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Shut Down Creech
Monday, July 26, 2010
Drone story from the Afghan Files
It flies at 50,000ft, is virtually invisible and carries a deadly payload of missiles and bombs. Meet the Reaper, a new variety of heavily armed unmanned drone which the war logs reveal is increasingly the coalition's weapon of choice against the Taliban.
At about $13m (£8m) each, and up to $100,000 for each of its four Hellfire missiles, that adds up to an extraordinary amount of cash that is routinely being spent to try to kill a single insurgent.
The growing reliance on the Reaper becomes apparent in the account of one operation on 29 August last year.
US soldiers on the ground studied the live video, from the Reaper's camera thousands of feet up, of a fighter "pulling weapons from a cache site in a culvert under the road". He rode his motorbike to an underground cellar in a compound, "carrying weapons back and forth".
The US soldiers waited until he met a group of men, signalling back via satellite to the pilot controlling a joystick thousands of miles away in a Nevada bunker, who loosed a missile on to their vehicle. The US claimed a kill of three insurgents.
The Reaper is much more powerful than its predecessors. It not only flies higher, but loiters longer, and – most significantly – carries a more destructive payload. In addition to the four Hellfires, it is armed with two 500lb GBU-12 smart bombs.
Typical of the extensive – and expensive – use of these drones is an operation recorded in southern Afghanistan on 30 June last year. Insurgents had attacked Afghan police. The log records "2 x INS [insurgents] moving into mountains above Khakrez" and continues: "INS were tracked by Reaper to a large tree when 1 x INS dropped his kit and ran to the south. Additional INS were observed under the cover of a tree."
The pilot in Nevada then launched his laser-guided bomb, "resulting that 3 x INS fled the area to the north, 1 x INS fled the area to the south".
The pilot steered the drone to follow the three fleeing northwards and unleashed three Hellfires on them. The Reaper continued tracking and an hour later spotted two more insurgents who were "followed to a rock pile" and hit with the final Hellfire.
A surveillance drone, a Predator, "was providing overwatch and nothing was seen moving in the area after the strike". Up to seven Taliban fighters were said to have been killed in that battle.
Another log entry tells of a Reaper hide-and-seek mission above Kandahar province on the afternoon of 28 October 2008. The remote pilot "observed INS with 82mm mortars and engaged them with 1 x Hellfire" Then he chased and launched another Hellfire at two "squirters" – slang for people fleeing a building or position after it has just been bombed.
On 27 October last year, a unit from the 2nd Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment (Green Howards) was attacked by four Taliban fighters hidden in what are known as "murder holes" in a wall of a compound near Nad-e Ali, Helmand. The Taliban dig burrows in walls then climb into them, firing guns through small slits. On this occasion, the Reaper drone bombed the wall. The log says it succeeded in killing two Taliban.
The RAF, third in the queue after the US air force and the CIA, is ordering as many Reapers as it can. It deployed its first one in Afghanistan in June 2008.
Since then British Reapers have flown more than 11,500 hours in a purely surveillance role and fired 97 missiles to help commanders on the ground, the RAF says. They fly from an airfield in Kandahar, which maintains and refuels them. No civilians have been killed as a result, according to the Ministry of Defence .
Yet Reapers are not always the perfect video-game weapon. On 13 September last year, the logs record that a rogue Reaper went out of control. The unmanned "hunter-killer" headed for neighbouring Tajikistan with its full load of missiles and bombs. An F15 fighter jet was scrambled and only succeeded in shooting it down a short distance from the border.