacks transparency or outside review it is almost impossible to monitor or alter.”
As flight hours rise year by year, these stark drawbacks are compounded by a series of technical glitches and vulnerabilities that are ever more regularly coming to light. These include: Iraqi insurgents hacking drone video feeds, a virulent computer virus infecting the Air Force’s unmanned fleet, large percentages of drone pilots suffering from “high operational stress,” a friendly fire incident in which drone operators killed two U.S. military personnel, increasing numbers of crashes, and the possibility of an Iranian drone-hijacking, as well as those more than 70 catastrophic mishaps detailed in Air Force accident investigation documents.
Over the last decade, a more-is-better mentality has led to increased numbers of drones, drone bases, drone pilots, and drone victims, but not much else. Drones may be effective in terms of generating body counts, but they appear to be even more successful in generating animosity and creating enemies.
The Air Force’s accident reports are replete with evidence of the flaws inherent in drone technology, and there can be little doubt that, in the future, ever more will come to light. A decade’s worth of futility suggests that drone warfare itself may already be crashing and burning, yet it seems destined that the skies will fill with drones and that the future will bring more of the same.
Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com. An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. This article is the fifth in his new series on the changing face of American empire, which is being underwritten by Lannan Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter @NickTurse, on Tumblr, and on Facebook. (To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Turse discusses why drone warfare is anything but failure-proof, click here, or download it to your iPod here.)
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Copyright 2012 Nick Turse
Image by Official U.S. Navy Imagery, licensed under Creative Commons.
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