‘We’re not in Kansas anymore’

Today’s Guardian has a report from Roy Wenzl called ‘The kill-chain: inside the unit that tracks targets in America’s drone wars’.  There’s not much there that won’t be familiar to regular readers, but the focus is not on the pilots and sensor operators but on the screeners – the analysts who scrutinise the full-motion video feeds from the drones to provide ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance).

The report describes the work of the 184th Intelligence Wing of the National Air Guard at McConnell AFB in Kansas:

‘They video-stalk enemy combatants, and tell warfighters what they see… The group does this work in the middle of America, at an air base surrounded by flat cow pastures and soybean fields….

The work is top secret.They say that they see things in those drone images that no one wants to see. Sometimes, it’s terrorists beheading civilians. Sometimes it’s civilians dying accidentally in missions that the Kansans help coordinate.

They agonize over those deaths. The most frequently heard phrase in drone combat, one airman says, is: “Don’t push the button.”

“You see [enemy combatants] kiss their kids goodbye, and kiss their wives goodbye, and then they walk down the street,” said a squadron chief master sergeant. “As soon as they get over that hill, the missile is released.”

The Americans wait to fire, he says, “because we don’t want the family to see it”.

One of those involved marvels at the technology involved: ‘The technology we use is just insane, it’s so good.’  As the report notes, critics of the programme have a more literal meaning of insanity in their minds….

The report also confirms the intensity (and, as part of that intensity, the tedium) of the shift-work involved:

Back in Kansas, in the SCIF (Sensitive Compartmented Intelligence Facility), members of Col Brad Hilbert’s group watch dozens of screens. One eight-hour shift will watch multiple targets, then hand off surveillance to the next shift. Multiple missions run simultaneously.

While enemy combatants walk around carrying weapons, the group studies their movements. They can watch one person, or one building, or one small neighborhood. The drones loiter high and unseen, giving clear, hi-tech visuals….

Most of what they watch is tedious. “They will sometimes watch one pile of sand every day for a month,” their chaplain says.

But sometimes, they see that an enemy is about to attack US troops. The commanders decide to “neutralize” him. When commanders order attacks, the Kansans become one link in a kill chain, which can include armed Reaper and Predator drone operators, fighter pilots, ground artillery commanders – and commanders with authority to approve or deny strikes.

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