Why you’ll always lose with drones alone

July 13, 2015
Handout of the Triton unmanned aircraft system completing its first flight from Northrop Grumman manufacturing facility in Palmdale

The Triton unmanned aircraft system completing its first flight from the Northrop Grumman manufacturing facility in Palmdale, California, May 22, 2013. U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Northrop Grumman/Alex Evers/Handout via Reuters

The U.S.-led air campaign against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria is having a devastating effect on the insurgent forces. That is, if you believe the Pentagon’s continuing tally of destroyed and damaged vehicles, facilities and troop formations.

But the official statistics are meaningless. Because U.S. pilots are flying blind. To a great extent, they don’t know what — if anything — they’re hitting.

More so than in any recent conflict, American aviators soaring over Iraq and Syria rely on remote-controlled drones to spot targets for them. This is one consequence of President Barack Obama’s policy barring U.S. ground troops from any direct combat role.

Boeing's liquid hydrogen-powered Phantom Eye unmanned aircraft system is seen during taxi testing

Boeing’s liquid hydrogen-powered Phantom Eye unmanned aircraft system during testing at Edwards Air Force Base, California, February 6, 2013. REUTERS/Carla Thomas/NASA/Handout

The big problem? Drones make terrible spotters. Even after decades of development, America’s unmanned aerial vehicles can provide only a narrow, grainy view of the battlefield. “Contrary to popular belief,” Andrew Cockburn writes in his new history of military drones, Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins, “the imagery … tends to be fuzzy.”

A war waged mostly from the air still demands people on the ground, people with eyeballs whose visual acuity still beats a drone’s sensors. As long as Washington refuses to deploy human spotters against Islamic State, it won’t know for sure whether air strikes are hitting the right people — or anyone at all.

On their face, the official Defense Department stats are impressive. Between the first air raids in August 2014 and June 22, no fewer than 15,000 U.S.-led strikes destroyed or damaged 7,655 militant targets in Iraq and Syria, including 98 tanks, 325 captured U.S.-made Humvees, 2,045 buildings and 1,859 fighting positions, the latter presumably occupied by Islamic State troops.

Unmanned Aerial System 'Hunter' is displayed during presentation by UAS at US military base in Vilseck-Grafenwoehr

A ‘Hunter’ Unmanned Aerial System during an official presentation at the U.S. military base in Vilseck-Grafenwoehr, October 8, 2013. REUTERS/Michaela Rehle

U.S. officials estimated that the air raids have killed around 1,000 militant fighters a month.

“The destruction of ISIL targets in Syria and Iraq,” the Pentagon claimed, using the administration’s acronym for Islamic State, “further limits the terrorist group’s ability to project terror and conduct operations.”

But there are good reasons to doubt the military’s damage assessments and body counts — and its assertion that aerial attacks have badly hurt Islamic State. With their narrow field of view from a fixed overhead perspective, the drones that provide the main view of the war zone convey an imprecise picture.

This is also true for the drones that help guide many of the bombs the manned warplanes drop. The robot uses a powerful laser pointer to “designate” a target. A sensor on the bomb steers tiny wings that allow the munition to follow the laser all the way to the ground. But the bomb’s accuracy is only as good as the drone’s accuracy.

Drones can also fire their own missiles and drop their own bombs at targets they spot themselves, however imprecisely. One U.S. drone strike against an al Qaeda compound in Pakistan in January killed two innocent hostages: American contractor Warren Weinstein and Italian aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto. The White House admitted to the mistake in April in a rare bout of transparency regarding drone attacks.

A U.S. military surveillance drone camera flies in Musa Qal-Ah district in Helmand province

A U.S. military surveillance drone camera in Helmand province, southwestern Afghanistan, November 2, 2012. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

Over Iraq and Syria, the drones stay very busy as they introduce dangerous uncertainty throughout the complex campaign. “We’re involved in pretty much every engagement,” Colonel James Cluff, commander of the 432nd Wing, said of the U.S.-led air campaign over Iraq and Syria. The 432nd, stationed at Creech Air Force Base just north of Las Vegas, controls most of the Air Force’s roughly 300 Predator and Reaper drones.

For operations in Iraq and Syria, small crews apparently launch and land the drones from a base in Kuwait. Operators at Creech control the robotic aircraft via satellite, staring at banks of video monitors displaying the grainy images that the drones’ sensors are seeing.

By relying solely on these drones to locate targets and guide bombs, U.S. troops run the risk of hitting nothing. Or worse — mistaking civilians for fighters and sending bombs raining down on them.

It has happened before. U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan since 2001 have killed up to 3,976 people, according to the British-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism. As many as 965 of the dead were innocent civilians, according to the bureau’s count.

U.S. drone operations in Somalia and Yemen have also killed hundreds of noncombatants in the two countries. As with the battle against Islamic State, these campaigns are strictly aerial. There are no U.S. troops on the ground to verify targets.

Nabila Rehman holds up a picture she drew depicting the U.S. drone strike on her Pakistan village which killed her grandmother Mammana Bibi, at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington

Nabila Rehman, 9, holds up her drawing of the U.S. drone strike on her Pakistan village, which killed her grandmother, at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, October 29, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed

The Pentagon does employ thousands of “joint terminal air controllers,” highly trained spotters whose sole job it is to locate targets for air strikes, first-hand. And then to help guide attacking warplanes via radio. “You have to calculate so many different things with you and with the aircraft,” said then-Airman 1st Class William Chandler, a joint terminal air controller who served in Afghanistan in 2010.

“They’re the glue that holds this all together,” explained then-Brigadier General Steve Kwast, Chandler’s commander. “What the JTAC [joint terminal air controller] does is have a conversation between the aircraft and the ground commander to make sure our operations are sophisticated enough to solve problems without doing harm to the Afghan people.”

There are more than 3,000 U.S. military advisers in Iraq, including joint terminal air controllers. But Obama has specifically barred them from going near the front lines, where they would do their best work using their own eyes to scan the battlefield.

During a visit last September to a military headquarters in Tampa, Florida, Obama stressed that the U.S. forces in Iraq “do not and will not have a combat mission.” Public opinion toward American troops’ role in Iraq has whipsawed on this. In October last year, 52 percent of respondents to a Reason-Ruppe poll said they opposed deploying U.S. ground troops to fight Islamic State. By February, this had shifted. A CBS poll found 57 percent of Americans were in favor of deploying ground forces in a combat role.

Drones instead fill in for human spotters, with potentially deadly consequences for civilians. And disturbing implications for Washington’s strategy in Iraq and Syria. How can the U.S. government truly know whether it’s winning the war against Islamic State if it doesn’t know for sure who or what it’s bombing?

The Pentagon is aware of the problem. During a Senate hearing in May, Lieutenant General John Hesterman, commander of Air Forces squadrons in the Middle East, admitted that having joint terminal air controllers on the ground “would be helpful.”

Hesterman’s admission may be the military understatement of the year, as bombs rain down on people that remote drone operators, scrutinizing grainy overhead video, decided must depict enemy fighters.


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It would be interesting to get a view from a camera manufacturer as to why these military drones cannot take a clear picture to determine the target. Small drones are used by wedding photographers and the pictures are crystal clear: the little drones shoot by overhead and are gone before you can say cheese.

Posted by peetee | Report as abusive

14 yrs and counting for the high tech dependent military to defeat 2 no tech foes. What happens when we have to fight an enemy that has air

Drones as eyes are ok; when you start mounting weapons on them that costs escalate.

Posted by alowl | Report as abusive

“. As long as Washington refuses to deploy human spotters against Islamic State,” Please volunteer, author. I’d love to see you over there on the ground at the front.

Posted by LetBalanceCome | Report as abusive

Don’t worry, Obama has the free Syrian army in training, as the key arm of US foreign policy. I believe they have already got some 60 people in training according to the Pentagon. If they’re not manning a checkpoint or two maybe they could help out with some spotting too, or drawing some red lines..

Posted by SaigonQ2 | Report as abusive

First, eyes on the ground could be had in the form of Iraqis. If we have no one there who can be trusted then they support ISIS and we should leave to allow them to have the lives of degradation and torture that so many religious fanatics desire.
Second, We bombed civilians intentionally in WWII, Korea and Viet Nam. Are you going to say that the greatest generation was wrong? If we really think that ISIS is the great threat that our leaders fear us up about then civilian deaths are inconsequential to the severity of the issue at hand.

More than likely the use of drones is to create more terrorists and your attempt at justifying the human involvement has more to do with what the military industrial complex wants to get out of these efforts. That is a sustained continuous and costly war that never ends and shifts much of the federal budget from things that benefit the people who pay taxes to those that kill randomly for a living in a supposed effort to protect us from evil

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

You may always lose with drones alone, but what do you lose? A few drones? Some good will that never existed anyway? Keep using them. Keep killing lunatics in the desert.

Far better to lose a machine than the 4,000 US lives Bush and Cheney lost for nothing.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive