The life and death of American drones
By Nick Turse
The drone had been in the air for close to five hours before its mission crew
realized that something was wrong. The oil temperature in the plane’s
turbocharger, they noticed, had risen into the "cautionary" range. An hour
later, it was worse, and it just kept rising as the minutes wore on. While the
crew desperately ran through its "engine overheat" checklist trying to figure
out the problem, the engine oil temperature, too, began skyrocketing.
By now, they had a full-blown in-flight emergency on their hands. "We still
have control of the engine, but engine failure is imminent," the pilot
announced over the radio.
Almost two hours after the first signs of distress, the engine indeed failed.
Traveling at 200 meters per minute, the drone
clipped a fence before crashing.
Land of the lost drones
The skies seem full of falling drones these days. The most publicized of them
made headlines when Iran announced that its military had taken possession of an
advanced American remotely piloted spy aircraft, thought to be an RQ-170
Questions about how the Iranians came to possess one of the US military's most
sophisticated pieces of equipment abound. Iran first claimed that its forces
shot the drone down after it "briefly violated" the country's eastern airspace
near the Afghan border.
Later, the Islamic Republic insisted that the unmanned aerial vehicle had
penetrated 240 kilometers before being felled by a sophisticated cyber-attack.
And just days ago, an Iranian engineer offered a more detailed, but as yet
unsubstantiated, explanation of how a hack-attack hijacked the aircraft.
For its part, the United States initially claimed that its military had lost
the drone while it was on a mission in western Afghanistan. Later, unnamed
officials admitted that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had, in fact,
been conducting a covert spy operation over Iran.
The drone crash that led this piece did occur in Afghanistan - Kandahar, to be
precise - in May of this year. It went unreported at the time and involved not
a sleek, bat-winged RQ-170 Sentinel, but the older, clunkier, if more famous,
MQ-1 Predator, a workhorse hunter/killer machine of the Afghan war and the
CIA's drone assassination campaign in the Pakistani tribal borderlands.
A document detailing a US Air Force investigation of that Predator crash,
examined by TomDispatch, sheds light on the lifecycle and flaws of drones -
just what can go wrong in unmanned air operations - as well as the shadowy
system of bases and units scattered across the globe that keep those drones
constantly in the skies as the US becomes ever more reliant on
That report and striking new statistics obtained from the military offer
insights into underexamined flaws in drone technology. They are also a reminder
of the failure of journalists to move beyond awe when it comes to high-tech
warfare and America's latest wonder weapons - their curious inability to
examine the stark limitations of man and machine that can send even the most
advanced military technology hurtling to Earth.
According to statistics provided to TomDispatch by the air force, Predators
have flown the lion's share of hours in America's drone wars. As of October
1st, MQ-1's had spent more than 1 million hours in the air, 965,000 of those in
"combat", since being introduced into military service. The newer, more heavily
armed MQ-9 Reaper, by comparison, has flown 215,000 hours, 180,000 of them in
combat. (The air force refuses to release information about the workload of the
RQ-170 Sentinel.) And these numbers continue to rise. This year alone,
Predators have logged 228,000 flight hours compared to 190,000 in 2010.
An analysis of official air force data conducted by TomDispatch indicates that
its drones crashed in spectacular fashion no less than 13 times in 2011,
including that May 5 crash in Kandahar.
About half of those mishaps, all resulting in the loss of an aircraft or
property damage of $2 million or more, occurred in Afghanistan or in the tiny
African nation of Djibouti, which serves as a base for drones involved in the
US secret wars in Somalia and Yemen. All but two of the incidents involved the
MQ-1 model, and four of them took place in May.
In 2010, there were seven major drone mishaps, all but one involving Predators;
in 2009, there were 11. In other words, there have been 31 drone losses in
three years, none apparently shot down, all diving into the planet of their own
mechanical accord or thanks to human error.
Other publicized drone crashes, like a remotely-operated navy helicopter that
went down in Libya in June and an unmanned aerial vehicle whose camera was
reportedly taken by Afghan insurgents after a crash in August, as well as the
December 4 loss of the RQ-180 in Iran and an even more recent crash of a MQ-9
in the Seychelles, are not included in the air force's major accident
statistics for the year.
The United States currently runs its drone war from 60 or more bases scattered
across the globe. They range from sites in the American southwest with lines of
trailers where drone pilots "fly" such aircraft via computer to those far
closer to the battlefield where other pilots - seated before a similar set up,
including multiple computer monitors, keyboards, a joystick, a throttle, a
rollerball, a mouse, and various switches - launch and land the drones. On
other bases, aspiring drone pilots are trained on simulators and the planes
themselves are tested before being sent to distant battlefields. The May 5
Predator crash about a 400 meters short of a runway at Kandahar air field
drives home just how diffuse drone operations have become, with multiple units
and multiple bases playing a role in a single mission.
That Predator drone, for example, was an asset of the 3rd Special Operations
Squadron, which operates out of Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico, and
ultimately is part of Air Force Special Operations Command, based at Hurlburt
Field in Florida.
When it crashed, it was being flown by an in-country pilot from the 62nd
Expeditionary Squadron at Kandahar Air Field, whose parent unit, the 18th
Reconnaissance Squadron, makes its home at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada,
ground zero for the military's drone operations. The crewman operating the
sensors on the drone, on the other hand, was a member of the Texas Air National
Guard based at Ellington Field in Texas.
The final leg of the doomed mission - in support of elite special operations
forces - was being carried out by a pilot who had been operating Predators for
about 10 months and had flown drones for approximately 51 hours over the
previous 90 days. With less than 400 total hours under his belt, he was
considered "inexperienced" by air force standards and, during his drone launch
and recovery training, had failed two simulator sessions and one flying
He had, however, excelled academically, passed his evaluations, and was
considered a qualified MQ-1 pilot, cleared to fly without supervision.
His sensor operator had been qualified by the air force for the better part of
two years, with average or above average ratings in performance evaluations.
Having "flown" a total of 677 hours - close to 50 of them in the 90 days before
the crash - he was considered "experienced."
The fact that the duo were controlling a special operations drone highlights
the increasingly strong and symbiotic relationship between America's two
recently ascendant forms of warfare: raids by small teams of elite forces and
attacks by remote-controlled robots.
The life and death of American drones
During the post-crash investigation, it was determined that the ground crew in
Afghanistan had been regularly using an unauthorized method of draining engine
coolant, though it was unclear whether this contributed to the crash.
Investigation documents further indicate that the drone's engine had 851 hours
of flight time and so was nearing the end of the line. (The operational
lifespan of a Predator drone engine is reportedly around 1,080 hours.)
Following the crash, the engine was shipped to a California test facility,
where technicians from General Atomics, the maker of the Predator, carried out
a forensic investigation. Significant overheating had, it was discovered,
warped and deformed the machinery.
Eventually, the air force ruled that a cooling system malfunction had led to
engine failure. An accident investigator also concluded that the pilot had not
executed proper procedures after the engine failure, causing the craft to crash
just short of the runway, slightly damaging the perimeter fence at Kandahar Air
Field and destroying the drone.
The clear conclusion reached by accident investigators in this crash stands in
stark contrast to the murkiness of what happened to the advanced drone now in
Whether the latter crashed thanks to a malfunction, was shot down, felled by a
cyber-attack, or ended up on the ground for some other reason entirely, its
loss and that of the special ops drone are reminders of just how reliant the US
military has become on high-tech robot planes whose major accidents now exceed
those of much more expensive fixed-wing aircraft. (There were 10 major airborne
mishaps involving such Air Force aircraft in 2011.)
Robot war: 2012 and beyond
The failure to achieve victory in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with a
perceived success in the Libyan war - significantly fought with airpower
including drones - has convinced many in the military not to abandon foreign
wars, but to change their approach. Long-term occupations involving tens of
thousands of troops and the use of counterinsurgency tactics are to be traded
in for drone and special forces operations.
Remotely piloted aircraft have regularly been touted, in the press and the
military, as wonder weapons, the way, not so long ago, counterinsurgency
tactics were being promoted as an elixir for military failure. Like the
airplane, the tank, and nuclear weapons before it, the drone has been touted as
a game-changer, destined to alter the very essence of warfare.
Instead, like the others, it has increasingly proven to be a non-game-changer
of a weapon with ordinary vulnerabilities. Its technology is fallible and its
efforts have often been counterproductive in these last years. For example, the
inability of pilots watching computer monitors on the other side of the planet
to discriminate between armed combatants and innocent civilians has proven a
continuing problem for the military's drone operations, while the CIA's
judge-jury-executioner assassination program is widely considered to have run
afoul of international law - and, in the case of Pakistan, to be alienating an
The drone increasingly looks less like a winning weapon than a machine for
generating opposition and enemies.
In addition, as flight hours rise year after year, the vulnerabilities of
remotely piloted missions are ever more regularly coming to light. These have
included Iraqi insurgents hacking drone video feeds, a virulent computer virus
infecting the air force's unmanned fleet, large percentages of drone pilots
suffering from "high operational stress," increasing numbers of crashes, and
the possibility of Iranian drone-hijacking.
While human and mechanical errors are inherent in the operation of any type of
machinery, few commentators have focused significant attention on the full
spectrum of drone flaws and limitations. For more than a decade, remotely
piloted aircraft have been a mainstay of US military operations and the tempo
of drone operations continues to rise yearly, but relatively little has been
written about drone defects or the limits and hazards of drone operations.
Perhaps the air force is beginning to worry about when this will change. After
years of regularly ushering reporters through drone operations at Creech Air
Force Base and getting a flood of glowing, even awestruck, publicity about the
glories of drones and drone pilots, this year, without explanation, it shut
down press access to the program, moving robotic warfare deeper into the
The recent losses of the Pentagon's robot Sentinel in Iran, the Reaper in the
Seychelles, and the Predator in Kandahar, however, offer a window into a future
in which the global skies will be filled with drones that may prove far less
wondrous than Americans have been led to believe. The United States could turn
out to be relying on a fleet of robots with wings of clay.
Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com. An award-winning
journalist, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and
regularly at TomDispatch. This article is the fourth in his new series on the
changing face of American empire, which is being underwritten by Lannan
Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter @NickTurse, on
Tumblr, and on Facebook.