The US Drone Program, who’s calling the shots?

When the United States on February 21, 2010, accidentally killed at least 15 civilians in southern Afghanistan, the missile attack responsible was prompted by ambiguous intelligence provided by a defense contractor that was aggressively misinterpreted by military personnel. The Army captain who called in the strike had no direct contact with the civilian analyst who was studying the video feed from a surveillance drone.

The 2010 airstrike was ordered after an employee of SAIC, Inc., watching the video feed, observed three four-wheel drive vehicles carrying men, women and children moving near a unit of American soldiers and considered them to be possibly hostile. During a post-incident inquiry, she told Maj. Gen. Timothy McHale that at one point the vehicles turned away from the U.S. troops and she was surprised to later learn that the vehicles had been attacked.

The SAIC video analyst was based in Okaloosa, Florida, while the Air Force pilot guiding the drone was sitting at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. The Army captain who ordered the killing was in Afghanistan.

Due to the high number of support personnel needed to keep unmanned aircraft operational, the military is relying on civilians to sufficiently staff its drone missions. SAIC employs about 400 people analyzing battlefield video feeds.    Some pilotless planes, such as the Global Hawk surveillance drone, require as many as 300 people per mission. In contrast, a conventional fighter plane flown by a pilot requires less than 100 ground support members.

U.S. Drone Killing Program Threatened by Disconnect between Contractors and Military, AllGov.com, Jan. 03, 2012

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