Predator flies into the sunset

The US Air Force officially retired the MQ-1B Predator on Friday (9 March) at an official ceremony at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada

Air Force Magazine reports:

Creech has flown the Predator since 1995 when it began its operational life. At the time, the base was called Indian Springs Air Force Auxiliary Field. That same year, the Predator deployed to Albania and the 11th Reconnaissance Squadron stood up in Indian Springs. The squadron, later joined by the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron, flew the Predator’s early missions, providing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance for Operation Allied Force over the Balkans.
The Predator became an armed, constant eye in the sky in 2001 as Operation Enduring Freedom kicked off in Afghanistan. It has flown constant m​​issions in the Middle East ever since, undergoing a series of modifications and upgrades to keep it combat relevant. 

 

The USAF received its last Predator in 2011; by the end of this year its transition to the MQ-9 Reaper fleet will be complete: ‘With the Predator retired, the Air Force plans to field 346 MQ-9 Reapers, which have better sensors, more fuel efficient engines, a higher ceiling, and larger armaments. Predators finished their combat mission in the Middle East last year as expeditionary squadrons transitioned to the MQ-9s.’

The Reaper was introduced in 2006 as the planned successor to the Predator – which never had much imperial reach – and it has been serially upgraded.  Tyler Rogoway adds:

The MQ-9 is getting a series of upgrades that will add new elements to its already diverse capabilities list. Presently the Reaper is used for surveillance or strike missions, and the USAF is trying to blend these two mission sets more smoothly together. The latest variant of the MQ-9 can fly upwards of 40 hours when not carrying weapons.

The Reaper’s hardpoints give it the ability to carry a mix of AGM-114 Hellfire, GBU-12 Paveway, and now GBU-38 JDAM munitions. In contrast, its forbearer, the Predator, can only carry two Hellfires. Typically a Reaper’s external payload totals no more than about 2,500lbs on a strike mission, but that enables the Reaper to carry four Hellfire missiles and a pair of harder-hitting 500lb Paveways or JDAMs. In the future, guided micro-munitions will give Reapers a deeper and more flexible magazine.

A variety of surveillance, fuel, communications relay, and electronic warfare pods, including Wide Area Aerial Surveillance (WAAS) camera arrays can and are carried on the Reaper’s pylons. These systems are supplemental to the drone’s nose-mounted MTS-B multi-spectral surveillance and targeting turret and its fuselage mounted Lynx synthetic aperture radar.

The USAF is eyeing putting more powerful radar systems onboard some Reapers in an attempt to help build-out a ‘system of systems’ of ground moving targeting identification (GMTI) sensor nodes that can be distributed around the battlefield.

The MQ-9 will also have the capacity to launch air-to-air missiles to provide a (limited) ability to protect the platform in contested airspace.

More on the ‘sunsetting’ of the Predator from Major Joe Chapa at War on the Rocks here.  The US Army will continue to operate its version of the Predator, the MQ-1C Gray Eagle.

Predator View

I’m in Zurich – many thanks to Benedikt Korf for the invitation and the wonderful hospitality – for a seminar with Benedikt’s doctoral students on the long form version of ‘The Natures of War’ (they have what I hope is the penultimate draft; I’ll post the final version once I’ve reworked it after the seminar) and then a public lecture: ‘Angry eyes: the militarization of vision and modern war’.

Part of my argument in the lecture is about the narrowness of ‘Predator View’, so let me explain what I mean.  My starting point is the illusion that the use of the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities of remote platforms like the MQ-1 Predator or the MQ-9 Reaper produces a transparent battlespace: in effect, a version of Donna Haraway‘s ‘God-trick’, the ability to see everything from nowhere in particular.  The most succinct version of this is the treatment of laser targeting as ‘the eye of God’:

Eye of God.001

In fact, ‘Predator View’ is remarkably narrow. First, and most directly, a common complaint is that the view provided by its Full Motion Video is literally too narrow – ‘like looking through a soda straw’.  It’s for this reason that pilots and sensor operators also use FalconView, a Windows-based mapping tool that is supposed to provide them with situational awareness.  I’ve taken the image below from a presentation by Lt Col Paul Hastert (USAF) on ‘Spiral development in wartime’ – the screenshot is the FalconView image, the small square the field of view from a Predator – but the most detailed account of FalconView is Jon Lindsay‘s ‘”War upon the map”‘: User innovation in American military software’, Technology and culture 51 (3) (2010) 619-51.

FALCONVIEW and Predator FOV

There have been several later releases of FalconView, and a version is now even open source, so it’s probably not surprising that the US military also uses Google Earth.  In fact, in two of the air strikes I consider in detail it was, in part, juggling these different views that contributed to wrong targeting decisions.  (There are projects that provide a wider field of view – the nine-camera suite of Gorgon Stare is in operation and its second increment is already in use in Afghanistan – and others that integrate imagery from multiple sources, like Raytheon’s Zeus, which is intended to supplant FalconView as the ‘primary mission execution tool‘).

But in the air strikes that I consider those involved in these networked operations are also busy communicating via radio and – crucially – via the typed messages displayed in mIRC‘s online chat windows.  The image below is taken from the US military’s multi-service manual on Tactical Chat (see also the discussion at Public Intelligence here).

mIRC 3 chatrooms

In the case of the ‘friendly fire’ incident in the Sangin Valley in 2011, the pilot and sensor operator were unaware of crucial entries made by image analysts in mIRC and of private (or ‘whisper’) chats to the Mission Intelligence Co-ordiator.  That’s not entirely surprising.  Once permission has been given to engage a target, ‘KILL CHAIN” is typed into the room to minimise extraneous chatter that might otherwise visually distract and so ‘degrade’ the strike.  According to the Mission Intelligence Controller for the Sangin incident:

‘When we got a standby for a 9-line [strike briefing] we put [KILLCHAIN] in the mIRC room to shut down chatter so we can be heads down supporting the pilot and the sensor … as they are getting ready for a possible Hellfire shot our whatever action… That’s our job, to be their third set of eyes…’

That third set of eyes is vital, though of little use if its responses are shut down.  In this case the pilot was paying no attention to mIRC because he was fully occupied:

‘I did not see the chat in the main mission room after seeing muzzle flashes. From that point on, my focus was clear concise communications with the [Joint Terminal Attack Controller] and ensuing [Close Air Support] comms, 9 line etc. At this point I was also focused on keeping the aircraft in position to maintain FMV on the individuals. I was also getting the aircraft into the [Weapons Engagement Zone]. Winds were 30 knots out of the west so I had to make sure I kept the aircraft position and direction in cross check.’

All of this suggests that it is unduly narrow to focus the analytical gaze on the Full Motion Video feeds.

But there’s more.  Militarised vision is not limited to Predators and their successors, and it’s important to consider the clarity and resolution of the imagery captured and transmitted from other, conventional aircraft like the AC-130 (first image below), the B-1 bomber, F-15E strike aircraft or attack helicopters (second image below)  – again, this was important in two of the strikes I consider in detail.

AC-10 Uruzgan.001

MMS from attack helicopter - Uruzgan.001

This leads me to two other senses in which the critical emphasis on ‘Predator View’ is too narrow.  It’s a mistake to fasten on one incident – even what has become the iconic ‘signature strike’ coordinated by a Predator on three civilian trucks in Uruzgan – because that misses the continuities, repetitions and transformations in Close Air Support (which is where most of the mistakes are made).

Better, I think, to widen the analytical gaze, which is why I examine the Kunduz air strike on 4 September 2009 (in which no remote platform was involved), the Uruzgan air strike of 21 February 2010 (which was co-ordinated by a Predator but carried out by two attack helicopters), and the Sangin Valley air strike of 6 April 2011 (which was executed by a Predator).  The Granai strike is included because it trigged McChrystal’s Tactical Directive of 6 July 2009 to minimise civilian casualties: ‘‘We must avoid the trap of winning tactical victories – but suffering strategic defeats – by causing civilian casualties or excessive damage and thus alienating the people.’  In all three cases I’ve worked through thousands of pages of official investigations – one by the German Bundestag since the ISAF report remains classified (Kunduz), and the others by the US Army and US Air Force (Uruzgan) and the US Marine Corps (Sangin Valley).

4 US air strikes in Afghanistan.001

And finally, it is also necessary to consider the multiple viewing positions involved in networked military violence.  There is a de-centralised, distributed and dispersed geography of militarised vision whose fields of view expand, contract and even close at different locations engaged in the administration of military violence.  And in all three incidents it turns out that vital mistakes in the interpretation of imagery were made at operations centres in theatre on the ground.

This has prompted me to radically revise the argument I originally set out in ‘From a view to a kill’ (DOWNLOADS tab).  There my focus was on the geography shown in the first map below – like every other commentator I’ve read, incidentally – but I’ve now widened the angle to take in the geography shown in the second map and this substantially changes the story.

Dispersed vision Uruzgan (1).001

Dispersed vision Uruzgan (2).001

It was what happened at the operations centres at Special Operations Task Force 12 in Kandahar and Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force in Bagram that turned out to be every bit as important as the Predator crew’s obvious desire to ‘go kinetic’.

I make similar arguments about Kunduz, where the F-15E pilots were clearly reluctant to strike and the ground commander and JTAC at the Forward Operating Base overrode their objections.

Sangin is even more instructive, because the official investigation of this ‘friendly fire’ incident that resulted in the deaths of two Marines largely exonerated both the Predator crew and the ground commander and JTAC at the operations centre – but a detailed, spirited counter-memorandum from the US Marines commandant refuted the findings line by line, castigated the attempt to pin the blame for what happened on the young, inexperienced lieutenant leading the patrol, and excoriated the ground commander and JTAC back at the patrol base.  More on this soon.

The (long!) essay on these  strikes is the last chapter I need to complete for The everywhere war. There is a strong sense, so I shall argue, in which it was the view ‘on the ground’ that mattered much more than any ‘light of God’ from above.  And as for transparency….