Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

Killing more efficiently: America’s violin-sized missiles

April 28, 2010
A unmanned Predator being rolled out of a hangar.REUTERS/Chris Helgren)

(An unmanned Predator being rolled out of a hangar. REUTERS/Chris Helgren)

The CIA is using smaller, advanced missiles – some of them no longer than a violin-case – to target militants in Pakistan’s tribal belt, according to the Washington Post.

The idea is to limit civilian casualties, the newspaper said quoting defence officials, after months of deadly missile strikes by unmanned Predator aircraft that has so burned Pakistan both in terms of the actual collateral damage and its sense of loss of sovereignty.

With the new missiles you are talking of precision unsurpassed in the history of warfare, U.S.  officials say. Last month, a small CIA missile, weighing about 35 pounds, tore through the second floor of a house in Miram Shah, a town in South Waziristan.

The projectile exploded, killing a top al-Qaeda official and about nine other suspected terrorists, the newspaper said. The mud-brick house collapsed and the roof of a neighbouring house was damaged, but no one else in the town of 5,000 was hurt, according to U.S. officials who have reviewed after-action reports.

(Tribesmen at a house in Waziristan after a missile strike.REUTERS/Kamran Wazir )

(Tribesmen at a house in Waziristan after a missile strike. REUTERS/Kamran Wazir )

Besides the obvious gains from such “clean killings”, you are also getting more bang for your buck. The drones were earlier mounted with Hellfire missiles with a 100-pound warhead designed to destroy a main battle tank. To fire such a missile at a car or a compound in the Pakistani northwest is surely overkill, as the military-focused Danger Room blog notes.

A whole range of small missiles are being developed to be launched from the Predator, such as Lockheed Martin’s Scorpion weiging 35 pounds and with a diameter of a coffee cup. It causes far less destruction than a Hellfire, and it can be fitted with four different guidance systems that allow it to home in on targets as small as a single person, in complete darkness.

Very clinical, very precise. There is almost  a seductive element to it and it goes back to the whole debate about trying to make war as cost-free as possible. A painless war ?  But what about the people on  the ground where this great advance in warfare is being played out.

Peter Warren Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution, points that while Americans use words such as “efficient” and “costless” to describe the  drone campaign, many view it as war without honor.  Cruel and cowardly, he quotes a newspaper editor in Lebanon as saying, in a testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives last month.

“What does it mean when ‘drone’ has become a colloquial word in Urdu and rock songs that Pakistani youth vibe to talk about America not fighting with honor? How does the reality of our painstaking efforts to act with precision emerge on the other side through a cloud of anger and misperceptions? ”  Singer, author of a widely-acclaimed book Wired For War said at the hearing on Unmanned Systems and Robotic Warfare.  Or is America painting itself into a corner in just the way Israel has done with its policy of state-directed assassinations , he asks.  Israel has struck against top Hamas leaders, but each hit might also be inducing a 12-year-old boy to join the group.

Make no mistake, the United States has quietly unleashed such firepower in the Pakistani northwest, considered at one point to be the place where the next Sept 11 attacks were most likely to be plotted, that you could almost argue that it is a fighting a third war there along with Iraq and Afghanistan.

Singer says as of  March 12, 2010, American unmanned systems had carried out 118 known air strikes into Pakistan, well over double the amount the U.S. military did with manned bombers in the opening round of the Kosovo War just a decade ago. By the old definition it would amount to war. And Pakistan is supposed to be an ally.


AS usual the left wing press is quick to condemn the USA for a dirty war but says nothing about using IED or suicide bombers, setting off bombs and killing civilians and then hiding amongst them, placing bombs is places of worship I suppose that is fighting with honour,

Posted by mike | Report as abusive

so what is the point. Pakistan is a terrorist country, it supports, promotes and uses terrorism both within and out of the country. What do you expect US to do, Suck their thumbs like the indian govt. is doing?

Posted by rajesh | Report as abusive

Interesting, however, should the war makers and shakers ultimately arrive at the perfect killing machine, the cost and its potential fiscal earning capability shall be the defining notation, not its efficency. You know, if it don’t pay…

Posted by Bob Browser | Report as abusive

Do you guys know when the neighbor’s house is a crack house? same way folks there know when the terrorists are having meetings next door. Those terrorists hide where they are welcomed,,,,,

Posted by Steven | Report as abusive

perhaps the writer would prefer that we bring back carpet bombings.

The entire reason for limitation of collateral damage is to win the media war. Perhaps the writer is aware of this and wants civilian casualties.

Posted by foo | Report as abusive

The only purpose that this article could possible serve would be to generate comments. Or to show that such a smart man as P.W. Singer he must be towing a party line, PC, or just someone that is promoting himself for some kind of personal gain. Perhaps he’s confused because he was founding Director of the Project on U.S. Policy towards the Islamic World in the Saban Center at Brookings. Mr. Singer please don’t confuse Islam with terrorism! Or maybe, just another wind bag that wouldn’t know the truth if it flew up your nose. Making your own truths and closing your eyes to real truth will ultimately kill us.

First: The US is attempting to fight with honor by attempting to kill only certain people (discriminate killing). Not by indiscriminate IED or suicide killings, which very often kill innocent people.
Second: Lower cost is always better. If the terrorist killed had lived, how much would he have cost the US, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in damage, healthcare, and other cost involved? Only a terrorist would call this “cruel and cowardly”, again words like these coming from a people that kills innocent civilians. But they do not consider them innocent because they are not of their religion.
Third: I agree, there is no such thing as a painless war (been there, done that). But, killing terrorist on the ground is the whole idea. We try to prevent the innocent civilians from dying and kill the terrorist. So they don’t kill us while we are helping the innocent civilians or kill the innocent civilians, which they do willfully and often.
Fourth: Of course we have more than doubled the unmanned airstrikes in Pakistan compared to Kosovo. The air campaign in Kosovo only lasted a few months; the war in Afghanistan has been going on for 9 years. The known airstrikes on Pakistan since approximately 2007.
Fifth: The unmanned airstrikes do not result in war because we have Pakistan’s permission.
Sixth: Pakistan is our ally. They have lost many brave soldiers battling the terrorist in their country. If you think that patrolling and controlling the Northwest region of Pakistan is simple, it makes me curious why President Obama would have you serve as coordinator of the Obama-08 campaign’s defense policy task force.

Posted by Analyst | Report as abusive

I guess like the US the shoe bomber and the nigerian were equally considering the low costs for their now failed operations.

Posted by rex minor | Report as abusive

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