Tag Archives: unmanned aerial vehicles

What Conservation Drones Can and Could Do

conservation drones.  Image from conservation drones.org

A South African foundation on Wednesday received a 232.2-million-rand (about 21-million-U.S.- dollar) grant for combatting unchecked rhino poaching in Southern Africa.  The grant was donated to Peace Parks Foundation from the Dutch and Swedish Postcode Lotteries. Of the total donation, 217 million rands (about 19 million dollars) came from the Dutch Postcode Lottery, while 15.2 million rands (about 13.7 million dollars) was contributed by the Swedish Postcode Lottery.

“This is the largest single contribution made by the private sector to combat rhino poaching and wildlife crime. We welcome this public-private partnership to help ensure the survival of the species,” South Africa’s Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa said.

The South African government and its public entities—South African National Parks (SANParks) and Ezemvelo KZN (KwaZulu-Natal) Wildlife (Ezemvelo), are working closely with Peace Parks Foundation to develop a multi-pronged approach to combat rhino poaching and wildlife crime, the minister said.

The main focus will be the devaluation of the horns of live rhino, through a combination of methods, including the physical devaluation and contamination of the horn, as well as the use of tracking and monitoring technology…In particular, the emphasis will be on intelligence gathering and on technology applications such as conservation drones and other specialist equipment. It will also include training and capacity building, as well as incentives and rewards for rangers, communities and members of the public who support the conservation of rhino…The Peace Parks Foundation was established in 1997 to assist the region’s governments in their development of transfrontier conservation areas.

South African foundation receives multi-million-dollar grant for fighting rhino poaching, Xinhua, Feb. 8, 2014

Drones: Rules and Reality

In his most comprehensive public comments yet on the US covert drone war, President Barack Obama has laid out the five rules he says the United States uses to target and kill alleged terrorists – including US citizens.  The president has also warned of the need to avoid a ‘slippery slope’ when fighting terrorism, ‘in which you end up bending rules, thinking that the ends always justify the means.’  Obama’s comments were made in an on-camera interview with CNN’s chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin. Only once before has the president publicly discussed the US covert drone policy, when he spoke briefly about strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas.  Now Obama says there are five rules that need to be followed in covert US drone attacks. In his own words:

1 ’It has to be a target that is authorised by our laws.’

2 ’It has to be a threat that is serious and not speculative.’

3 ’It has to be a situation in which we can’t capture the individual before they move forward on some sort of operational plot against the United States.’

4 ‘We’ve got to make sure that in whatever operations we conduct, we are very careful about avoiding civilian casualties.’

5 ‘That while there is a legal justification for us to try and stop [American citizens] from carrying out plots… they are subject to the protections of the constitution and due process.’

Obama twice referred to what he claims has been ‘misreporting’ by the media of his drones policy.  Apparently responding to recent allegations that his administration prefers to kill rather than capture suspects, the president said that ‘our preference has always been to capture when we can because we can gather intelligence’ but that it’s sometimes ‘very difficult to capture them.’  CNN’s Yellin did not bring up the issue of civilian casualties – despite CNN itself reporting multiple civilian deaths in a suspected Yemen drone strike just hours earlier. However Obama insisted that ‘we are very careful about avoiding civilian casualties, and in fact there are a whole bunch of situations where we will not engage in operations if we think there’s going to be civilian casualties involved.’

Obama also took on the contentious targeted killing of US citizens – the subject of a number of high profile legal cases. Insisting that there was ‘legal justification’ for such killings, the president conceded that ‘as an American citizen, they are subject to the protections of the constitution and due process.’  The US Department of Justice (DoJ) is presently trying to block publication of administration legal opinions which allegedly provided the justification for the killing of US citizen Anwar al Awlaki and others.  In a recent court submission the DoJ insisted that Obama’s January comments on the covert drone war could not be taken as an admission that it was taking place: ‘Plaintiffs speculate that the president must have been speaking about CIA involvement in lethal operations…. This is insufficient to support a claim of official disclosure.’  With Obama now publicly laying out the ground rules for the covert drone war, the DoJ’s position appears further damaged.

The president also discussed in some detail his moral concerns regarding the campaign, admitting that he ‘struggle[s] with issues of war and peace and fighting terrorism.’  Our preference has always been to capture when we can because we can gather intelligence.’  He said that he and his national security team needed to ‘continually ask questions about “Are we doing the right thing? Are we abiding by the rule of law? Are we abiding by due process?”‘  If that failed to happen, the president warned, there was the risk of a ‘slippery slope… in which you end up bending rules, thinking that the ends always justify the means.’  The continuing deaths of civilians – and CIA tactics such as the deliberate targeting of rescuers – have led some to argue that the US is already bending or even breaking those rules.

Chris Woods, Obama’s five rules for covert drone strikes, Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Sept. 6, 2012

Mini Bombs: the CLAW

Textron Defense Systems, announced  that it has entered into a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) with the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) Program Executive Office (PEO) Fixed Wing for development of standoff precision guided munition capability. Initial activities will focus on Textron Defense Systems’ Guided Clean Area Weapon (G-CLAW), a cost-effective, lightweight, guided precision unitary weapon providing anti-personnel and anti-material capabilities, as well as features for low collateral damage and hazardous unexploded ordnance (UXO) prevention.

Under the CRADA, the organizations intend to integrate the G-CLAW into PEO Fixed Wing’s common launch tube dispenser and complete the required testing to secure flight and weapons safety certifications. From there, Textron Defense Systems and USSOCOM will conduct inert and live-fire demonstrations of precision unitary munition delivery from a tactical carrier aircraft such as the MC-130W Dragon Spear. Integration activities will culminate in an end-to-end, live-fire demonstration.

Our G-CLAW allows users to shape the attack over a broad area, and to achieve precision effects using GPS targeting and a powerful warhead,” says Senior Vice President and General Manager Ellen Lord of Textron Defense Systems. “Further, it incorporates all of the safety features we’ve carefully designed, developed, tested and demonstrated to prevent UXO. Integrating this unitary system into the USSOCOM common launch tube could bring G-CLAW capabilities and performance to multiple new aircraft platforms for the gamut of irregular warfare missions.”

Textron Defense Systems’ weapons incorporate multiple, redundant safety features, including self-destruct and self-neutralization mechanisms, to eradicate the threat of UXO. The G-CLAW is designed for flexible integration into tactical munitions dispensers, as well as from unmanned aircraft platforms.

Textron Defense Systems and USSOCOM Enter CRADA for Standoff Precision Guided Munitions, Globe Newswire, Aug. 27, 2012

Killing Games: the enormous hunger for drones and their pilots

At the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, becoming a fighter pilot is still a hotly coveted goal. But slowly, a culture change is taking hold. Initially snubbed as second-class pilot wannabes, the airmen who remotely control America’s arsenal of lethal drones are gaining stature and securing a permanent place in the Air Force.  Drawn to the flashy drone strikes that have taken out terrorists including Al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen and the terror group’s No. 2 strongman Abu Yahya al-Libi in Pakistan, airmen are beginning to target unmanned aircraft as their career of choice.

It’s a far cry from the grumbling across the air corps a few years ago when Air Force leaders — desperate to meet the rapidly escalating demand for drones — began yanking fighter pilots out of their cockpits and placing them at the remote controls of unmanned Predators and Reapers.The shift is critical as the Air Force struggles to fill a shortfall of more than 300 drone pilots to meet the US military’s enormous hunger for unmanned aircraft around the world.  Some airmen are even volunteering to give up the exhilarating G-force ride in their F-16s for the desktop computer screens and joysticks that direct drones over battlefields thousands of miles away.  The difference is often generational, but many pilots see drones as the future of air combat.

Drone pilot Major Ted began his Air Force career as an F-16 pilot, but shifted to flying drones and now says he will not go back to flying a fighter jet. He said piloting a drone is empowering because it has a direct impact supporting US troops in Afghanistan. The US military does not allow drone pilots to make their full names public because of concerns the pilots could be targeted.  Asked which is harder to do — manned or unmanned flight — he said that at times, he has been more overcome by the torrent of information pouring in during a drone flight than he was in the cockpit.  “In an F-16, to form a three-dimensional picture, I look outside,” said Ted, who flew F-16s for about four years before switching to armed Reapers, a drone that can carry Hellfire missiles and laser-guided bombs. “But here . . . I have multiple computer screens showing two-dimensional information that I have to then mentally build that picture.”  To attract more drone pilots, the Air Force has created a new career specialty within the service and is ending the system that forced drone assignments on fighter pilots. The new system creates a separate training pipeline for drone pilots.  In a recent survey, the Air Force asked 500 airmen who started out as pilots but had been shifted to drones if they would like to stay on in the unmanned aircraft field. There were 412 volunteers. Those results, Air Force leaders said, show that while a new career field may take 20 years to fully develop, this one is on its way.

Despite the end of the Iraq war and the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, top military leaders staunchly defend plans to boost the drone fleet to meet intelligence, surveillance, and targeting needs of US commanders in other hot spots, including the Pacific, Africa, and South America.  Budget cuts could slash that spending, but members of Congress have largely supported the unmanned aircraft programs and voiced little opposition to the drone fever that has gripped the military. The military’s spending on drones has grown from about $2.3 billion in 2008 to $4.2 billion this year.  Right now, drones complete 57 24-hour combat air patrols a day, mostly in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and areas around Yemen and the Africa coast. The goal is to increase that to 65 patrols daily by mid-2014, with eight crews each. By 2017, the Air Force wants to have 10 crews per combat air patrol to meet staffing requirements and allow the drone pilots time for schooling, training, and other career-building time.   To staff 65 combat air patrols, the Air Force will need nearly 1,700 drone pilots and 1,200 sensor operators. Currently there are just 1,358 pilots and 949 sensor operators.

By LOLITA C. BALDOR, Flashy drone strikes raise status of remote pilots, Associated Press, August 12, 2012

The Alliance between CIA and ISI; whose head on a platter?

And, perhaps most crucially, the two fractious allies’ top spies are talking again, with a view to enhancing their cooperation as the 2014 deadline for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan looms.   The relationship between the CIA and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency has been at the core of Washington and Islamabad’s alliance for over a decade now — and sometimes the source of the mutual misery. After 9/11, both intelligence agencies collaborated closely to capture scores of al-Qaeda suspects. But over the past two years, as suspicions have grown, the two sides have become near adversaries.

The ISI is often accused of supporting jihadist proxies attacking U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan — and is widely considered to have been either incompetent or complicit when it came to Osama bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan. The CIA was found to be operating independently within Pakistan’s jealously guarded territory, running unauthorized contractors, recruiting local informants and showering drones at their fiercest pace yet.  But as bitter memories of those disputes begin to recede and new faces assume leadership roles, there is some cautious optimism going forward now — this despite domestic imperatives in both countries (an election year in the U.S., the heated anti-American populism in Pakistan) making rapprochement difficult. Last month the new head of ISI, Lieut. General Zaheer-ul-Islam, made his first visit to Washington, meeting with top intelligence, defense and Administration officials. Tentative agreements were made in terms of joint operations against militants in the region, the Wall Street Journal reported. But, officials from both sides say, fundamental differences linger.

Little is known about General ul-Islam, but a change at the top of ISI will please U.S. security officials. The previous ISI chief, now retired Lieut. General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, had become fiercely hostile to Washington in his final year — engaging in “shouting matches” with then CIA director Leon Panetta, cutting cooperation down to a minimum, ordering the harassment of U.S. diplomats in Pakistan and locking up Shakil Afridi, the physician who ran a vaccination program in the town where bin Laden was found hiding.

Afridi is currently serving a 33-year sentence handed down to him by a tribal court. The charges were not explicitly for spying for the U.S., but there is little doubt in observers’ minds that this is the reason he was punished. Afridi wasn’t arrested for the alleged offenses he has been convicted for until the ISI discovered his vaccination program and links to the CIA. At one point, according to a Pakistani military official familiar with the discussions, the CIA suggested that the ISI strip Afridi of his nationality and hand him over to the U.S. General Pasha angrily refused, saying it would set a bad precedent — one that could encourage others to spy for foreign countries if there were no consequences. U.S. Congressmen reacted angrily to Afridi’s imprisonment, voting to cut $33 million of U.S. assistance to Pakistan, one million for each year he’s serving in prison. The question of Afridi’s fate will likely have come up during ul-Islam’s visit to the U.S. There may be no movement soon, but if relations between Washington and Islamabad grow warmer, the ISI may eventually be persuaded to arrange for Afridi’s quiet release.

The harassment of U.S. officials hasn’t changed much, says a U.S. official. Vehicles are constantly stopped, security personnel searched with unusual rigor, and there is even pressure on the U.S. to abandon the construction of a new consulate in Peshawar. On other fronts, ul-Islam has maintained a low profile, a decision thought to be influenced by his predecessor’s controversial visibility. “Unlike General Pasha,” says a senior politician from Pakistan’s opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party, “we don’t see the new head of the ISI interfering in politics — yet.”

During the new ISI chief’s visit, U.S. officials repeated their long-standing concerns about the Haqqani network, a potent jihadist group linked to al-Qaeda that is based in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal territory along the Afghan border. From their sanctuary there, say U.S. officials, the group contentedly plots terrorist attacks on U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, before slipping back across the border. The ISI is widely suspected of offering the group support, with Admiral Mike Mullen, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, even describing the Haqqanis as “a veritable arm of the ISI” in his valedictory testimony before Congress last year.

The Pakistanis deny backing the Haqqanis but concede links with them and their reluctance to confront them. They plaintively cite a lack of resources and insist their priority is targeting militants mounting attacks inside Pakistan, but tellingly add that the Haqqanis will be crucial to any future Afghan settlement that Pakistan hopes to be a part of. But a series of unremitting, violent attacks in and around Kabul, authored by the Haqqanis, has intensified the pressure on the Pakistanis.

Last October, Pakistan’s army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, discussed the possibility of “limiting the space” given to the Haqqanis in North Waziristan with Clinton during her visit to Islamabad. The Pakistani army said it had certain contingency plans in place for limited, surgical operations to reclaim territory in some of North Waziristan’s main towns. These plans were shelved soon after, with the deaths of the Pakistani soldiers in November 2011. Now, as pressure builds again, with enduring attacks and Congressmen calling for the Haqqani network to be designated as a foreign terrorist organization, the plans will have to be revisited. The new U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Richard Olson, told U.S. lawmakers during his confirmation hearings last month that he will be committed to taking on the Haqqanis.

Without a Pakistani military operation against the Haqqanis, the CIA has focused on drone strikes against them and other militants in the region. The strikes, U.S. officials insist, are effective. Some Pakistani military officials also have conceded improved accuracy. But there are limits to what can be achieved by a drone-only strategy, and there are political costs. Drone strikes have not only become hugely unpopular in Pakistan, where the parliament has united in denouncing them, but also across the world. A Pew Research Center survey published in June found that majorities in countries as diverse as France, Germany, the Czech Republic, China, Japan, Brazil and Turkey opposed the widespread use of drone strikes.

An acknowledgment of the accumulating political costs may temper the frequency with which the CIA uses drone strikes. General David Petraeus, the new CIA director, is said to appreciate that the program is unsustainable. Previous CIA director Panetta was seen as being indulgent of “the CT guys and their shiny toys,” says the official. Drone strikes increased to a pace of one every four days at their height.

But there are certain points at which they are seen as a necessity — and they will continue to be used despite ul-Islam’s insistence last month in Washington that they stop. Just days after Clinton’s apology and the reopening of the NATO supply lines, a drone strike in North Waziristan reportedly killed 20 suspected militants. The actual figure, the U.S. official says, was lower. But it was a truck packed with explosives heading across the border. “It was a clear shot,” the official says. “We had to take it.” And that is one of the many differences in opinion that both sides will somehow have to learn to live with.

Omar Waraich.The CIA and ISI: Are Pakistan and the U.S.’s Spy Agencies Starting to Get Along?, Time, Aug. 7, 2012

Kamikaze Drones; the drone technology that shortens the kill chain

The 2-foot-long Switchblade drone [unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)] is so named because its wings fold into the fuselage for transport and spring out after launch. It is designed to fit into a soldier’s rucksack and is fired from a mortar-like tube. Once airborne, it begins sending back live video and GPS coordinates to a hand-held control set clutched by the soldier who launched it.  When soldiers identify and lock on a target, they send a command for the drone to nose-dive into it and detonate on impact. Because of the way it operates, the Switchblade has been dubbed the “kamikaze drone.”

The Obama administration, notably the CIA, has long been lambasted by critics for its use of combat drones and carelessly killing civilians in targeted strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia. In 2010, a United Nations official said the CIA in Pakistan had made the United States “the most prolific user of targeted killings” in the world.

The Switchblade drone appears to be an improvement as an alternative to traditional drone strikes, in terms of minimizing civilian harm, but it also raises new concerns, said Naureen Shah, associate director of the Counterterrorism and Human Rights Project at Columbia Law School.  She pointed out that when a drone strike is being considered there are teams of lawyers, analysts and military personnel looking at the data to determine whether lethal force is necessary. But the Switchblade could shorten that “kill chain.”  “It delegates full responsibility to a lower-level soldier on the ground,” she said. “That delegation is worrisome. It’s a situation that could end up in more mistakes being made.”  Arms-control advocates also have concerns. As these small robotic weapons proliferate, they worry about what could happen if the drones end up in the hands of terrorists or other hostile forces.

The Switchblade “is symptomatic of a larger problem that U.S. military and aerospace companies are generating, which is producing various more exotic designs,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Assn. “This technology is not always going to be in the sole possession of the U.S. and its allies. We need to think about the rules of the road for when and how these should be used so we can mitigate against unintended consequences.”

The Switchblade is assembled in Simi Valley by AeroVironment Inc., the Pentagon’s top supplier of small drones, which include the Raven, Wasp and Puma. More than 50 Switchblades will be sent to the war zone in Afghanistan this summer under a $10.1-million contract, which also includes the cost of repairs, spare parts, training and other expenses. Officials would not provide details about where the weapons would be used, how many were ordered and precisely when they would be deployed.  AeroVironment, based in Monrovia, developed the weapon on its own, thinking the military could use a lethal drone that could be made cheaply and deployed quickly by soldiers in the field, said company spokesman Steven Gitlin.

“It’s not inexpensive to task an Apache helicopter or F-16 fighter jet from a base to take out an [improvised explosive device] team when you consider fuel, people, logistics support, etc.,” he said.

About a dozen Switchblades were tested last year by special operations units in Afghanistan, according to Army officials, who said the drone proved effective.  The Army is considering buying $100 million worth of the drones in a few years under a program called the Lethal Miniature Aerial Munition System, Nichols said. The Air Force and the Marine Corps have also expressed interest in the technology.

AeroVironment is not the only company pursuing small, lethal drones. Textron Defense Systems is also working on a small kamikaze-style drone. Named the BattleHawk Squad-Level Loitering Munition, the drone is being tested at an Army facility in New Mexico.

Excerpts, W.J. Hennigan, Pentagon to soon deploy pint-sized but lethal Switchblade drones, LA Times, June 11, 2012

See also Why They Love their Drones

How Easy it is to Kill: the Anonymous Drone Politics

White House counterterror chief John Brennan has seized the lead in guiding the debate on which terror leaders will be targeted for drone attacks or raids, establishing a new procedure to vet both military and CIA targets.  The move concentrates power over the use of lethal U.S. force outside war zones at the White House.

The process, which is about a month old, means Brennan’s staff consults the Pentagon, the State Department and other agencies as to who should go on the list, making a previous military-run review process in place since 2009 less relevant, according to two current and three former U.S. officials aware of the evolution in how the government targets terrorists.  In describing Brennan’s arrangement to The Associated Press, the officials provided the first detailed description of the military’s previous review process that set a schedule for killing or capturing terror leaders around the Arab world and beyond. They spoke on condition of anonymity because U.S. officials are not allowed to publicly describe the classified targeting program.

One senior administration official argues that Brennan’s move adds another layer of review that augments rather than detracts from the Pentagon’s role. The official says that in fact there will be more people at the table making the decisions, including representatives from every agency involved in counterterrorism, before they are reviewed by senior officials and ultimately the president.  The CIA’s process remains unchanged, but never included the large number of interagency players the Pentagon brought to the table for its debates.  And the move gives Brennan greater input earlier in the process, before senior officials make the final recommendation to President Barack Obama. Officials outside the White House expressed concern that drawing more of the decision-making process to Brennan’s office could turn it into a pseudo military headquarters, entrusting the fate of al-Qaida targets to a small number of senior officials.

Previously, targets were first discussed in meetings run by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen at the time, with Brennan being just one of the voices in the debate.  The new Joint Chiefs chairman, Gen. Martin Dempsey, has been more focused on shrinking the U.S. military as the Afghan war winds down and less on the covert wars overseas.  With Dempsey less involved, Brennan believed there was an even greater need to draw together different agencies’ viewpoints, showing the American public that al-Qaida targets are chosen only after painstaking and exhaustive debate, the senior administration official said.

But some of the officials carrying out the policy are equally leery of “how easy it has become to kill someone,” one said. The U.S. is targeting al-Qaida operatives for reasons such as being heard in an intercepted conversation plotting to attack a U.S. ambassador overseas, the official said. Stateside, that conversation could trigger an investigation by the Secret Service or FBI.  Defense Department spokesman George Little said the department was “entirely comfortable with the process by which American counterterrorism operations are managed.  The CIA did not respond to a request for comment….

An example of a recent Pentagon-led drone strike was the fatal attack in January on al-Qaida commander Bilal al-Berjawi in Somalia. U.S. intelligence and military forces had been watching him for days. When his car reached the outskirts of Mogadishu, the drones fired a volley of missiles, obliterating his vehicle and killing him instantly. The drones belonged to the elite U.S. Joint Special Operations Command. The British-Lebanese citizen al-Berjawi ended up on the JSOC list after a studied debate run by the Pentagon.

The Defense Department’s list of potential drone or raid targets is about two dozen names long, the officials said. The previous process for vetting them, now mostly defunct, was established by Mullen early in the Obama administration, with a major revamp in the spring of 2011, two officials said.  Drone attacks were split between JSOC and the CIA, which keeps a separate list of targets, though it overlaps with the Pentagon list. By law, the CIA can target only al-Qaida operatives or affiliates who directly threaten the U.S. JSOC has a little more leeway, allowed by statue to target members of the larger al-Qaida network.

Under the old Pentagon-run review, the first step was to gather evidence on a potential target. That person’s case would be discussed over an interagency secure video teleconference, involving the National Counterterrorism Center and the State Department, among other agencies. Among the data taken into consideration: Is the target a member of al-Qaida or its affiliates; is he engaged in activities aimed at the U.S. overseas or at home?  If a target isn’t captured or killed within 30 days after he is chosen, his case must be reviewed to see if he’s still a threat.

The CIA’s process is more insular. Only a select number of high-ranking staff can preside over the debates run by the agency’s Covert Action Review Group, which then passes the list to the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center to carry out the drone strikes. The Director of National Intelligence, Jim Clapper, is briefed on those actions, one official said.

Al-Berjawi’s name was technically on both lists — the Pentagon’s and the CIA’s. In areas where both JSOC and the CIA operate, the military task force commander and CIA chief of station confer, together with representatives of U.S. law enforcement, on how best to hit the target. If it’s deemed possible to grab the target, for interrogation or simply to gather DNA to prove the identity of a deceased person, a special operations team is sent, as in the case of the 2009 Navy SEAL raid against al-Qaida commander Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan. Nabhan’s convoy was attacked by helicopter gunships, after which the raiders landed and took his body for identification, before burying him at sea.

But if the al-Qaida operative is in transit from Somalia to Yemen by boat, for instance, U.S. security officials might opt to use the Navy to intercept and the FBI to arrest him, officials said.

KIMBERLY DOZIER, Who will drones target? Who in the US will decide?, Associated Press, May 22, 2012

The Drone War in Yemen

A surveillance aircraft operated by the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command flew over southeastern Yemen on the evening of March 9, tracking a mid-level Al Qaeda commander as he drove to his mountain hideout.  American missiles soon rained down. The Al Qaeda commander was killed, along with 22 other suspected militants, most of them believed to be young recruits receiving military training, U.S. officials said.  The attack is an example of how the U.S. is escalating its largely secret campaign in Yemen, taking advantage of improved intelligence and of changes in Yemen’s leadership now that President Ali Abdullah Saleh has stepped down. The changes have allowed attacks against militants who until recently might have eluded U.S. attention, the officials say.  As the pace quickens and the targets expand, however, the distinction may be blurring between operations targeting militants who want to attack Americans and those aimed at fighters seeking to overthrow the Yemeni government.  U.S. officials insist that they will not be drawn into a civil war and that they do not intend to put ground troops in Yemen other than trainers and small special operations units.  “We don’t want to become involved in the country’s internal battles,” an Obama administration official said. “We don’t want to turn every antigovernment fighter against the United States.”

The U.S. has focused its airstrikes in areas where militants from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the main insurgent group operating in Yemen, and their tribal allies have seized and held towns in the last year.  The stepped-up U.S. attacks appear aimed in part at preventing militants from consolidating control over the region — the southern Yemeni provinces of Abyan, Shabwa and Bayda. Those provinces have become the world’s largest haven for Al Qaeda in the years since the U.S. began drone strikes in the tribal areas of Pakistan, U.S. officials say.

Most militants fighting under the Al Qaeda banner in Yemen are local insurgents, U.S. officials say, along with Saudis bolstering the ranks and assuming leadership roles. Some of the militants are known to harbor ambitions of attacking the West: Ibrahim Hassan Asiri, who made the underwear bomb used by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in an attempt to blow up an airliner over Detroit, remains at large in Yemen, U.S. officials say.

The militants say they are fighting the governments in Sana and Riyadh as well as the United States. They have mounted lethal attacks on Yemeni government officials and civilians, including a March 5 battle that killed 100 Yemeni soldiers. An Al Qaeda affiliate claimed credit for a March 18 attack in which an American teacher was shot and killed by motorcycle-riding assailants.

The U.S. effort in Yemen was brought to a virtual standstill — a “lull,” Gen. James N. Mattis told Congress — by Saleh’s yearlong effort to cling to power. The U.S. did not want to be seen as backing a repressive ruler, and it also became dangerous for American personnel to be in the country. Since Saleh’s departure, the use of drones and manned warplanes to attack militants has expanded significantly.

An airstrike killed three fighters in the town of Jaar on March 11, then three days later an American missile hit a vehicle and killed four militants in Bayda. U.S. officials said both attacks were carried out either by the military’s U.S. Joint Special Operations Command or the CIA, each of which fly armed drones over Yemen.

The militants were targeted not because they were plotting attacks against the U.S. but because intelligence suggested they were planning attacks on American diplomats or other targets inside Yemen, the U.S officials said.

The CIA began flying drones over Yemen last year, joining a clandestine military program that was in operation. Some military drones fly from a base in Djibouti, and CIA drones are based at an undisclosed location in the Arabian Peninsula.

U.S. officials would not say exactly how many strikes have been carried out in Yemen, and it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between Yemeni military attacks and American actions. Long War Journal, a website that tracks U.S. counter-terrorism actions, estimates that 23 strikes have been carried out in Yemen since January 2009, far lower than the 245 drone strikes it counted in Pakistan during that period.  Since 2002, 160 militants and 47 civilians have been killed in drone strikes in Yemen, the website found. That is a much higher rate of civilian deaths than independent experts have seen in the U.S. drone war in Pakistan.

Several officials said there are high-level discussions in Washington about ways to further expand the U.S. role. U.S. and Yemeni officials have been surprised and dismayed by how easily Al Qaeda militants have been able to seize and hold territory in parts of Yemen, and they are determined to reverse the gains, they say.  The militants in Yemen “are under pressure, but the fact that there are these areas where they can now operate with relative impunity is of deep concern,” a senior U.S. official said.  Yemen’s new president, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, has proved more willing than his predecessor to approve U.S. airstrikes, one of the reasons for the recent surge in attacks, American and Yemeni officials said.

Last week, Yemen’s army chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Ahmed Ali Ashwal, was in Washington for talks with Pentagon officials. The U.S. is pushing Yemen to reorganize its military so that it is better positioned to retake the towns now held by Al Qaeda, an effort that will require tanks and other heavy weapons, U.S. officials said.  Washington is pressing Hadi to get rid of several of Saleh’s relatives who remain in key military and security posts and to mount a serious military campaign to retake territory in the south. The commander in charge of the southern region was replaced after the recent military setbacks.  Hadi “has shown the will and ability to make the changes…. It’s a matter of getting the right focus and the right plan and someone to lead it,” the senior Defense official said.

Heavily armed American soldiers have begun appearing in large numbers at the Sheraton Hotel in the capital, Sana, a Yemeni official said.Obama administration officials insist that the rules for targeting Al Qaeda militants in Yemen have not changed.  In an example of the limits, U.S. forces in Yemen have not used so-called signature strikes that have been employed in Pakistan — in which the CIA has used drones to kill fighters on the basis of observed activities that suggested they were insurgents. Targeting in Yemen is based on intelligence about particular people, not “pattern of life” analysis, they say.  Some Obama administration officials and members of Congress favor signature strikes in Yemen, but Obama has resisted, officials say. One reason for concern about the U.S. strikes is that the intelligence hasn’t always been good enough for U.S. commanders to be sure what their missiles were aimed at, officials said.

In March 2010, a strike killed the deputy governor of Marib as he sat for negotiations with an Al Qaeda leader. Afterward, U.S. officials “said we’re not doing drones because we don’t have the intelligence structure to be able to do it well,” said Barbara Bodine, who was U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 1997 to 2001.  When the drone strikes resumed, the vetting was rigorous, officials say. Even so, the new, more aggressive approach troubles some critics, who argue that U.S. military strikes have done more harm than good.  “The more the U.S. applies its current policy, the stronger Al Qaeda seems to get,” said Charles Schmitz, a Yemen expert at Towson University in Maryland.  Some analysts argue the American military effort has provoked widespread anger among Yemenis.

“Drones are a weapon of terror in many ways, and the kind of hostility this is going to breed may not be worth the counter-terrorism gains,” Bodine said.

Ken Dilanian and David S. Cloud, In Yemen, lines blur as U.S. steps up airstrikes,Los Angeles Times, Aprl. 2, 2012

Nuclear Drones

American scientists have drawn up plans for a new generation of nuclear-powered drones capable of flying over remote regions of the world for months on end without refuelling.  The blueprints for the new drones, which have been developed by Sandia National Laboratories – the US government’s principal nuclear research and development agency – and defence contractor Northrop Grumman, were designed to increase flying time “from days to months” while making more power available for operating equipment, according to a project summary published by Sandia.  “It’s pretty terrifying prospect,” said Chris Coles of Drone Wars UK, which campaigns against the increasing use of drones for both military and civilian purposes. “Drones are much less safe than other aircraft and tend to crash a lot. There is a major push by this industry to increase the use of drones and both the public and government are struggling to keep up with the implications.”

The highly sensitive research into what is termed “ultra-persistence technologies” set out to solve three problems associated with drones: insufficient “hang time” over a potential target; lack of power for running sophisticated surveillance and weapons systems; and lack of communications capacity.

The Sandia-Northrop Grumman team looked at numerous different power systems for large- and medium-sized drones before settling on a nuclear solution. Northrop Grumman is known to have patented a drone equipped with a helium-cooled nuclear reactor as long ago as 1986, and has previously worked on nuclear projects with the US air force research laboratory. Designs for nuclear-powered aircraft are known to go back as far as the 1950s.  The research team found that the nuclear drones were able to provide far more surveillance time and intelligence information per mission compared to other technologies, and also to reduce the considerable costs of support systems – eliminating the need, for example, for forward bases and fuel supplies in remote and possibly hostile areas.

A halt has been called to the work for now, due to worries that public opinion will not accept the idea of such a potentially hazardous technology, with the inherent dangers of either a crash – in effect turning the drone into a so-called dirty bomb – or of its nuclear propulsion system falling into the hands of terrorists or unfriendly powers.

Sandia confirmed that the project had been completed: “Sandia is often asked to look at a wide range of solutions to the toughest technical challenges. The research on this topic was highly theoretical and very conceptual. The work only resulted in a preliminary feasibility study and no hardware was ever built or tested. The project has ended.”

According to a summary of the research published by the Federation of American Scientists, an independent thinktank, computer-based projections were used to test the concepts. “Based on requirements and direction provided by Northrop Grumman, Sandia performed focused studies to translate stated needs into conceptual designs and processes that could be transferred easily from Sandia to industry design and production personnel,” the document says.

So sensitive is the issue that the summary does not spell out the fact that it is referring to a nuclear-powered drone, referring instead to “propulsion and power technologies that went well beyond existing hydrocarbon technologies”. However, the project’s lead investigator at Sandia, Dr Steven Dron, is well known as a specialist in nuclear propulsion, having co-chaired a session at the 2008 Symposium on Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion, held at the University of New Mexico in 2008.

The research summary also stated that the results “were to be used in the next generation of unmanned air vehicles used for military and intelligence applications”, where they “would have provided system performance unparalleled by other existing technologies”.It added that “none of the results will be used in the near-term or mid-term future”, due to political constraints.

The potential impact of nuclear-powered drones can be gauged by comparing them with existing aircraft such as the MQ-9 Reaper, which is used extensively in Afghanistan and Pakistan in operations against insurgents. The Reaper presently carries nearly two tonnes of fuel in addition a similar weight of munitions and other equipment and can stay airborne for around 42 hours, or just 14 hours when fully loaded with munitions.  Using nuclear power would enable the Reaper not only to remain airborne for far longer, but to carry more missiles or surveillance equipment, and to dispense with the need for ground crews based in remote and dangerous areas.

Coles believes the increasing sophistication of drones poses many threats: “As they become low-cost, low-risk alternatives to conventional warfare, the threshold for their use will inevitably drop. The consequences are not being thought through.”

Nick Fielding, US draws up plans for nuclear drones, Guardian, April 2, 2012

Drones: the international markets

Global demand for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), better known as drones, is heating up as armed forces invest in new systems to boost their ability to carry out reconnaissance and strikes without putting soldiers’ lives in danger.Propelled by a rise in Asian defence budgets, annual global spending on UAVs is forecast to almost double from the current $5.9 billion to $11.3 billion over the next decade, according to US-based defence research firm Teal Group.  The Asia Pacific is the second largest buyer after the United States.”Almost every country in the region is trying to get their hands on drones or develop their own … Thailand, India, Singapore, Japan, Australia, Korea,” said Jon Grevatt of IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly….”UAVs are necessary in this age when you want to win wars and at the same time you want to have less casualties,” said Tommy Silberring, who heads the drone division at Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI).  IAI, which pioneered the development of UAV technology for the Israeli military in the 1970s, was one of several defence manufacturers showing off drones at last week’s Singapore Airshow.  The use of drones rather than manned aircraft helps make countries participation in multilateral war efforts more palatable to the public, said Silberring, a former Israeli air force colonel.”You really don’t want to tell your people that you are giving the lives of your soldiers for another country,” he told AFP at the air show….

According to IAI, its Heron UAVs are used by 18 customers around the world, including Singapore’s air force, which displayed its Heron 1 at the show.   The Heron TP — the largest in the Israeli drone arsenal with the wingspan of a Boeing 737 passenger jet — is purported to have a range of more than 7,400 kilometres (4,600 miles).

In the United States, homegrown manufacturers such as General Atomics and Northrop Grumman look set to benefit from the Pentagon?s recent plans to expand its current fleet of 7,494 drones by 30 percent.  According to a congressional report released in January, the US military is expected to spend nearly $32 billion on new UAVs over the next eight years.

This burgeoning demand has spurred Asian manufacturers to enter the market, which has long been dominated by Israeli and US companies.  “We want to be in the unmanned arena but we are selective because there are already so many big players in the industry,” said Patrick Choy, vice president of international marketing at ST Engineering, a Singapore-based defence manufacturer.  ST Engineering launched theSkyblade 360, the latest addition in a series of mini UAVs, at the airshow….”We want to build a niche in the tactical area, where we are able to help small units with our UAV technology,” he told AFP.  “Unless you are a global power, you cannot convince customers to buy big UAVs which require supporting technology like satellites”.  India is similarly modest about its Rustom-1 drone, a model of which was on display at the trade fair.”Our main priority is to enhance the current capability of the Rustom… we have no intentions of exporting it,” said Parimal Kumar, a senior official from India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation.

Excerpts, Bhavan Jaipragas, Drone makers cashing in as war tactics evolve, Agence France Presse, Feb. 26, 2012