Under Afghan Skies (2)

Here is the second installment of my essay on an airstrike on three vehicles in Uruzgan, Afghanistan on 21 February 2010 that has become one of the central examples in critical discussions of remote warfare.  The first installment is here



At 0245 on 21 February 2010 three giant black MH-47 Chinook helicopters sent the dust whirling into the darkness as they lifted off from Firebase Tinsley, a remote US military outpost surrounded by thick mud walls, HESCO barriers and barbed wire on a bluff above the Helmand River in north western Uruzgan. [47]

The MH-47s were regularly used to insert and extract US Special Forces; equipped with terrain-following radar, they could fly fast and low, usually at night.  On this occasion they were escorted by an AC-130H Spectre gunship (call sign SLASHER03) from the Combined Joint Special Operations Air Detachment at Bagram Air Field, north of Kabul.  The helicopters carried a 12-member team from the 3rd Special Forces Group – Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 3124 [48] – the JTAC (Joint Terminal Attack Controller) assigned to liaise with the supporting aircraft, their four Afghan interpreters and their light six-wheeled all-terrain vehicles.  Also on board were 30 Afghan National Police officers and 20 Afghan National Army soldiers (including Afghan Special Forces).

It was a short flight, 10 minutes and 20 km north to a landing zone above the village of Khod in Shahidi Hassas district (Figure 2).  This is an arid, mountainous region, but Khod straggles along a sinuous river valley where over many generations the construction of an extensive irrigation system, an intricate maze of clay-lined ditches and channels, has created a fertile green zone. It is none the less a desperately poor area, with high levels of unemployment, devoted largely to herding and subsistence agriculture.

There were some cash crops, however, and Shahidi Hassas was one of three districts in Uruzgan where opium poppy cultivation was concentrated. Between 1997 and 2001, when the Taliban were in power, the cultivation of opium poppies had been forbidden, but production had since increased and was now an important source of revenue for the insurgency. [49]

Even so, the purpose of this joint US-Afghan mission – codenamed Operation Noble Justice – was not poppy eradication. [50] It was a cordon-and-search operation designed to go through the village bazaar, a network of alleys lined with small shops and markets, and the surrounding q’alats or compounds – high-walled residential complexes containing separate homes for close family members – to find a suspected ‘factory’ making Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).

Often described as the Taliban’s weapon of choice, IEDs were – and remain – an overwhelming cause of military and civilian casualties in Afghanistan.  Most are roadside devices triggered by command wire, radio signal, mobile phone or pressure plate.  As its name suggests, an IED is not any one thing – it is improvised from diverse, cheap components and emerges within extended networks of supply, manufacture and emplacement [51] – and its assembly is not tied to any particular buildings either. The IEDs used by the Taliban typically relied on Calcium Ammonium Nitrate (CAN) fertilizer, made in two commercial plants in Pakistan and smuggled across the highly porous border. [52]


To the unsuspecting eye sacks of fertilizer in an agricultural community might seem innocuous, and in many cases they surely were, but the coalition forces knew the special significance of CAN (which was illegal) and they were accompanied by a trained military dog to seek it out.  During their search of the village they eventually seized 100 sacks of CAN together with 1,000 machine-gun rounds, containers of home-made explosives, radios and batteries (p. 1992). [53]

Although Operation Noble Justice was nothing out of the ordinary – it was classified as a level 1 mission, which meant that it posed a ‘medium risk’ to the troops with some ‘potential for political repercussions’ [54] – its importance transcended the local. Effective IED incidents in Afghanistan, excluding explosions that resulted in no casualties and devices that were cleared before they could detonate, had virtually doubled every year since the US-led invasion in 2001: in 2006 there were 127 of them, followed by 206 in 2007, 387 in 2008 and 820 in 2009. [55]

The situation by early 2010 was grim in the extreme, but it was particularly serious in the south.  In the previous twelve months 67 per cent of all IED detonations and discoveries took place in the provinces of southern Afghanistan, including Uruzgan whose central regions were desperately insecure (Figure 3).

These considerations underlined the tactical importance of the operation at Khod, but ferreting out an IED factory must have had a more direct significance for the Special Forces. Their base had been called Firebase Cobra until it was renamed in honour of Capt John Tinsley, commander of an ODA from the 7thSpecial Forces Group based there, who had died six months earlier from wounds sustained when an IED exploded next to his patrol vehicle. When that ODA went up to Khod on a ten-day mission ‘Captain Tinsley got killed,’ the assistant detachment commander of ODA 3124 said, ‘so we knew it was a bad area’ (p. 1567).

The dangers showed no sign of diminishing, and Lt Col Brian Petit, ODA 3124’s battalion commander at Special Operations Task Force–South at Kandahar Air Field, was under no illusions. [56]  He admitted that all his forces could do in their forays from their firebases was ‘prevent the Taliban running the flag up the pole’, and he could not ‘see us winning those places outright’ (p. 1079).   Some of the Special Forces missions outside the wire were humanitarian – using their team medics to provide medical and dental care to the civilian population, for example [57] – but their primary purpose was to ‘disrupt, deny and interdict’ the Taliban, and prevent them from launching attacks on the ‘priority areas’ established by ISAF’s Regional Command–South (RC-S) (p. 1079). Yet in doing so SOTF-South was not part of ISAF; it was part of US Forces–Afghanistan and its Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). [58]  In a report that was completed 18 months before the Uruzgan attack Human Rights Watch gave two reasons why their missions were more likely to lead to civilian casualties.

First, Special Forces typically operated in small groups and were relatively lightly armed – as here – and so they ‘often required rapid support in the form of airstrikes when confronted with superior numbers of insurgent fighters’ (the same situation the Ground Force Commander (GFC) thought his forces faced in Khod).

Second, Operation Enduring Freedom was governed by Rules of Engagement that permitted a much lower threshold for employing lethal force than ISAF and, crucially, permitted ‘anticipatory self-defense’ (which was why the GFC called in the airstrike). [59]

Although they shared the same commander – Gen Stanley McChrystal – OEF’s chain of command was independent from ISAF’s, and their mandates were different: OEF was a counter-terrorism operation with combat as its leading edge, whereas ISAF was charged with pursuing a counterinsurgency strategy that, since 2008, had been directed at ‘winning hearts and minds’ as much as conducting fire missions. [60] To be sure, they were not wholly separate.  The lines between counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency were inevitably blurred; US forces served in both ISAF and OEF; and there was necessarily co-operation between the two.  For Operation Noble Justice ISAF’s Regional Command–South (RC-S) provided resources from its Forward Operating Base (FOB) Ripley 20 km south of the provincial capital at Tarin Kowt: the combat helicopters called in by the Special Forces to strike the three vehicles came from there, and Regional Command–South also supplied helicopters for medical evacuation from there and provided medical treatment for the casualties at military hospitals there too.

But these were all emergency responses, and Regional Command–South had neither been involved in the planning of Operation Noble Justice nor kept in the loop as it unfolded.  Its British commander, Maj Gen Nick Carter, made his views crystal clear: ‘It’s unacceptable that someone can shit on my doorstep and sit back and watch me mop the shit up’ (p. 579). [61]  In short, the operation at Khod was superimposed over but, until something went wrong, conducted largely outside the matrix of other military operations. The need to avoid one mission confounding another was supposed to be addressed through weekly joint briefings, but although Regional Command–South’s Operations Center at Kandahar Air Field was just 600 meters from SOTF-South’s Operations Center, Carter complained that there was no functional connection between the two (p. 580). [62]

This disjuncture set the parameters within which Operation Noble Justice took place, but it must have affected the mental landscape within which ODA 3124 operated too.  Since 2006 ISAF’s lead force in Uruzgan had been the Dutch, whose headquarters at Kamp Holland – a vast compound adjacent to FOB Ripley – included a Provincial Reconstruction Team whose activities centred on small-scale aid programs in two or three districts (‘ink-spots’) 25 km or more south and east of FB Tinsley.  The Provincial Reconstruction Team had achieved a precarious success, but there was little sign of the ink-spots coalescing, and the Special Forces cannot have been alone in thinking that the Dutch were only able to control their fractured and limited ‘white space’ because the Special Forces kept the Taliban outside them. [63]

ODA 3124’s last combat rotation had been from January to August the previous year, when they had been deployed in the same part of Uruzgan (p. 985).  ‘We were the only ODA out here last time,’ their captain explained, and they had been involved in 22 separate exchanges of fire with the Taliban (p. 1359).  Since their return from the United States on 15 January, just over a month earlier, they had already survived two more bruising encounters with the Taliban.  Petit described them as ‘the single most active ODA we have’, and he told McHale ‘they have conducted more operations and have a more full-spectrum understanding than any other ODA on the battlefield’ (p. 1095). [64] They knew the area around Khod and they knew too that when another ODA conducted an operation there in November it had been involved in a two-day fire fight with the Taliban and uncovered home-made explosives, weapons caches and IEDs.

This was a seasoned team, and their captain – who acted as Ground Force Commander (GFC) in overall charge of the joint US-Afghan operation in Khod – was a veteran of three Afghanistan tours. Yet even he was apprehensive; on a previous mission his team had been ambushed as soon as they left the helicopters and five of his soldiers had been wounded (p. 930). The JTAC, an Air Force technical sergeant who was assigned as relay between the GFC and the pilots of the supporting aircraft, was jumpy too.  He also had three tours under his belt, and had been back in Afghanistan since the middle of September. Since this was his last mission before heading home his ‘level of anxiety was high’ (pp. 1388, 1499), he told McHale, and he had survived enough remote-controlled IED attacks at FB Ripley that he fully expected to be hit by another one ‘after coming off the birds’ (p. 1485).


Their fears were not immediately realised, but the signs were ominous. The priority on touchdown was to establish radio communications with the ODA’s battalion headquarters, SOTF-South, and at 0305 the GFC initiated a stream of summary observations of insurgent activity (called SALT reports: ‘Size, Activity, Location, Time’) – to SOTF-South’s Operations Center at Kandahar Air Field. [65]

As soon as his forces started to establish a cordon and to secure supporting fire positions on the bluffs overlooking Khod they could see through their night-vision goggles shadowy figures perching on roofs, jumping over walls and into compounds or ducking into the cover of the irrigation ditches.  There was little the GFC could do about it, apart from setting Afghan army and police patrols moving through the alleys, because he was not authorised to initiate the search until 0615: this was a daylight operation not a ‘night raid’. [66]   The restriction followed from its classification as a level 1 mission.  ‘We didn’t have the intelligence to get a level 2 rating’, the Fires Officer at SOTF-South explained, but that added a layer of difficulty – and danger – because the MH-47s only flew between dusk and dawn so that ‘the team had to do an INFIL [infiltration] at night’ and then ‘sit there and wait for first light’ (p. 720). [67]

It must have been a nerve-wracking wait.  The Special Forces were using multi-band inter-team radios to communicate with one another, and while they waited they set them to scan for other transmissions in the immediate area.  The GFC had a local interpreter to help co-ordinate the Afghan forces who were with his own men and to interpret any intercepted communications (ICOM).  Almost immediately messages were picked up urging the mujahedeento gather for an attack, and the  volume of ICOM rapidly increased.

Spotters had ensured that the Taliban had advance warning that the helicopters were on their way, and much of the chatter involved calls for reinforcements from the villages.  At 0325 the GFC reported that the Taliban were ‘moving up from the south with heavy weapons and reinforcements’ (pp. 1889, 1987), though the source of the information was not given.  The JTAC (call sign JAG25) was communicating with the aircraft on station via his line-of-sight VHF radio – from time to time he switched to the inter-team band to provide operational updates – and he passed the ICOM frequencies to the commander of the AC-130 gunship that was now circling over the bazaar in support of the ground operation. Its Battle Management Center had more sophisticated electronic equipment to eavesdrop on the Taliban, and its Electronic Warfare Officer had a Pashto linguist on board as a Direct Support Officerto help monitor what was happening. [68]

There were almost certainly other sources of electronic intelligence too, because the Predator that was also circling overhead in support of the mission was equipped with an Air Handler which controlled an on-board device that intercepted and geo-located wireless communications, including cell phones (p. 907). [69]  This raw signals intelligence was processed by an exploitation cell, probably from a National Security Agency (NSA) unit forward deployed at Kandahar Air Field, which would have entered its findings into one of the mission chat rooms (p. 589): but any evidence of its (classified) role, if any, is concealed by the report’s redactions. [70]

Although the Taliban knew that the mission had air support, they were more exercised by the aircraft’s firepower than their capacity to intercept communications.  Several hours later the Predator’s Mission Intelligence Coordinator (MC) reported that somebody – the source is redacted but it may have been the NSA cell; the information had been posted in their mission room – had picked up that the insurgents were ‘aware of coalition forces eavesdropping on VHF’, and shortly afterwards he expressed his surprise that there was still so much ICOM. ‘These guys are Chatty Cathy’s,’ he told the rest of the crew, and for people who knew their frequencies were being monitored ‘they’re sure talking a lot on them’. [71] Less than an hour after touchdown – long before dawn – a radio message instructed the insurgents to wait until the aircraft had left before attacking, and the GFC attempted to draw the Taliban out from their hiding places by having the AC-130 feint going off station. As soon as it did so further orders were intercepted imposing radio silence ‘in preparation for possible attack’ (p. 1990).  But nothing came of it, and at 0440 another message instructed the Taliban to ‘hide weapons and wait until morning when the aircraft will be gone’ and they would be able to see the coalition forces more clearly (p. 1990).

The respite was short-lived.  The GFC’s second-in-command, who was overseeing the party establishing a supporting fire position on high ground to the south of Khod, reported seeing headlights flashing from the north.  They seemed to mirror lights flashing from the south – ‘a mark and a reciprocate’ (p. 1344) – and the JTAC moved the AC-130 away from its orbit over the village to investigate.


The GFC clearly regarded this sighting as a threat because at 0445 the transcript of his SALT report noted that ICOM chatter indicated ‘AAF elements [Anti-Afghan Forces, i.e. the Taliban] are moving in two groups, one to the north and one to the south, in an attempt to surround CF [coalition forces].  Stating that this is “our” area and we cannot afford to allow CF to operate in this area or we will lose local support’ (p. 1891; my emphasis). [72]

The possibility that the Taliban planned to surround coalition forces – to trap them in Khod – marked what turned out to be an ever-present horizon of concern.

At 0454 the commander of the AC-130 said they had found the northern headlights: he told McHale that ‘looking through the [infra-red] sensors it appeared to be trucks full of hot spots’ (p. 1418).  There were three vehicles, roughly five to six kilometres (three to four miles) from the nearest coalition forces at Khod, and the AC-130 started to track them as they moved south.

The JTAC immediately responded ‘those vehicles are bad’ but added that they would have to work on ‘trying to get enough to engage’ – a reference to positive identification of a legitimate military target (PID) [73] – and that ICOM chatter suggested that a Taliban ‘Quick Reaction Force’ was coming in.  The flight commander told him there appeared to be ’unlawful personnel’ in the back of the vehicles (his emphasis); he gave no reason for regarding them as ‘unlawful’.  A few minutes later he reported that the third vehicle had gone and was no longer a factor, but the JTAC was already thinking ahead to an airstrike.  At 0503 he announced he was ‘pretty sure we are covered under [ROE] 421 and 422’ – that the Rules of Engagement would allow an airstrike  – on the grounds of ‘hostile intent [and] tactical maneuvering.’ [74]  The basis for inferring ‘hostile intent’ was the ICOM chatter, which prompted the JTAC to declare the occupants of the vehicles were ‘setting themselves up for an attack’, but the evidence of ‘tactical maneuvering’ was unelaborated. The JTAC knew this was a key term, one of the requirements laid down by the ROE for a pre-emptive strike (p. 1492). It is defined as movement to gain tactical advantage, but the only visual information the JTAC had was that the vehicles were heading in the general direction of Khod.  He chose to interpret this as ‘maneuvering on our location’, which must have been an extrapolation from the ICOM chatter, and at 0506 he relayed the GFC’s request for the gunship to ‘engage with [containment] fires forward of their line of movement.’

Even though containment fires would not necessarily involve a direct attack on the vehicles, the commander of the AC-130 was reluctant. The resolution of his aircraft’s infra-red sensors was sufficient to identify ‘hot spots’ but not the composition of the passengers – following standard military protocol, the key diagnostic was gender and age: the presence of women and children [75] – and so he asked if the MQ-1 Predator that was circling over a compound in Khod could ‘take a look at these people’.

The GFC agreed and the JTAC advised both aircraft that ‘we are going to hold on containment fires and try to attempt PID, we would really like to take out those trucks’ (my emphasis): a course of action that clearly implied a preference for the use of lethal force against the vehicles rather than merely impeding or curtailing their movement.  One vehicle had stopped at a compound on the west side of the river, while the other remained on the east, and the commander of the AC-130 reported that they were now flashing their lights and signalling to each other.  He sent the co-ordinates to the Predator crew via mIRC, and used his laser target designator (‘sparkle’) to mark the location, until at 0509 the Predator pilot (call sign KIRK97) reported they had ‘eyes on’ one of the vehicles, ‘personnel in the open, definite tactical movement.’ The commander of the AC-130 was in a hurry to talk the Predator on to the second vehicle because his aircraft only had about 20 minutes loiter time left. This increased the uneasiness of the GFC and the JTAC, and at 0512 the JTAC radioed (again the emphasis is mine): ‘Need to destroy all these vehicles and all the people associated with them, we believe they are bad.’

Before they could do that, however, he reminded both pilots that they had to ‘do the best we can to get PID.’ [76]  The JTAC was particularly exercised by the possibility of mortars in the back of the vehicles. He knew the local Taliban had used them in the past, and when he asked the Predator crew to search for them the sensor operator duly called ‘possible mortars’ on the intercom, though the pilot’s radio message to the JTAC at 0513 was more qualified: ‘personnel in the open, by the vehicles, moving tactically, definitely carrying objects, at this time we cannot PID what they are.’

In these early exchanges the Predator pilot followed the JTAC in describing what the people on his screen were doing as ‘tactical movement’ – not once but repeatedly – and his unprompted gloss on what was a vital phrase in the identification of a legitimate military target is instructive. ‘Tactical movement’ meant they were ‘moving tactically,’ he told McHale, ‘as opposed to moving in a random manner that you would expect normal civilians to move or drive’ (p. 908; my emphasis).  This is a revealing observation for two reasons.

First, it begs the question of what counted as ‘normal’ to American eyes. The interpretation of cultural difference is not a constant but varies over time and space.  Interviews with coalition troops in Afghanistan have suggested that those ‘new to an area and unfamiliar with what “normal” was, were more likely to read hostile intent into otherwise innocuous actions.’  But familiarity did not breed content, and towards the end of a tour ‘soldiers became less willing to assume risks and more likely to err on the side of using force to protect themselves in ambiguous situations.’  Their responses were also affected by a sort of areal essentialism, in which the actions of individual Afghans were read off from and reduced to the pre-existing characterisation of the area in which they took place.  That gesture took several different forms, the product of a varied combination of experience, prejudice and mission intelligence; specifically in this instance troops who had recently incurred losses, especially in ‘combat-heavy areas’, were found to be ‘more likely to respond aggressively’ in such situations. [77]  The relevance of these findings to the Uruzgan attack is necessarily conjectural; McHale was repeatedly told that ODA 3124 ‘knew’ the area, but they had experienced several violent encounters with the Taliban there in the recent past and, like other military personnel, they knew it as what the Fires Officer at SOTF-South called a ‘pretty bad place’ (p. 721).   ‘We had plenty of knowledge that this was a bad area,’ he told McHale, ‘from people being there before’ (p. 724).  The operation at Khod was the last mission of the JTAC’s tour, but it is impossible to say whether this influenced his reading of the situation – which was in any case heavily dependent on the interpretations provided by the Predator crew and the screeners whose familiarity with the area was at best indirect and limited to a largely visual field.

Second, and following directly from that last limitation, the Predator pilot’s appeal to an (unspecified) ‘normal’ effectively passed the burden of being identified as a civilian to those caught in the Predator’s field of view.  The issue of civilian status is contentious, to be sure, and the reference to ‘normal civilians’ serves as a reminder that many in the military (and beyond) insist that the Taliban are civilians too. [78]  But here – and elsewhere – the indeterminacy of civilian status is compounded by the priority given to the visual register. Those framed by the Multi-Spectral Targeting System did not know they were under surveillance, still less that they were suspected of being Taliban – they only became dimly aware of the Predator when they stopped at dawn to pray – and even had they known, what would possibly have constituted an adequate performance of ‘civilian-ness’ by those in front of the lens to those hidden behind it?  In short, since the occupants of the vehicles were all ‘normal civilians’, what could they possibly have done differently that would have spared them from being attacked? [79]

These considerations had a heightened significance because the JTAC and the GFC were wholly dependent on their ‘eyes in the sky’ for information about the progress of the vehicles and the activities of their occupants. The aircraft greatly extended the direct field of vision of the Special Forces on the ground, even of the fire parties on the bluffs, but this prosthetic effect was circumscribed in two important ways.  First, while the commander of the AC-130 told the JTAC that the resolution of its infra-red sensors was not enough to make out the composition of the occupants, the full-motion video (FMV) feed from the Predator was limited too, even when the sensor operator switched from infra-red to colour once the sun came up.  Its clarity depended in part on the ability of the sensor operator to focus the cameras – which could be confounded by cloud or dust (p. 1405) – and as the image stream was compressed to accommodate bandwidth constraints and then distributed across multiple networks so its quality was degraded and, significantly, varied from place to place. It was never crystal clear. [80]  The best imagery was available at the Ground Control Station at Creech;  even the screeners complained about what they had to work with.  The primary screener testified that ‘with our FMV quality [which ‘isn’t that great’: p. 1392] there is only so much analytical [work] we can do’ (p. 1390).  Other observers at other posts in the United States and in Afghanistan had similar difficulties, compounded by the video feed sporadically freezing and even breaking.

Equally important, for most of the time the image was restricted to a chronically narrow field of view.  ‘We don’t pass any information [about the composition of the passengers],’ the Safety Observer told McHale, not altogether accurately, ‘because we don’t know ourselves.  We are looking through a soda-straw at it’ (p. 1453). [81]  Early in the mission the sensor operator had decided to ‘go with the pickup [the lead vehicle] as a primary unless we get directed otherwise’, and the primary screener explained that ‘because of our [field of view] and having three vehicles we only had the front pick-up and part of the second vehicle in frame most of the time’.  Whenever the vehicles stopped the sensor operator would ‘zoom out and see all three vehicles,’ she added, ‘but we could not see the passengers unless they got out’ (p. 1394).  Even then It was difficult to say much about them from the black and white infra-red imagery that streamed from the Predator throughout the night (and the sensor operator frequently reverted to IR after dawn too). ‘It is not like you are staring from me to you across the room,’ the Safety Observer told McHale, when ‘I can give you a detail[ed] description. They had been following them all night, and IR … is black and white, and hot and cold’ (p. 1456). As Lisa Parks notes, ‘aerial infra-red imagery turns all bodies into indistinct human morphologies that cannot be differentiated according to conventional visible light indicators,’ a process of indistinction that is in fact doubled because forward-looking infra-red (FLIR) images are by their very nature ‘distorted beforea satellite link digitally processes them’ – and degrades them further – so that even at its highest magnification the video feed would have neared 20/200 visual acuity: ‘the legal definition of blindness for drivers in the United States’. [82]

In fact when the sensor operator zoomed in the most extended discussions amongst the Predator crew focused on the make of the vehicles not the make-up of their occupants.  They started before the sun came up.  ‘What kind of truck is that?’ the MC wondered.  ‘Definitely not a Hummer, right?’ the Predator pilot responded. ‘No,’ the sensor operator told them, ‘just a regular SUV, it’s got a roof rack, kind of boxy and bulky, maybe a Toyota…’  Ten minutes later he resumed the discussion: ‘OK, that’s a Chevy Suburban… well, maybe it’s not quite as long, it’s got barn doors in the back, I want to say it’s a Suburban, well it almost doesn’t look long enough, could be a barn-door [Chevrolet] Tahoe, it’s definitely full size, and I don’t see many full-size out here other than Chevys…’  Two hours later they were still debating.  ‘See that white top on that thing?’ asked the sensor operator, ‘It’s removable … squarish front end… that’s a Suzuki, isn’t it?’   The MC disagreed – it was too big – but 40 minutes later they returned to the subject again.  The pilot thought it ‘kinda looks like a jeep,’ but the sensor operator reckoned that if so it was ‘an odd variant… a lot older one…’  The pilot then changed his mind – it was more ‘like a Tahoe’ – only for the sensor operator to change his mind too: ‘the bumper hanging out in front like, you know, screams jeep,’ he said, and when he got ‘a good shot of the door closing’ he was convinced ‘it looked like a jeep.’  They both noted the ‘seven-slot grill’, and the conversation switched to the Toyota – now they could make out the model name – and the sensor operator pointed out that one of the SUVs had ‘the same type of lug pattern’ (p. 1956). The discussion was inconclusive and they returned to it in short order.  ‘The more I look at it,’ the sensor operator said, the SUV ‘resembles a Ford  Explorer, like the mid-90s type, more square-boxed type, probably early 90s…’  ‘The hood doesn’t quite match up with the lines,’ he continued, ‘but the windows certainly do.  The windows and doors look just like a Ford Explorer’ (p. 1961). It seems clear that the Predator crew debated the makes of the vehicles at length not only because they could see them more clearly than the occupants but also because they could recognise them more readily: these were familiar objects to American eyes in a way that Afghan people were not.  The trade-off between field of view and resolution then mattered all the more because once the sensor operator zoomed in on the lead vehicle, which was a Toyota Hilux – they all agreed on that – its occupants, mainly jammed in the back of the pickup and exposed to the aerial gaze, were all male. The passengers in the other two vehicles included women and children. [83]

Second, the ability of the JTAC and GFC to visualise the situation was limited by their lack of a ruggedized laptop that would have provided direct access to the FMV feed from the Predator. The GFC said they had elected not to bring a ROVER (Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver) with them ‘because we have [a] Predator with two analysts that can look with colour on a ten-foot screen’ whereas – the redactions now cut in but they evidently revolved around the limitations of the ROVER – it’s ‘just not feasible’ for a mission that had ‘to move tactically in a mounted manner’ on all-terrain vehicles (p. 936). [84]  Matters were more complicated, however, because although a ROVER would have been the closest ground receiver to the Predator, its reception would have been far from perfect.  Even when a ROVER is mounted on an ATV, another JTAC explained, it relies on a direct line-of-sight link with the aircraft, and so ‘it’s in and out, intermittent, and it’s really scratchy.’  With the small, portable ROVER 5 ‘you have to have it nice and flat, any buildings, trees obstruct the signal’ and during the day with the sun glaring on the screen ‘you are basically looking at your face, it’s a huge mirror.’  He claimed that in the Operations Center at Kandahar Air Field SOTF-South had ‘huge TVs, [and] they can see a crystal clear picture because they get it directly from the satellite’ (p. 1532).  This was an exaggeration; reception at Kandahar may have been better, and their screens were certainly bigger, but the imagery was far from clear there too.  ‘It was not true that we had a significantly clearer picture,’ Petit told me, and ‘in fact both the SOTF and the GFC tended to rely on the interpretive text chat [mIRC]’ from the Predator crew and the screeners ‘more than our scratchy picture’. And, as I’ve explained, the screeners had far from clear imagery too.  Vision is clearly more than a bio-technical capability – it is always culturally mediated – but that does not mean that its technical frames are unimportant. Whether the FMV feed would have given the JTAC and the GFC a better visual sense of the situation is perhaps moot; but a ROVER would also have given them access to multiple mIRC chatrooms used by the Predator crew and other observers; so too would a data-enabled satellite phone, but the JTAC confirmed that ‘we [did] not see the mIRC chat on the ground’ (p. 1488).  These were all serious limitations, but whatever difference the presence of a ROVER might have made the Predator crew remained wholly unaware of its absence, and this mattered because it made the JTAC unusually reliant on the pilot’s verbal ability to paint the developing picture as accurately as possible. [85]  This in turn made their choice of words vital. Nasser Hussain was right to remind us:

‘There is no microphone equivalent to the microscopic gaze of the drone’s camera. This mute world of dumb figures moving about on a screen has particular consequences for how we experience the image…. In the case of the drone strike footage, the lack of synchronic sound renders it a ghostly world in which the figures seem un-alive, even before they are killed.  The gaze hovers above in silence. The detachment that critics of drone operations worry about comes partially from the silence of the footage.’ [86]

That rings true, in so far as those watching the FMV feed were watching a silent movie, and apart from the JTAC’s radio and its ambient noise the only sound from the ground reached them indirectly and textually via ICOM and its mIRC translation.  But any ‘detachment’ was repeatedly overcome by the exchanges with the JTAC – the pilot, who had more than 1500 hours flying Predators, told McHale that ‘I do experience stuff along with the guys on the ground… I am in that situation along with them, just trying to support them the best I can’ (p. 916) [87] – and, as a direct result of that intrinsically asymmetric intimacy, by the subtitles added by the Predator crew that turned the objects of their gaze into marionettes and mannequins. [88]  Sometimes they even issued imaginary instructions to those they were watching. There was of course no way for them to know how accurate their ventriloquism was, and yet it materially shaped the decision field of the GFC.  As one senior officer explained, ‘the guy on the ground … has to trust what he is being told because he cannot see the convoy’ (p. 872).  [89]

These verbal communications were affected by technical issues too. Radio messages between the AC-130 and the Predator were disrupted from time to time by static, but mIRC between the two was ‘intermittent most of the time’ as the gunship repeatedly lost connectivity (p. 1420).  The JTAC’s communications with the Predator pilot depended on his line-of-sight VHF radio, and the link became weak or even broke altogether depending on the path of the aircraft and the intervening terrain (p. 1487). [90]  Even so, the JTAC saw himself as a faithful relay giving the GFC ‘an exact play of what the aircraft [were] seeing’ (p. 1487); in turn, the Predator pilot praised the JTAC for ‘doing a good job telling us what the [GFC] is thinking’ (p. 1954).  Their co-construction of the developing situation depended on the correlations they established between the reports on the vehicles from the aircraft and ICOM chatter – although the location of the messages could not be established unless the NSA cell came through – and the GFC testified that ‘for every [insurgent] radio transmission there was an equal ground reaction during the entire movement’ (p. 1363). [91] This interpretive work, the performative statements shared with the commander of the gunship and the crew of the Predator in particular, was also profoundly culturally mediated – hence the informed discussion of the vehicles rather than their occupants – and differed from person to person.  Even had the Predator’s FMV feed been uninterrupted, the JTAC had a ROVER laptop with perfect reception, and the image stream that appeared on multiple screens across the network been high-definition and crystal-clear, this could not have rendered the battlespace transparent. As the Director of the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force (CJSOTF–A)’s Operations Center at Bagram Air Field – the level above SOTF-South – acknowledged, ‘What I see may be different from what someone else might interpret on the ISR’ (p. 822).

There were differences in interpretation that became ever more important as the night wore on, but at this time the commanders of both aircraft agreed the situation was becoming extremely serious, and yet both were on the brink of having to withdraw – for real this time: the very situation ICOM chatter revealed the Taliban were waiting for.  The Predator had been re-tasked to Marjah in Helmand province 150 miles to the south, where Operation Moshtarak, a large-scale counterinsurgency offensive involving 15,000 coalition troops, had been under way for a week or more, but the pilot had held off as long as possible and he asked his MC to explain that ‘we are part of a tactical engagement right now and we can’t move.’ [92] While they waited for permission to remain on station the crew continued to watch their screens, and the pilot told the JTAC they could see ‘personnel in the open, by the vehicles, moving tactically’ – again – ‘definitely carrying objects: at this time we cannot PID what they are.’ [93]

The AC-130 had flown down from Bagram Air Field to escort the Chinooks to Khod, and although its commander had received a waiver ‘to take us all the way to low fuel’ (p. 1419) he knew the time was fast approaching when he would have to go off station too. [94] He clearly believed they had sufficient information for a strike, and at 0513 he prompted the JTAC: ‘How’s your imagery looking?’  He received no reply – presumably because the JTAC had no imagery – and one minute later he increased the pressure.   ‘We’re all set up, up here,’ he told the JTAC, ‘standby your intentions for fire mission.’  The JTAC told McHale he knew exactly what the flight commander meant: ‘They have confirmed and they think they had enough to fire and are ready for my call’ (p. 1354). He responded with a promissory note: ‘Ground Force Commander’s intent is to destroy the vehicles and the personnel.’ The JTAC also relayed the Predator crew’s identification of individuals ‘moving tactically’ and holding ‘cylindrical objects in their hands.’  A redacted passage may explain how they had become ‘cylindrical’ in the interval, but the crew was still not certain what they were and this did not constitute the positive identification of weapons they were looking (and hoping) for.  ‘Is that a [fucking] rifle?’ demanded the Predator pilot, and when the sensor operator was unable to confirm it  –largely because of the limitations of infra-red (‘Maybe just a warm spot from where he was sitting,’ the sensor operator explained: ‘The only way I’ve ever been able to see a rifle is if they move them around [or] … with muzzle flashes…’) – the pilot muttered ‘I was hoping we could make out a rifle…’

The commander of the AC-130 was undeterred and announced that ‘our intention is to engage first on the east side’ – because the people there were closer to the compounds and could escape more easily [95] – so he was happy to maintain ‘the chain of custody’ (a leading phrase) while the Predator continued to track those on the west side.  By this time he reckoned the vehicles were 7.8 km (almost five miles) from the nearest coalition forces in Khod.  But this was a straight-line distance and, as the GFC later conceded, ‘you cannot do a straight-line distance’ in terrain like this (p. 1350).  It would have taken them some considerable time to reach the village on the poor, unmade tracks that criss-crossed the mountainous region, and this evidently gave the JTAC pause too: ‘… but with the distance they are away from our objective…’ he radioed at 0522.  The rest of his message was drowned by simultaneous transmissions between the aircrew, but the JTAC was clearly convinced that the occupants of the vehicles were planning to attack.  ‘Getting ICOM traffic,’ he continued, ‘and [combined with] the maneuvering of these personnel, we believe their ultimate intent is to come down in this area and engage friendlies’.

But now the JTAC’s previous confidence deserted him. ‘At this point,’ he conceded, accepting and relaying the doubts of the GFC, ‘the current rules of engagement don’t fit’.  The reluctance to engage was prompted by both the failure to identify weapons and the distance of the vehicles from Khod (which had a direct bearing on the imminence of any threat they posed).  As the aircraft continued to track the vehicles the quest for weapons did not let up.  The Predator pilot later told McHale there were ‘probably 200 instances where we saw basically long cylindrical objects’, which he said they always looked for because they could be rifles or rocket-propelled grenade launchers. He then radically revised the numbers, estimating that they saw ‘about 30’ weapons in total, before conceding that there had been only one (perhaps two) definite calls of weapons from the screeners watching the FMV feed at Hurlburt Field (p. 910).  In fact McHale’s report noted that ‘throughout the over three and a half hours the vehicles were observed, only three weapons were positively identified’ (p. 23) – whether these were different weapons or the same weapon identified three times is unclear; the primary screener thought the most they saw at any one time was two weapons (p. 1389) – and that the screeners made only one call that was not prompted by the Predator crew (p. 33). Just as important, the crew’s inference could perfectly properly be reversed: AK-47s are commonplace in Afghan culture, and to have detected so few weapons among so many men was hardly evidence that the Taliban were massing at the gates. [96]

It did not take the Predator crew long to adduce further grounds for suspicion. The sensor operator reported a group of people whom the pilot said ‘look to be lookouts’.  They probably were lookouts, since the adults knew they were in Taliban country; their understandable unease would explain why the men ‘appeared to provide security during stops’ (p. 36). [97]  But the same flawed logic that interpreted the presence of any weapons as an indication of impending attack transformed a prudent precaution by wary travellers into a sign of a ‘threat force’ (p. 36).  The faulty inference was encouraged by ICOM chatter in which a Taliban commander instructed his men to move towards the bazaar in Khod.  This was immediately linked to the vehicles: ‘What we’re looking at,’ the JTAC relayed at 0524, elaborating his earlier claim, ‘is a QRF [Quick Reaction Force]; we believe we may have a high-level Taliban commander…’ The GFC later explained that half a dozen HVIs or ‘High-Value Individuals’ – targets on the Joint Prioritised Effects List [98]– were active in the area around Khod, moving between safe houses (or ‘bed downs’), and at first he suspected that the men jammed into the lead vehicle were the HVI’s ‘personal security detail’ (pp. 1356-7).  The Predator crew had already noticed one person standing apart from the others, and prompted by the JTAC’s inference the pilot speculated that this was ‘one of their important guys, just watching from a distance’and the sensor operator chimed in with ‘he’s got his security detail.’  When the commander of the AC-130 asked them to turn their sensors towards a group of people on the other side of the river the Predator pilot reinforced that interpretation: they still had eyes on a group of men on the west bank, he radioed, with ‘two lookouts, could be definite tactical movement with a commander overwatching, definitely suspicious.’

The GFC said he came to discount the presence of an HVI, and his primary and eventually sole concern was the threat of an enveloping attack on his forces at Khod. [99]  The JTAC was still on the same page as the two flight commanders.  ‘Due to distance from friendless we are trying to work on justification’ for a pre-emptive strike, he told them at 0526: it was essential to establish the presence of weapons.  By now people could be seen leaving the compound and squeezing back into the pickup and the SUV, and the JTAC radioed: ‘ICOM traffic [suggests] they are getting on the vehicles and moving to our location, sounded like it was in conjunction with what you are looking at.’  The commander of the AC-130 thought so too.  ‘What we all took note of in the aircraft,’ he told McHale, ‘was the [ICOM] chatter rallying forces to head towards the objective [Khod], at that moment they all stopped what they were doing and started piling in to the trucks’ (p. 1418). The JTAC believed they now had sufficient evidence to engage (p. 1491), but the GFC remained concerned that the vehicles were too far from Khod to justify a strike and that they had yet to establish PID (which most them consistently misinterpreted as a sufficient number of weapons to constitute the vehicles as a legitimate target). [100]


[47] For additional insight into operations in and around FB Tinsley (formerly FB Cobra), see Steve Haggard’s Inside the Green Berets (Brave Planet Films/National Geographic, 2007).

[48] An ODA (‘the A Team’) is the basic operational unit of US Special Forces.  It is commanded by a captain, assisted by a (chief) warrant officer, and includes pairs of specialists in (for example) weapons, engineering, explosive ordnance disposal, communications, and medical support – pairs so that an ODA can operate in two teams of six (as here).   In the US military ‘Special Forces’ refers to groups under US Army Special Forces Command (‘Green Berets’); the generic ‘Special Operations Forces’ includes any special operations group (including the Green Berets and also groups from the US Air Force, Navy and Marines and groups that operate under the still more secretive Joint Special Operations Command), all of which fall under the wider umbrella of US Special Operations Command.

[49] There were more than 4,000 ha devoted to poppy cultivation in Shahidi Hassas in 2008. The Taliban’s attitude to its cultivation was complex and increasingly pragmatic.  By 2009 there was ‘a consensus that growing poppy is religiously proscribed, yet taxing cultivation and trafficking is justified by war imperatives.’ By then the Taliban had ‘a tolerance of opium [production] that for some commanders border[ed] on dependence’: Addiction, crime and insurgency: the transnational threat of Afghan Opium (UN Office on Drugs and Crime, October 2009) pp. 86-7, 102.

[50]Cf. Erik Donkersloot, Sebastiaan Rietjens, Christ Klep, ‘Going Dutch: counternarcotics activities in the Afghan province of Uruzgan’, Military Review91 (5) (2011) 43-51.

[51] Jairus Grove, ‘An insurgency of things: foray into the world of Improvised Explosive Devices’, International political sociology19 (2016) 332-51; idem, Savage ecology: war and geopolitics at the end of the world(Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2019) 113-137.

[52] The government of Pakistan prohibited the export of CAN, since its manufacture was subsidized by the state, and the government of Afghanistan outlawed its use because it was the core ingredient for 70-90 per cent of IEDs: Ben Gilbert, ‘Afghanistan’s Hurt Locker’, Agence France Presse, 10 February 2010; Chris Brummitt, ‘Pakistan fertilizer fuels Afghan bombs, US troop deaths’, Associated Press, 31 August 2011.

[53] For a vividly personal account of one man’s attempt to track down one manufacturer of IEDs in Afghanistan, see Brian CastnerAll the ways we kill and die: a portrait of modern war (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016).

[54] All pre-planned missions required a Concept of Operations (CONOPS) to be submitted for approval by the ODA’s higher command(s); this was a deck of Powerpoint slides developed by the ODA outlining the time, location and type of operation, the level of risk and the resources required.  In Afghanistan level 0 was the lowest risk, usually reserved for a combat reconnaissance patrol outside the firebase; level 1 was medium risk, typically a daylight cordon-and-search operation (as here), that might require helicopter transport and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) support; and level 2 was high risk, usually a night raid that required helicopter transport and ISR.  The higher the risk, the higher the approval level required: Maj Edward Sanford, ‘Optimizing future operations for Special Forces battalions: reviewing the CONOP process’, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey CA, June 2013 (p. 12).

[55] Anthony H. Cordesman and Jason Lemieux, ‘IED metrics for Afghanistan, January 2004 – May 2010’,  Center for Strategic and International Studies, 21 July 2010; the original data were provided by the Department of Defense’s Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO).

[56] The consolidated file refers to both SOTF-South and SOTF-12 but they are the same unit. SOTF-12 identified the 2ndBattalion, 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne),but during this tour all SOTF numbers in Afghanistan were replaced by regional designations.

[57] Elsewhere Petit emphasised the role Special Forces played in ‘village stability operations’ but the weight of his argument was on establishing a ‘dominant’ coalition presence to supplant the coercive authority of the Taliban through the provision of an effective system of ‘security and justice’.  This was the essential foundation for development, he explained, but it depended on responding to Taliban incursions with ‘speed, violence of action, and effective but discretionary use of indirect fires’: ‘The fight for the village: Southern Afghanistan, 2010’, Military Review 91 (3) (2011) 25-32.

[58] Operation Enduring Freedom was the official name for the ‘global war on terror’ launched by the United States in response to 9/11, but it is commonly reserved for US combat operations in Afghanistan, 2001-2014.

[59] Human Rights Watch, “Troops in Contact”: Airstrikes and civilian deaths in Afghanistan(September, 2008) p. 37; on the Rules of Engagement see also note 74 below.

[60] Derek Gregory, ‘The rush to the intimate: the cultural turn and counterinsurgency’, Radical Philosophy150 (2008) 8-23.

[61] ‘NATO forces have complained that OEF operations in their region are not communicated to them, but civilian casualties from airstrikes called in by OEF forces are left for them to address’: Human Rights Watch, Troops in Contact, p. 31.  Brig Gen Reeder insisted that the operation had been ‘approved at the [Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force] level with the RC-S [Regional Command–South] consent’ (p. 1189). As Carter’s objections made clear, however, ‘consent’ need not imply ‘consultation’, and RC-S clearly had to work hard to keep up to speed with Special Forces operations; conversely, Petit’s deputy testified that his battle captain usually attended the morning briefing at RC-S though he added ‘that is not required’ (p. 1012).

[62] See also Col Robert Johnson, ‘Command and control of Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan’, US Naval War College, October 2009.

[63] There was in any case friction between the Dutch and US Special Forces over the local alliances each favoured and fostered: see Bette Dam, ‘The story of “M”: US-Dutch shouting matches in Uruzgan’, Afghan Analysts Network, 10 June 2010.  For discussions of Dutch counterinsurgency in Uruzgan, see Martine van Bijlert, ‘The battle for Afghanistan – militancy and conflict in Zabul and Uruzgan’, New America Foundation, 2010; George Dimitriou and Beatrice de Graaf, ‘The Dutch COIN approach: three years in Uruzgan’, 2006-2009’, Small wars and insurgencies21 (2010) 429-58; Paul Fishstein, ‘Winning hearts and minds in Uruzgan province’, Feinstein International Center, Tufts University, 2012; Christ Klep, Uruzgan: Nederlandse militairen op missie 2005-2010 (Amsterdam: Boom, 2011).

[64] He added that they were ‘not habitually assigned’ to his battalion (which was from the 1st Special Forces Group based at Fort Lewis near Tacoma, Washington): they were ‘a Fort Bragg company’ from the 3rd Special Forces Group.  Fort Bragg (North Carolina) is also the home of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), but ODA 3124 was part of the ‘white’ Special Forces rather than the ‘black’ Special Forces of JSOC (see note 48), and Petit’s reference to its ‘full-spectrum understanding’ presumably referred to its kinetic and non-kinetic, humanitarian operations.  Even so, trouble followed ODA 3124 when it was deployed to Wardak province in 2012, where it was accused of torturing and killing civilians.  The only person convicted was its Afghan interpreter, but the criminal investigation remains open: Mathieu Aikins, ‘The A-Team killings’, Rolling Stone, 6 November 2013; ‘Where the bodies are buried: mapping allegations of war crimes in Afghanistan’, at http://wardakinvestigation.com/report/30 (June 2016).

[65] As soon as the ODA was outside the wire primary support passed to its battalion headquarters (SOTF-South at Kandahar Air Field).  Its company headquarters (the ODB) at FOB Ripley in Tarin Kowt was ‘left out of the [communication] link once they leave the gate’ (p. 739); the ODB listened to radio communications and did their best to monitor mIRC, but access was selective at the best of times and the electricity supply was often intermittent (p. 742). That morning they also had computer problems so that ‘we weren’t seeing that whole picture’ (p. 746).

[66] Night raids, usually conducted by Special Forces, were the dual to targeted killings in the US kill/capture strategy in Afghanistan: Anand Gopal, ‘Terror comes at night to Afghanistan’, Asia Times, 30 January 2010; Erica Gaston, ‘Night raids: For Afghan civilians, the costs may outweigh the benefits’, Huffington Post, 19 September 2011.

[67] The MH-47s were variants of standard CH-47 Chinook helicopters modified for US Air Force Special Operations Command: hence ‘the birds that we fly only [operate] between the hours of EENT [end evening nautical twilight] and BMNT [begin morning nautical twilight].’  This applied only to the MH-47s; the CH-47s were typically used for other, non-covert missions.

[68] The AC-130 was commonly tasked to support Special Forces operations.  It had a formidable arsenal: a Gatling gun, capable of firing 1,800 25 mm rounds per minute; a 40 mm Bofors gun; and a 105 mm howitzer.  Its Battle Management Center included a sensor suite (with TV sensors, infra-red and radar) and a communications suite, but their inputs were limited. The resolution level of the sensors did not permit the identification of weapons, for example, and the linguist testified that s/he ‘didn’t really pass along anything much’ (p. 1145).  That said, the Fires Officer at SOTF-South claimed that ‘when you mix the movement’ reported from the aircraft’, the ICOM ‘and what the Direct Support Officer was monitoring and reporting, this was interesting’ (p. 720).

[69] Afghanistan had 12 million cellphone users (out of a total population of 29 million) and the Taliban frequently used cellphones to pass information and to direct the insurgency.

[70] The NSA had been operating in Afghanistan since at least July 2008, but by 2010 it was transitioning towards a much larger footprint with the construction of a new data centre for its Real Time Regional Gateway (RT-RG) at Bagram Air Field. NSA’s representative at CENTCOM claimed that the RT-RG ‘helped us to become experts in providing the “where” part of a conversation’: Henrik Moltke, ‘Mission creep’, The Intercept, 29 May 2019.  The RT-RG could be accessed from multiple locations, and a report in June 2011 required 15 pages to describe a single day’s monitoring at the NSA station at Kandahar Air Field: Scott Shane, ‘No morsel too miniscule for all-consuming NSA’, New York Times, 2 November 2013.

[71] These observations (at 0757 and 0833) are wholly redacted from the LA Times transcript but appear in the communications transcript contained in the consolidated file (pp. 1959, 1963).  Chatty Kathy was a pull-string ‘talking doll’ from the 1960s (sic).

[72] The SALT reports from the GFC were transmitted by radio to SOTF-South and transcribed (p. 948); the language is not the Taliban’s, of course, who would not refer to ‘coalition forces’.  The report was based on ICOM and inferences about the location of the transmissions, but it also reinforced the direct reports of headlights assumed to be flashing not simply from but betweenthe north and the south.

[73] ‘Positive identification’ (PID) turned out to be one of the most frequently used and least understood terms throughout that long night.  It is correctly defined as ‘the reasonable certainty that a functionally and geospatially defined object of attack is a legitimate military target in accordance with the law of war and the applicable ROE’: Close Air Support, p. III.38.

[74] The reference to the ROE was redacted from the communications transcript but appears in an e-mail from the commanding officer of 15th Reconnaissance Squadron at Creech Air Force Base, dated 6 March 2010 (p. 890).  The ROE themselves remain classified, but 421 referred to ‘hostile intent’ and 422 to a ‘hostile act’; these were standing ROEs that required no prior authorization for US forces to exercise the right to self-defence.  The situation was different for other coalition forces; most European states do not consider hostile intent or hostile act sufficient to trigger self-defence, which is viewed as a response to an immediate, ongoing attack.  In contrast, the US treats self-defence as a response to an imminent (not immediate) hostile intent or hostile act.  See Erica [E.L.] Gaston, When looks could kill: emerging state practice on self-defence and hostile intent (Global Public Policy Institute, 2017) pp. 18-21; Camilla Guldahl Cooper, NATO Rules of Engagement: on ROE, self-defence and the use of force during armed conflict(Leiden: Brill, 2020).

[75] As I will show, this was highly problematic, part of what de Volo calls (with specific reference to the Uruzgan attack) a ‘high-tech patriarchal imperialism’ in which ‘brown women and children need protection and brown men need killing’: Lorraine Bayard de Volo, ‘Unmanned? Gender recalibrations and the rise of drone warfare’, Politics & Gender12 (2016) 50-77: 70.

[76] This message is redacted from the communications transcript but appears in an e-mail from the commanding officer of 15thReconnaissance Squadron dated 6 March 2010 (p. 896).

[77] Gaston, When looks could kill, p. 50-1.

[78] Hence Petit insisted the question revolved around distinguishing ‘what civilians are innocent versus bad’ (p. 1105). In response to a question about the presence of ‘possible civilians’ he rephrased it: ‘Everyone in that convoy, whether women, children or males with an AK [47], are they a threat to us or are they  innocent non-combatant civilians?’   He and his staff regularly discussed the meaning of ‘civilian’, he said, and it was confusing: ‘We kill civilians all the time, called Taliban, and they are armed and shooting at us.’   What mattered, in his view, was whether those in the vehicles were non-combatants (p. 1113).  More generally see Derek Gregory, ‘The death of the civilian?’  Society & Space24 (2006) 633-38 on Alan Dershowitz’s demand that civilian casualties be ‘recalibrated’ to show how many of them‘fall closer to the line of complicity and how many fall closer to the line of innocence.’

[79] I am indebted to Christiane Wilke for my phrasing and for helpful discussions on this issue. As she writes, ‘it is not clear what Afghans should do or avoid in order to be recognized as civilians’: Wilke, ‘Seeing and unmaking civilians’, p. 1056.   More generally, she told me: ‘I’m … really disturbed by the ways in which the burden of making oneself legible to the eyes in the sky is distributed: we don’t have to do any of that here, but the people to whom we’re bringing the war have to perform civilian-ness without fail’ (pers. comm., 23 January 2017).

[80] FMV image quality is measured on the Video-National Imagery Interpretability Rating Scale; the Predator’s Multi-Spectral Targeting System-A had a rating of 6 which, combined with a transmission speed of 1-3 Mbps, was sufficient to track the movement of cars and trucks and to detect the presence of an individual apart from a group; but it could not isolate and track an individual in a group nor identify their gender.  The MTS-B developed for the MQ-9 Reaper allowed for dramatically enhanced resolution and coverage.  See Pratap Chatterjee and Christian Stork, Drone Inc: marketing the illusion of precision killin(San Francisco: CorpWatch, 2017) pp. 11-12, 25-6.

[81] By the time the Safety Observer entered the Ground Control Station, shortly before the engagement, the Predator crew had made multiple assessments about the passengers; even if he meant to say that the crew deferred to the screeners in passing information this was also demonstrably inaccurate, as I show below.

[82] Lisa Parks, ‘Drones, infrared imagery and body heat’, International journal of communication8 (2014) 2518-21:2519; Col Andrew Milani, ‘Pitfalls of technology: a case study of the battle on Takhur Ghar Mountain, Afghanistan’ (US Army War College, 2003) p. 25; Cockburn, Kill-Chain, pp. 125-6.

[83] The reconstruction of the strike in National Bird is misleading in this (I think crucial) respect: it consistently shows a remarkably clear image of all three vehicles.

[84] The ROVER system was originally developed in 2001 to provide a video link from Predators to AC-130 gunships, but the possibility – and importance – of enhancing the system to allow ground troops to receive the FMV feed was first proposed by a Special Forces Warrant Officer serving in Afghanistan: ’If only there were some way for me to see what the Predator is seeing…’  He took his idea to the Big Safari team at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, and a prototype was delivered to the 3rdSpecial Forces Group in 2002. Ironically the original system was so bulky it hadto be carried in a Humvee – though by 2010 the system (by then, ROVER 5) had become much smaller and more portable.  See Rebecca Grant, ‘The ROVER’, Air Force Magazine 96 (8) (2013) 38-42; Bill Grimes, The history of BIG SAFARI (Bloomington, IND: Archway, 2014) pp. 336-7.

[85] At 0602 the JTAC asked the Predator crew for a ROVER frequency and band, and a few minutes later asked them to push the video feed ‘to Cobra [Tinsley] base, that’s probably [going to] serve us best’; 30 minutes later the link to the JTAC at FB Tinsley was established though the quality of the feed was poor.  The Predator crew raised no questions about the request, but at 0817 – half an hour before the attack on the vehicles –  the sensor operator was puzzled why the JTAC ‘asked us if they were moving at that one point when they were stopped forever’ and – given the repeated problems with their own radio communication with the JTAC – concluded that perhaps ‘he’s got an intermittent ROVER feed.’ The pilot was left ‘wondering if he’s not sitting with the guys actually watching.’ The answer to all these puzzles was, of course, that the JTAC had no ROVER.

[86] Nasser Hussain, ‘The sound of terror: phenomenology of a drone strike’, Boston Review, 16 October 2013.

[87] Those who operate remote platforms consistently claim that they are not thousands of miles from the battlespace but just 18 inches away: the distance from eye to screen. Here is Col Peter Gersten, the commander of the 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing: ‘There’s no detachment… Those employing the system are very involved at a personal level incombat. You hear the AK-47 going off, the intensity of the voice on the radio calling for help. You’re looking at him, 18 inches away from him, trying everything in your capability to get that person out of trouble’: Megan McCloskey, ‘The war room: Daily transition between battle, home takes a toll on drone operators’, Stars & Stripes, 27 October 2009.

[88] See Derek Gregory, ‘The territory of the screen’, Mediatropes 6 (2) (2016) 126-147: 146-7.

[89] He elaborated the burden of this trust relationship for the GFC: ‘If he [fails] to act, it’s his guys get killed, if he acts and the information is wrong then he has to suffer the consequences of [civilian casualties] as a result of receiving bad information.’

[90] The Predator pilot’s radio communications with the JTAC improved when the aircraft was in its southern orbit towards Khod but became weak again whenever it circled back, prompting the sensor operator to exclaim at 0456: ‘We need to get this JTAC in mIRC’: but without the ROVER laptop or a data-enabled satellite phone the JTAC would have had no access to that either.

[91] The USAF investigation made much of ‘the extensive Intercepted Communications (ICOM) chatter correlated with FMV and observed ground movement’ (Commander-directed operational assessment, p. 1).  ‘One of the most compelling elements of all the testimony is the recurring reference to ICOM chatter and how it seemed to correlate with observed movements,’ Otto wrote (artfully dropping the direct reference to the video feed), and he concluded that ‘the unusually strong correlation perceived by the GFC’ between the two was the ‘strongest element in his decision to engage’ the vehicles (p. 36). But Gaston, When looks could kill, p. 53 suggests that the very existence of ICOM (and signals intelligence more generally) could convert what would otherwise have remained indeterminate into a black-and-white calculus: ‘Troops with less access to intelligence and eavesdropping resources to verify threats may have been less willing to make a hostile intent determination in ambiguous situations.’

[92] The MC asked SOTF-South to arrange permission to stay, and the airman monitoring the FMV feed there – the Intelligence Tactical Coordinator – explained that ‘it looked very nefarious’ and ‘we assessed this to be a bad situation’ (p. 1374). Permission had to be obtained from the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Cell (ISARC) which co-ordinated all ISR assets; it is not clear whether this was based in Afghanistan or whether it was located at CENTCOM’s Combined Air Operations Center in Qatar. Permission finally came through at 0528.

[93] Again the basis for describing their actions as ‘tactical movement’ was never given; the screeners described the movement as ‘adult males, standing and sitting’ (pp. 21-2).

[94] Although the AC-130 has an extended range its loiter time over a target is around 4 ½ hours, whereas a Predator could remain in the air for 24 hours while the crew in the Ground Control Station rotated through two or three shifts.  From the pilot’s message at 0756 the Predator would have been able to remain on station (referred to as ‘playtime’) until 1600.

[95] Had the AC-130 done so, the proximity to the compounds would presumably have violated the Tactical Directive.

[96] The Mission Operations Commander of the screeners at Hurlburt Field said much the same: ‘It’s Afghanistan, there’s going to be weapons down there in any large group of men’ (p. 592).

[97] One of the sergeants with ODA 3142 offered another, wholly innocuous reading that said much about the quality of the video feed and the cultural distance that confounded its interpretation: ‘‘After looking at the video afterwards, someone was saying when the vehicles stopped … there might be people pulling security.  When I looked at [the] video they also could have been taking a piss.  Whoever was viewing the video real-time … needs to be someone that knows the culture of the people’ (p. 501).

[98] The Joint Prioritised Effects List (JPEL) is a list of named individuals implicated in Taliban and/or al-Qaeda operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan pre-authorised for ‘kill or capture’ by coalition forces; Joint Special Operations Command was instrumental in its compilation, which also involved intelligence agencies from the US and NATO partners, and Special Operations forces took the lead in its execution.  See Nick Davies, ‘Afghanistan war logs: Task Force 373 – special forces hunting top Taliban’, Guardian, 25 July 2010; Britain’s Kill List (Reprieve, 2012); Jacob Appelbaum, Matthias Gebauer, Susanne Koelbl, Laura Poitras, Gordon Repinski, Marcel Rosenbach and Holger Stark,‘A dubious history of targeted killing in Afghanistan’, Spiegel Online, 28 December 2014.

[99] McHale accepted ‘by a preponderance of the evidence’ that the GFC ‘engaged primarily based on a belief that the vehicles represented an imminent threat to the forces under his command’ (p. 28).  But the hare continued to run: when Col Gus Benton, the commander of CJSOTF-A, was alerted to the developing situation shortly before the strike he said he assumed that what he saw on the Predator feed was ‘this JPEL [target] moving along this road’ (p. 530) (see below, pp. 00-00).

[100] The search for weapons continued after the strike because their presence amongst the wreckage would have helped to validate the attack.  Even had it been successful – it wasn’t – it would not have been enough; McHale’s report emphasized that ‘positive identification of weapons is neither required nor sufficient for PID’ (p. 33).

Drone observations

I’m just back from a lovely week at Dartmouth, so there’s lots to catch up on.  This post is confined to (yet more) notes on writing about drones.  It’s selective, partly because I’m sure I’ve missed all sorts of important recent contributions – and if I have please let me know – but partly because so many supposedly critical interventions retrace familiar steps unburdened by substantive research.

This is far from the case with this one.  Part of the purpose of my stay in Dartmouth was to spend time with Kate Kindervater, one of the first cohort of five post-docs at Dartmouth’s new Society of Fellows (selected from 1700 applicants!).   She completed her PhD at the University of Minnesota last year on ‘Lethal Surveillance: Drones and the Geo-History of Modern War‘.

Interdisciplinary both in scope and method, my dissertation, Lethal Surveillance: Drones and the Geo-History of Modern War, examines the history of drone technology from the start of the 20th century to the present in order to understand the significance of the increasing centrality of drones to current American military engagements and security practices more generally. Much of the scholarship on drones and many other contemporary military technologies tends to view the technology as radically new, missing both the historical development of these objects as well as the perspectives and rationalities that are embedded in their use. For this research, I focused on three main periods of drone research and development: the early years of World War I and II in the UK, the Cold War, and the 1990s. In studying this history of the drone, I found that two key trends emerge as significant: the increasing importance of information to warfare under the rubric of intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance; and a shift toward more dynamic, speedier, and individualized targeting practices. I argue that the widespread use of drones today thus represents the culmination of attempts in war to effectively link these two trends, creating a practice I call lethal surveillance — with the armed Predator effectively closing the loop between identifying and killing targets. The concept of lethal surveillance, which in my dissertation I place squarely within the histories of modern scientific thinking and Western liberal governance, allows us to see how techniques of Western state power and knowledge production are merging with practices of killing and control in new ways, causing significant changes to both the operations of the state and to practices of war. Framing the drone through the lens of lethal surveillance, therefore, allows us to see the longer histories the drone is embedded in as well as other security practices it is connected to.

We had lots of really good conversation, and while I was at Dartmouth Kate had a paper published at Security dialogue, drawing from her thesis: ‘The emergence of lethal surveillance: Watching and killing in the history of drone technology’:

This article examines the history of the development of drone technology to understand the longer histories of surveillance and targeting that shape contemporary drone warfare. Drawing on archival research, the article focuses on three periods in the history of the drone: the early years during World Wars I and II, the Cold War, and the 1990s. The history of the drone reveals two key trends in Western warfare: the increasing importance of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and the development of dynamic targeting. These trends converge today in a practice of lethal surveillance where ISR capabilities are directly linked to targeted killing, effectively merging mechanisms of surveillance and knowledge production with decisions on life and death. Taking this history of lethal surveillance into account not only reframes current debates on drone warfare, but also connects the drone to other practices of security and control.

Kate is absolutely right to trace through the trajectories of ISR and dynamic targeting, and I applaud the way in which she doesn’t move directly from colonial ‘air policing’ and ‘pilotless bombing’ (in the case that interests her the most, in Iraq in the 1920s) to today’s remote operations but insists on the pivotal importance of the Cold War and, post-1989, Kosovo.  Kosovo is particularly interesting, I think, and here is my own summary take on developments there:

Predator precedents in Bosnia.001 Predator precedents in Bosnia.002 Predator precedents in Bosnia.003

Another exceptionally interesting paper is Cara Daggett‘s ‘Drone disorientations: how unmanned weapons queer the experience of killing in war’, which appeared in the International journal of feminist politics 17 (3) (2015) 361-379:

Killing with drones produces queer moments of disorientation. Drawing on queer phenomenology, I show how militarized masculinities function as spatiotemporal landmarks that give killing in war its “orientation” and make it morally intelligible. These bearings no longer make sense for drone warfare, which radically deviates from two of its main axes: the home–combat and distance–intimacy binaries. Through a narrative methodology, I show how descriptions of drone warfare are rife with symptoms of an unresolved disorientation, often expressed as gender anxiety over the failure of the distance–intimacy and home–combat axes to orient killing with drones. The resulting vertigo sparks a frenzy of reorientation attempts, but disorientation can lead in multiple and sometimes surprising directions – including, but not exclusively, more violent ones. With drones, the point is that none have yet been reliably secured, and I conclude by arguing that, in the midst of this confusion, it is important not to lose sight of the possibility of new paths, and the “hope of new directions.”

There have been several commentaries that take the ‘un-manning’ of remote operations literally and seriously, and I drew on several of them in accounting for the moral economy of bombing in my Tanner Lectures last month: the (hideous) claim that bombing is, in all sorts of ways, virile and manly – so that, by extension, those who fly today’s Predators and Reapers are neither since they are never in harm’s way.  It’s an alarming argument, since it inadvertently legitimates (and even celebrates) the masculinism of conventional bombing, misses the new reality of today’s air wars, and ignores a crucial observation made by Robert Gates [the slides below are from my Tanner Lectures]:

Unopposed air war.001Unopposed air war 2.001

Cara’s argument is much more artful than that, and well worth thinking through.

As both writers know, the use of military drones is not confined to targeted killing (though so many continue to write as though that were the case).  That said, Laurie Calhoun‘s We kill because we can: from soldiering to assassination in the drone age (Zed Books, 2015) is as deft an examination of the issues that you can find:

Welcome to the Drone Age. Where self-defense has become naked aggression. Where courage has become cowardice. Where black ops have become standard operating procedure. In this remarkable and often shocking book, Laurie Calhoun dissects the moral, psychological and cultural impact of remote-control killing in the twenty-first century. Can a drone operator conducting a targeted killing be likened to a mafia hitman? What difference, if any, is there between the Trayvon Martin case and the drone killing of a teen in Yemen? We Kill Because We Can takes a scalpel to the dark heart of Western foreign policy in order to answer these and many other troubling questions.

CALHOUN We kill because we canPreface

Part I: Find
1. Drone Nation
2. From Black Ops to Standard Operating Procedure
3. The Logic of Targeted Killing
4. Lethal Creep

Part II: Fix
5. Strike First, Suppress Questions Later
6. The New Banality of Killing
7. The Operators
8. From Conscience to Oblivion

Part III: Finish
9. Death and Politics
10. Death and Taxes
11. The Death of Military Virtue
12. Tyrants Are as Tyrants Do

Appendix: Drone Killing and Just War Theory

You can find an extended interview with Laurie here.

Finally – and as you’ll soon see from an upcoming post – I can’t seem to stop wandering through the nuclear wastelands.  I described the role that drones played in the early development of Strategic Air Command (through its “Project Brass Ring”) and in monitoring US atomic tests in the Marshall Islands in my “Little Boys and Blue Skies” presentation at Toronto last fall (see DOWNLOADS tab and the extended post here), which I reworked for one of my presentations at Dartmouth.  Over at Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone, Dan Gettinger replays the same little-known story – though he doesn’t play it forward to the atomic tests that took place at the Nevada Proving Grounds and the role of Indian Springs as a base for those early drone missions in the continental United States.  Indian Springs is now Creech Air Force Base, of course, one of the central nodes for today’s remote operations.

Little Boys and Blue Skies

These are very preliminary notes and ideas for my presentation at “Through Post-Atomic Eyes” in Toronto next month: I would really – really – welcome any comments, suggestions or advice.  I don’t usually post presentations in advance, and this is still a long way from the finished version, but in this case I am venturing into (irradiated) fields unknown to me until a few months ago…

CHOMSKY On Western terrorismAt first sight, any comparison between America’s nuclear war capability and its drone strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen seems fanciful. The scale of investment, the speed and range of the delivery systems, the nature of the targets, the blast radii and precision of the munitions, and the time and space horizons of the effects are so clearly incommensurable. It’s noticeable that the conversation between Noam Chomsky and Andre Vltchek published as On Western Terrorism: from Hiroshima to drone warfare (2013) says virtually nothing about the two terms in its subtitle.

Yet nuclear weapons and drone strikes have both been attended by intense diplomatic, geopolitical and geo-legal manoeuvres, they have both sparked major oppositional campaigns by activist organisations, and they have both had major impacts on popular culture (as the two images below attest).



But there are other coincidences, connections and transformations that also bear close critical examination.

When Paul Tibbets flew the Enola Gay across the blue sky of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 one of his major concerns was to execute a fast, tight 155 degree turn to escape the effects of the blast from ‘Little Boy’.  There is some dispute over the precise escape angle – there’s an exhaustive discussion in the new preface to Paul Nahin‘s Chases and escapes: the mathematics of pursuit and evasion (second edition, 2007) – but the crucial point is the concern for the survival of the aircraft and its crew.

Enola Gay co-pilot [Robert Lewis]'s sketch after briefing of approach and 155 turn by the B-29s weaponeer William Parsons, 4 August 1945

Tibbets successfully made his escape but four years later, when the US Atomic Energy Commission was developing far more powerful bombs, the Air Force became convinced that escape from those blasts would be impossible. And so it implemented Project Brass Ring which was intended to convert B-47 Stratojet bombers into remotely-piloted aircraft capable of delivering atomic bombs without any loss of American lives.  (What follows is taken from Delmer Trester, ‘Thermonuclear weapon delivery by unmanned B-47: Project Brass Ring‘; it was included in A history of the Air Force Atomic Energy Program, 1949-1953, which can be downloaded here; you can obtain a quick overview here).

‘It appeared that the Air Force would need some method to deliver a 10,000-pound package over a distance of 4,000 nautical miles with an accuracy of at least two miles from the center of the target. It was expected the package would produce a lethal area so great that, were it released in a normal manner, the carrier would not survive the explosion effects. Although not mentioned by name, the “package” was a thermonuclear device – the hydrogen or H-bomb…

B-47 Stratojet bomber (USAF)

‘The ultimate objective was to fashion a B-47 carrier with completely automatic operation from take-off to bomb drop… The immediate plan included the director B-47A aircraft as a vital part of the mission. Under direction from the mother aircraft, the missile would take off, climb to altitude and establish cruise speed conditions. While still in friendly territory, the crew aboard the director checked out the missile and committed its instruments to automatically accomplish the remainder of the mission. This was all that was required of the director. The missile, once committed, had no provision for returning to its base… either the B-47 became a true missile and dived toward the target … or a mechanism triggered the bomb free, as in a normal bombing run.’

This was a re-run of Operation Aphrodite, a failed series of experiments carried out in the closing stages of the Second World War in Europe, and – as the images below show – after the war the Air Force had continued to experiment with B-17 aircraft remotely piloted from both ‘director aircraft’ [top image; the director aircraft is top right] and ‘ground control units’ [bottom image].  These operated under the aegis of the Air Force’s Pilotless Aircraft Branch which was created in 1946 in an attempt to establish the service’s proprietary rights over missile development.

B-17 drones

Ground control unit for B-17 drone

But the Brass Ring team soon discovered that their original task had swelled far beyond its original, taxing specifications: in October 1951 they were told that ‘the super-bomb’ would weigh 50,000 lbs. They modified their plans (and planes) accordingly, and after a series of setbacks the first test flight was successful:

‘The automatic take-off, climb and cruise sequence was initiated remotely from a ground control station. The aircraft azimuth, during take-off, was controlled by an auxiliary control station at the end of the runway. Subsequent maneuvers, descent and landing (including remote release of a drag parachute and application of brakes) were accomplished from the ground control station. The test was generally satisfactory; however, there were several aspects – certain level flight conditions, turn characteristics and the suitability of the aircraft as a “bombing platform” – which required further investigation.’

This was part of a larger imaginary in which, as Life had commented in its issue of 20 August 1945, echoing USAAF General Henry H. ‘Hap’ Arnold, ‘robot planes … and atomic bombs will do the work today done by fleets of thousands of piloted bombers.’ (Arnold thought this a mixed blessing, and in an essay ghost-written with William Shockley he noted that nuclear weapons had made destruction ‘too cheap and easy’ – one bomb and one aircraft could replace hundreds of bombs and vast fleets of bombers – and a similar concern is often raised by critics of today’s Predators and Reapers who argue that their remote, often covert operations have lowered the threshold for military violence).

Henry H Hap Arnold.001

Brass Ring was abandoned on 13 March 1953, once the Air Force determined that a manned aircraft could execute the delivery safely (at least, for those on board).  It would be decades before another company closely associated with nuclear research – General Atomics (more here) – supplied the US Air Force with its first MQ-1 Predators.


These were originally conceived as unarmed, tactical not strategic platforms, designed to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for conventional strike aircraft. But the concern with American lives became a leitmotif of both programs, and one of the foundations for today’s remote operations is the ability (as the USAF has it) to ‘project power without vulnerability’.

BOYER By the bomb's early lightThe visible effects of bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the Japanese population were the subject of strict censorship – still photographs were never published, while Japanese media and even US military film crews had their documentary footage embargoed – and public attention in the United States was turned more or less immediately towards visualising ‘Hiroshima USA’ (Paul Boyer is particularly good on this; there are also many images and a good discussion here). Even the US Strategic Bombing Survey indulged in the same speculation: ‘What if the target for the bomb had been an American city?’ it asked in its June 1946 report. ‘The casualty rates at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, applied to the massed inhabitants of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, yield a grim conclusion.’ Although the original targets had been Asian cities it was American cities that were designated as future victims.  ‘Physically untouched by the war’ (apart from Pearl Harbor), Boyer wrote,

‘the United States at the moment of victory perceived itself as naked and vulnerable.  Sole possessors and users of a devastating instrument of mass destruction, Americans envisioned themselves not as a potential threat to other peoples, but as potential victims.’

This was the abiding anxiety instilled by the national security state and orchestrated through its military-industrial-media-entertainment complex throughout the post-war decades.  Perhaps the most famous sequence of images – imaginative geographies, I suppose –accompanied an essay by John Lear in Collier’s Magazine in August 1950, ‘Hiroshima USA: Can anything be done about it?‘, showing a series of paintings by Chesley Bonestell and Birney Lettick imagining the effects of a nuclear strike on New York:

Hiroshima USA 11950-aug-6-colliers-p12-sm

Similar sequences, often accompanied by maps, were produced for many other cities (and the simulations continue: see, for example, here).  The images below, from Life on 19 November 1945, come from ‘The 36-Hour War’ (see here for a commentary) that envisaged a nuclear attack on multiple cities across the USA, including Washington DC, from (presumably Soviet) ‘rocket-launching sites [built] quickly and secretly in the jungle’ of equatorial Africa:



Schlosser-Command-and-Control-bookAs it happened, American cities did indeed become targets – for the US Air Force.  According to Eric Schlosser, under General Curtis Le May the goal was

to build a Strategic Air Command that could strike the Soviet Union with planes based in the United States and deliver every nuclear weapon at once. SAC bomber crews constantly trained and prepared for that all-out assault. They staged mock attacks on every city in the United States with a population larger than twenty-five thousand, practicing to drop atomic bombs on urban targets in the middle of the night. San Francisco was bombed more than six hundred times within a month.

VANDERBILT Survival CityTests were also conducted at the Nevada Proving Ground, ‘the most nuclear-bombed place on the planet’, to determine the likely effects.  One of the purposes of the Strategic Bombing Survey’s Physical Damage Division had been to document the effects of the bombs on buildings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki – to read them as ‘blueprints for the atomic future‘ – and both Japanese and American medical teams had been sent in shortly after the blasts to record their effects on bodies (from 1947 their work was subsumed under the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission).  It was now imperative bring the two together and to bring their results home.  And so, starting in 1953 with ‘Operation Doorstep’, mannequins were placed inside single-family houses at the Nevada site to calculate the prospects for the survival of what Joseph Masco calls the American ‘nuclearised’ family in the event of a nuclear attack; they subsequently went on public exhibition around the country with the tag line:

‘These mannikins could have been real people; in fact, they could have been you.’

In the Second World War experimental bombing runs had been staged against mock German and Japanese targets at the Dugway Proving Ground but – significantly – the buildings had no occupants: as Tom Vanderbilt wryly remarks, now ‘the inhabitants had been rewritten into the picture’ because the objective was to calibrate the lives of Americans.

Rachele Riley Mannequins

I have borrowed this image from the mesmerising work of artist Rachele Riley, whose project on The evolution of silence centres on Yucca Flat in the Nevada Test Site and raises a series of sharp questions about both the imagery and the soundscape of the nuclear age.

The power of the image – ‘the nuclear sublime’ – was one of the central objectives of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki: ‘the weapon’s devastating power had to be seen to be believed,’ as Kyo Maclear observed, and it had to be seen and believed in Moscow as well as in Tokyo.  Here the visual economies of nuclear attacks are radically different from drone strikes. In the immediate aftermath there was no shortage of atomic ‘views from the air’ –  aerial photographs of the vast cloud towering into the sky and of Hiroshima before and after the bomb.  Here is Life (sic) on 20 August 1945:

LIFE:Hiroshima 1

LIFE:Hiroshima 2LIFE:Hiroshima 3

Yet for the most part, and with some significant exceptions, aerial views are singularly absent from today’s drone wars. To Svea Braeunert (‘Bringing the war home: how visual artists return the drone’s gaze‘) that is all the more remarkable because drone strikes are activated by what video artist Harun Farocki called operative images: but that is also the reason for the difference. Aerial photographs of Hiroshima or Nagasaki reveal a field of destruction in which bodies are conspicuously absent; the resolution level is too coarse to discern the bomb’s victims.

But the video feeds from a Predator or Reaper, for all their imperfections, are designed to identify (and kill) individuals, and their aerial gaze would – if disclosed – reveal the bodies of their victims. That is precisely why the videos are rarely released (and, according to Eyal Weizman, why satellite imagery used by investigators to reconstruct drone strikes is degraded to a resolution level incapable of registering a human body – which remains ‘hidden in the pixels‘ – and why their forensic visual analysis is forced to focus on buildings not bodies).

OMAR FAST %000 Feet is Best

One might expect visual artists to fill in the blank. Yet – a further contrast with Hiroshima – apart from projects like Omar Fast’s ‘5,000 Feet is Best’ (above) and Thomas van Houtryve’s ‘Blue Sky Days’ (below) there have been precious few attempts to imagine drone strikes on American soil.

van HOUTRYVE Blue Sky Days

Perhaps this is because they are so unlikely: at present these remote platforms can only be used in uncontested air space, against people or states who are unable (or in the case of Pakistan, unwilling) to defend themselves. But there has been a protracted debate about such strikes on American citizens (notably the case of Anwar al-Awlaki) and a concerted attempt to focus on the rules followed by the CIA and JSOC in their programs of targeted killing (which has artfully diverted public attention to Washington and away from Waziristan).

There is also a visceral, visible continuity between the two: just as in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there has been little public concern over the victims of drone strikes, the vast majority of whom have once again been Asian.

If the targeting process continues to be racialised, it also continues to be bureaucratised. After the Second World War the US Air Force was determined to speed up its targeting cycle, and in 1946 started to compile a computerised database of potential targets in the Soviet Union; this was soon extended to Soviet satellites and Korea, and by 1960 the Bombing Encyclopedia of the World (now called the ‘Basic Encyclopedia’) contained 80,000 Consolidated Target Intelligence Files. These were harvested to plan Strategic Air Command’s nuclear strikes and to calibrate Damage and Contamination Models. One of the analysts responsible for nominating targets later described the process as ‘the bureaucratisation of homicide’. Similar criticisms have been launched against the ‘disposition matrix’ used by the CIA to nominate individuals authorised for targeted killing (see here and here); most of these are in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, though there are other kill lists, including Joint Prioritised Effects Lists compiled by the US military for war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq. In both cases the target files are in principle global in reach, and both nuclear strikes and targeted killings (outside established war zones) are judged to be sufficiently serious and ‘sensitive’ to require direct Presidential approval.

Speeding up the targeting cycle has involved more than the pre-emptive identification of targets. In contrast to the fixed targets for nuclear strikes, today’s Predators and Reapers are typically directed against mobile targets virtually impossible to locate in advance. Pursuing these fleeting ‘targets of opportunity’ relies on a rapidly changing and expanding suite of sensors to identify and track individuals in near-real time. In 2004 the Defense Science Board recommended the Pentagon establish ‘a “Manhattan Project”-like program for ID/TTI’ [identification, tagging, tracking and locating], and one year later a Technical Advisor working for the National Security Agency’s Target Reconnaissance and Survey Division posed the following question:

NSA's Little Boy

The onboard sensor suite in the pod has since become ever more effective in intercepting and monitoring electronic communications as part of a vast system of digital data capture, but Predators had already been armed with Hellfire missiles to compress the kill-chain still further, and to many commentators the most radical innovation in later modern war has been the fusion of sensor and shooter in a single platform. The new integrated systems were first trialled – on a Predator flown by test pilots from General Atomics – in February 2000 at Indian Springs Auxiliary Field. The main objective was to hunt and kill Osama bin Laden, and at the request of the Air Force and the CIA a series of tests was carried out.

First, the Air Force wanted to determine whether the Predator could withstand a missile being fired from beneath its insubstantial wings (a ghostly echo of earlier anxieties over the survivability of the Enola Gay and its successors – though plainly much reduced by the absence of any pilot on board).

Second, the CIA wanted to assess the likely effects of a Hellfire strike on the occupants of a single-storey building like those found in rural Afghanistan (nuclear tests had used mannequins and pigs as human surrogates; these used plywood cut-outs and watermelons).

predatorBoth sets of tests were eventually successful (see also here) but, as Richard Whittle shows in consummate detail, a series of legal and diplomatic obstacles remained. In order to secure satellite access over Afghanistan, previous Predator flights to find bin Laden had been flown from a ground control station at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. But using a Predator to kill bin Laden was less straightforward. After protracted debate, US Government lawyers agreed that a Predator armed with a missile would not violate the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which eliminated nuclear and conventional missiles with intermediate ranges but which – unhelpfully for the CIA – defined missiles as ‘unmanned, self-propelled … weapon-delivery vehicles’; the lawyers determined that the Predator was merely a platform and, unlike a cruise missile, had no warhead so that it remained outside the Treaty. But they also insisted that the Status of Forces Agreement with Germany would require Berlin’s consent for the activation of an armed Predator. (The United States stored tactical nuclear warheads at Ramstein until 2005; although the US insisted it retained control over them, in the event of war they were to have been delivered by the Luftwaffe as part of a concerted NATO nuclear strike).

RAMSTEIN English captions

The need to bring Berlin onside (and so potentially compromise the secrecy of the project) was one of the main reasons why the ground control station was relocated to Indian Springs, connected to the satellite link at Ramstein through a fibre-optic cable under the Atlantic:


In fact, since 1952 Indian Springs had been a key portal into the Nevada Test Site – its purpose was to support both US Atomic Energy Commission nuclear testing at the Nevada Proving Grounds and US Air Force operations at the Nellis Air Force Base’s vast Gunnery and Bombing Range – and in June 2005 it morphed into Creech Air Force Base: the main centre from which ‘remote-split’ operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere are flown by USAF pilots. Most of the covert operations are directed by the CIA (some by Joint Special Operations Command), but the Predators and Reapers are used for more than targeted killing; the primary missions are still to provide ISR for conventional strikes and now also close air support for ground troops.


The geographies overlap, coalesce and – even allowing for the differences in scale – conjure up a radically diffuse and dispersed field of military violence.  When Tom Vanderbilt described ‘a war with no clear boundaries, no clear battlefields … a war waged in such secrecy that both records and physical locations are often utterly obscured’ he was talking about nuclear war.  But exactly the same could be said of today’s drone wars, those versions of later modern war in which the body becomes the battle space (‘warheads on foreheads’) and the hunting ground planetary: another dismal iteration of the ‘everywhere war’ (see here and here).

For all these connections and intersections, a key divide is the issue of civilians and casualties. On 9 August 1945 President Truman (below) described Hiroshima as a ‘military base’ selected ‘because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians’.

TRUMAN Hiroshima speech

This was simply untrue, and similar – often no less deceptive – formulations are routinely used to justify US drone strikes and to minimise what is now called ‘collateral damage’. Still, the scale of civilian casualties is clearly different: usually dozens rather than hundreds of thousands.

And yet, there is something irredeemably personal and solitary about the response to death from either cause; parents searching for the bodies of their children in the ruins are as alone in Dhatta Khel as they were in Hiroshima.  When Yukiko Hayashi [her real name is Sachiko Kawamura] describes the anguish of a young woman and her father finding the remains of their family – the poem, ‘Sky of Hiroshima‘, is autobiographical – it is surely not difficult to transpose its pathos to other children in other places:

Daddy squats down, and digs with his hands
Suddenly, his voice weak with exhaustion, he points
I throw the hoe aside
And dig at the spot with my hands
The tiles have grown warm in the sun
And we dig
With a grim and quiet intent

Mommy’s bone
When I squeezed it
White powder danced in the wind
Mommy’s bone
When I put it in my mouth
Tasted lonely
The unbearable sorrow
Began to rise in my father and I
Left alone
Screaming, and picking up bones
And putting them into the candy box
Where they made a rustle

My little brother was right beside my mommy
Little more than a skeleton
His insides, not burnt out completely
Lay exposed…

NOOR BEHRAM Orphans Dande Darpa Khel 21 August 2009

MASCO Theater of OperationsIn The Theater of Operations Joseph Masco draws a series of distinctions between the US national security state inaugurated by the first atomic bombs and the counter-terror state whose organs have proliferated since 9/11.

He properly (and brilliantly) insists on the affects instilled in the American public by the counter-terror state as vital parts of its purpose, logic and practice – yet he says virtually nothing about the affects induced amongst the vulnerable populations forced to ‘live under drones’ and its other modes of military and paramilitary violence.

In Waziristan no air raid sirens warn local people of a strike, no anti-aircraft systems protect them, and no air-raid shelters are available for them to seek refuge.


Hence young Zubair Rehman’s (above, top right) heartbreaking admission after a drone killed his grandmother as she tended the fields in Ghundi Kala in North Waziristan (see here and here):

‘I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer grey skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are grey.’

The God trick and the administration of military violence

JOC staring at screen 24afghan-600

Here is the abstract for my keynote at the Lancaster symposium on Security by remote control next month; it’s a development from my presentation at the AAG in Tampa, and I’ll provide more details as I develop the argument.

The God trick and the administration of military violence

Advocates have made much of the extraordinary ability of the full motion video feeds from Predators and Reapers to provide persistent surveillance (‘the all-seeing eye’), so that they become vectors of the phantasmatic desire to produce a fully transparent battlespace.  Critics – myself included – have insisted that vision is more than a biological-instrumental capacity, however, and that it is transformed into a conditional and highly selective visuality through the activation of a distinctively political and cultural technology.  Seen thus, these feeds interpellate their distant viewers to create an intimacy with ground troops while ensuring that the actions of others within the field of view remain obdurately Other.

But the possibility of what Donna Haraway famously criticised as ‘the God-trick’ – the ability to see everything from nowhere in particular – is also compromised by the networks within which these remote platforms are deployed.  In this presentation I re-visit an air strike on three vehicles in Uruzgan province, Afghanistan, in February 2010, in which more than 20 civilians were killed in a helicopter attack prompted, in large measure, by video feeds from a Predator providing support to a Special Forces detachment in the vicinity.  Most commentaries – including mine – have treated this in terms of a predisposition on the part of the Predator crew to (mis)read every action by the victims as a potential threat.  But a close examination of the official investigations that followed, by the US Army and then the US Air Force, reveals a much more complicated situation.  The Predator was not the only ‘eye in the sky’, its feeds entered into a de-centralized, distributed and dispersed geography of vision in which different actors at different locations inside and outside Afghanistan saw radically different things, and the breaks and gaps in communication were as significant as the connections.  In short, much of later modern war may be ‘remote,’ but there’s considerably less ‘control’ than most people think.

Predatory networks

A key moment in the development of the United States’ UAV program was the deployment of a prototype Predator – General Atomics’ GNAT-750 – over Bosnia.  This is how I summarised the accelerated fielding program in ‘Moving targets’ (DOWNLOADS tab):

Even as the GNAT-750 was deployed over Bosnia-Herzegovina, the design was being developed into a new platform, the RQ-1 Predator, which incorporated three major modifications. The original intention had been to provide still imagery and text interpretation, but this was replaced by real-time motion video in colour (by day) and infrared (by night). A more serious limitation was range; the GNAT-750 could only operate 150 miles from the ground control station because it relied on a C-band line of sight data link. The CIA experimented with using relay aircraft to expedite data transmission – the same solution that had been used for the ‘electronic battlefield’ along the Ho Chi Minh Trail – but the breakthrough came with the use of the Ku-band satellite system that dramatically increased the operational range. The upgrade had been tested in the United States, and was retrofitted to Predators in Europe in August 1995. Although data was then rapidly transmitted across the Atlantic, the key intelligence nodes were still in Europe, like the Combined Air Operations Centre at Vicenza in Italy, and the drones were still controlled from ground stations within the region, at first from Gjader in Albania and later from Tazar in Hungary. A third, no less revolutionary innovation was the installation of an onboard global positioning system (GPS); early target imagery had to be geo-located using a PowerScene software program, but the introduction of satellite-linked GPS made a considerable difference to the speed and accuracy of targeting.

But I now think this misses other even more important dimensions that speak directly to the fabrication of the network in which Predators and eventually Reapers become embedded.

My primary source is a remarkable MIT PhD thesis by Lt. Col. Timothy Cullen, The MQ-9 Reaper Remotely Piloted Aircraft: Humans and Machines in Action (2011).  The research involved interviews with 50 pilots, 26 sensor operators, 13 Mission Intelligence Coordinators and 8 imagery analysts between 2009-2010 (so this is inevitably a snapshot of a changing program – but one with a wide field of view) and direct observation of training missions at Holloman Air Force Base; the thesis is also informed by Cullen’s own, considerable experience as a pilot of conventional strike aircraft and by actor-network theory, though most particularly by Edward Hutchins‘ cognitive ethnography and by the work of Lucy Suchman.

CULLEN p. 94I should say, too, that the thesis is irony made flesh, so to speak.  The author notes that:

Missing from public discussions are the details of remote air operations in current conflicts and the role of social networks, organizational culture, and professional practices in the evolution and history of RPA. The public cannot have informed discussions about these topics without empirical observations and descriptions of how RPA operators actually fly and employ the aircraft.

Fair enough, of course, but parts of the thesis are heavily redacted; I realise this isn’t – can’t – be Cullen’s doing, but it is as frustrating for the reader as it surely must be for the author (for Private Eye devotees, the image on the right shows p. 94).  Still, there’s enough in plain sight to provide a series of arresting insights into the development of the UAV program.

First, early Predator crews were remarkably detached from the wider mission and their ability to communicate with people outside their Ground Control Stations was extremely limited.  The pilot’s primary responsibility was to program the aircraft to fly on autopilot from target to target and to monitor the flight path, while two sensor operators identified and tracked the targets whose images were to be captured.  In a tent outside the ground control station a ‘Mission Planning Cell’ (MPC: see photograph below) served as the communications interface; since this was an experimental system, the Ground Control Station was not permitted to receive or transmit sensitive or classified information.  Apart from the transmission of images, all communications between the two were either face-to-face (literally through the tent flaps) or via a telephone link.

GCS and Mission Planning Cell, Hungary 1996

Before a mission the MPC received a set of 50-300 imagery targets (known as ‘Collection Points’) from the Balkans Combined Air Operations Center in Vicenza in Italy, and used this to create a detailed target deck.  The time between the initial requests and final image capture steadily decreased from 72 hours to 48 hours, and eventually re-tasking during a mission became standard: more on the tasking process here.

Bosnia imageryThe video feeds from the Predator were sent via coaxial cable to the MPC where they were digitised and encrypted for onward transmission over a secure network to commanders in the field and to a group of 10-12  imagery analysts in the United States.  The analysts posted video clips and annotated stills on a classified web page, but the quality of the video feeds with which they had to work was significantly less than the raw feeds available in theatre, and the slow response time was another serious limitation on the value of their work.

At the time, of course, all this seemed revolutionary, and the second Annual Report on the UAV program in 1996 declared that:

Even more significant than the Predator performance “firsts” is the wide use made of its imagery, amplified by the increased network of receiving stations both in-theater and back in CONUS [continental US]. The development of this dissemination capability is shown below.


It first used VSATs at selected receiving sites, and then the SATCOM-based Joint Broadcast System (JBS). The Predator-JBS network represents the first time for the simultaneous broadcast of live UAV video to more than 15 users. This provided a common picture of the “battlefield.” Video imagery can be viewed either as full motion video or via a “mosaicking” technique at the ground station. 

[JAC Molesworth was the Joint Analysis Center at RAF Molesworth in the UK, US European Command’s intelligence center, and DISN is the Defense Information Systems Network for data, video and voice services].

But the system was far from responsive; the MPC filtered all communications from commanders and imagery analysts and, as the tasking diagram below shows, whether the cycle followed the standard model or allowed for more flexible re-tasking the Predator crew had very little discretion and was, in a substantial sense, what Cullen calls ‘a passive source of data’.  Its responsibilities were limited to the ‘physical control’ of the platform.


This has been transformed by the cumulative construction of an extended, distributed network in which UAV crews are in direct communication, either by voice or through secure internet chatrooms, with multiple agents: commanders, military lawyers, image analysts, joint terminal attack controllers and ground troops.  But this was not how the system was originally conceived or fielded, and Cullen shows that its transformation depended on the skilled intervention of UAV crews and their commanders who ‘envisioned and used the system as a collaborative network of operators, intelligence analysts, and ground personnel to establish objectives, exchange information, and understand the context of a mission’:

‘RPA [Remotely Piloted Aircraft] operators restructured the ground control station and crew tasks to shift the actions of crewmembers from low status missions of gathering and disseminating data to higher status tasks of integrating and creating information, participating in the assessment of threats, and actively contributing to commanders’ decision-making processes. RPA operators were not satisfied with simple connections to a network of people and tools to accomplish a mission. They sought and fostered social relationships with them and demanded interactive dialog among them in a form they could anticipate, understand, and evaluate’ (Cullen, p. 204).

Second, early Predator operations, not only in the Balkans in the late 1990s but also over southern Iraq and in Afghanistan, were not what would later become known as ‘remote-split operations’.  It was assumed that the Predator had to be operated as close to the combat theatre as possible. This was not only because of the platform’s limited range, important though this is: as I’ve said before, these are not weapons of global reach.  Indeed, it’s still the case that Predators and Reapers have to be physically close to their theatre of operations, which is why the United States has become so alarmed at the implications of a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan for the CIA’s program of targeted killing in Pakistan.  According to David Sanger and Eric Schmitt,

‘Their concern is that the nearest alternative bases are too far away for drones to reach the mountainous territory in Pakistan where the remnants of Al Qaeda’s central command are hiding. Those bases would also be too distant to monitor and respond as quickly as American forces can today if there were a crisis in the region, such as missing nuclear material or weapons in Pakistan and India.’ 

For the ‘no-fly zone’ established over southern Iraq reconnaissance flights were flown by Predators from Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait, and for the initial campaign in Afghanistan from Jacobad in Pakistan, and Cullen explains that the vulnerability of these (‘austere’) sites limited the MPC’s access to secure networks, communications and databases.  But in 2002-3 USAF pilots and sensor operators returning from secondment to – Cullen actually calls it ‘kidnapping’ – ‘other agencies’, which is to say the CIA, successfully argued that the primary execution of remote missions should be consolidated at Nellis Air Force Base and its auxiliary field, Indian Springs (later re-named Creech AFB), in southern Nevada, which would expand and enhance crews’ access to secure intelligence and analysis capabilities.  There would still have to be a forward deployed ‘Launch and Recovery’ element to maintain the aircraft and to control take-off and landing using a line of sight link, but all other mission tasks could be handled from the continental United States using a Ku-band satellite link via a portal at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany.  When remote split operations started in 2003 the MPC disappeared, replaced by a single Mission Intelligence Co-ordinator who was stationed inside the Ground Control Station in constant communication with the pilot and sensor operator and this, in turn, transformed the configuration and equipment inside the GCS.  But, crucially, relations beyond the GCS were also transformed as USAF commanders visited Afghanistan and Iraq and established close relations with ground troops: ‘remote’ and ‘split’ could not imply detachment, and the new technological networks had to be infused with new social interactions for the system to be effective.

Remote-Split Operations (USAF)

Focal to these transformations – and a crucial driver of the process of network construction and transformation – was the decision to arm the Predator and turn it into a ‘hunter-killer’ platform.  At that point, Cullen observes,

‘Predator pilots became decision makers, and Predator’s weapons transformed Predator pilots and sensor operators into war fighters – Predator crews could create effects on the battlefield they could observe, evaluate and adjust… The arming of the Predator was synonymous with the integration of the system – the people, tools and practices of the Predator community – into military operations’ (pp. 245-7).

The reverse was also true: not only was the Predator integrated into the battlespace but, as Cullen notes, the network was ‘infused’ into the Ground Control Station. In consequence, a sensation of what Cullen calls ‘remote presence’ was inculcated amongst UAV crews and, in particular, sensor operators who developed a strong sense of being part of the machinic complex, ‘becoming the camera’ so intimately that they were ‘transported’ above the battlespace.  These transformations were stepped up with the development of the Reaper, reinforced by new practices and by the introduction of a new, profoundly combative discourse that distanced the Reaper from the Predator:

‘[T]o reinforce the power and responsibility of Reaper crews, members of the 42nd Attack Squadron changed the language of their work. Sensor operators did not operate a sensor ball; they flew a “targeting pod” like fighter pilots and weapon system officers. Reaper pilots and sensor operators did not have a “mission intelligence coordinator”; they coordinated strike missions with the support of an “intelligence crewmember.” Reaper crews did not conduct “intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance” missions; they flew “non-traditional” intelligence missions like fighter and bomber crews. Members of the 42nd Attack Squadron used the rhetoric of the fighter community to highlight the strike capabilities of Reaper; to influence the perceptions of Reaper operators; and to shape the priorities, attention, and assertiveness of Reaper crews during a mission’ (p. 264)

The language was performative, but its performative force – the ability to ‘create effects on the battlefield’ – was realised through the developing networks within which and through which it was deployed.

To be continued.

Moving targets

I’ve added a draft of a new essay, ‘Moving targets and violent geographies’, under the DOWNLOADS tab.  It’s a general essay on drones, summarising both their genealogies and geographies, and I would welcome any comments, preferably by e-mail so they don’t get lost in the spam nets: again, this is a draft, so please treat it as such.  I wrote it for a volume of essays in honour of the work of my great friend Allan Pred, though I’ll incorporate a different version in The everywhere war.  This raw draft doesn’t feature any images (despite the references to Figure 1, etc): I’m still trying decide what to include.

You’ll see that it draws on a number of posts on the blog – a large number, now I’ve realised just how how many drone sightings there have been on geographicalimaginations.com! – as well as recent presentations.  I’ve noted before that I find presentations a useful way to prepare for an essay; I treat these visuals as storyboards and, once the essay has been drafted, it’s time to move on to other presentations: reading to an audience from a finalised script seems a waste of time to me.  But I’ve also found those scattered posts immensely helpful too, and I’ve been surprised at the consistent themes that emerged from them once I started to put them together.  This is more than cut-and-paste (or at least I hope so), and there are new arguments in the essay.  Let me know what you think.


Drones are moving targets in all sorts of ways – not only because, as I explain in the essay, they are currently unable to operate in contested  A2/AD (‘anti-access/area denial’) environments, and not even because Boeing has recently converted some of its mothballed F-16 fighter aircraft into target drones (see the image above; there’s a long history of target drones, of course) – but also because advanced militaries are re-evaluating their role and capabilities.

RPA VectorThe Pentagon issued its first integrated ‘UAS roadmap‘ in 2005, a review of all unmanned systems in 2007 and an update in 2011.  The Air Force produced its own ‘UAS Flight Plan‘ in 2009 (see the briefing slides here) and has promised its new ‘RPA [Remotely Piloted Aircraft] Vector’ report in the very near future.

It’s keenly awaited because there are indications that the Air Force is re-thinking its infatuation with Predators and Reapers. The commander of Air Combat Combat, General Mike Hostage, has made it plain that they are ‘useless in a contested environment‘ and so are unlikely to have a prominent place in Obama’s ‘pivot’ to Asia/Pacific.

While you are waiting, you can get a taste of what is to come from this June 2013 briefing by Jeffrey Eggers.

Drones and ‘the world as free-fire zone’

Fred Kaplan has an interesting essay on the history and use of armed drones by the United States at MIT Technology Review: ‘The world as free-fire zone‘ (June 2013).  Kaplan provides a telling critique of Obama’s May statement about the conduct of targeted killings (though that doesn’t of course exhaust what the military uses UAVs for), but his discussion is muddied by what he says about Vietnam – and what he doesn’t.

GREINER War without frontsThe title of the essay invokes a notorious tactic deployed by the United States in South Vietnam: the creation of free-fire, free-strike or what the Air Force called free-bomb zones (the name was changed in 1967  to ‘specified fire zones’ for PR purposes, though what was specified was the zone not the fire).  This is how historian Bernd Greiner summarises the policy in War without fronts: the USA in Vietnam (2007, trans. 2009):

‘License to destroy and annihilate on a large-scale applied unrestrictedly in the so-called “Free Fire Zones”.  Set by the South Vietnamese authorities – either the civil administration or the commanders of an Army corps or division – the US forces operated within them as though outside the law: “Prior to entrance into the area we as soldiers were told all that was left in the area after civilian evacuation were Viet Cong and thus fair game.” Virtually all recollections of the war contain such a statement or something similar, simultaneously referring to the fact that anyone who did not want to be evacuated had forfeited the right to protection, since in the Free Fire Zones the distinction between combatant and non-combatant was a prior lifted.’

Matters were not quite so simple, at least in principle, since (as Nick Turse notes in Kill anything that moves: the real American war in Vietnam (2013)), ‘the “free-fire” label was not quite an unlimited license to kill, since the laws of war still applied in these areas.’  And yet, as both Greiner and Turse show in considerable detail (and I’ll have more to say about this in another post), in practice those laws and the rules of engagement were serially violated.  Whatever the situation in Vietnam, however, it’s surely difficult to extend this – as Kaplan wants to do – to US policy on targeted killings.  Invoking the Authorization for Use of Military Force passed by Congress on 14 September 2001 (as Obama does himself), Kaplan writes:

‘This language is strikingly broad. Nothing is mentioned about geography. The premise is that al-Qaeda and its affiliates threaten U.S. security; so the president can attack its members, regardless of where they happen to be. Taken literally, the resolution turns the world into a free-fire zone‘ (my emphasis).

A couple of years ago Tom Engelhardt also wrote about Obama hardening George W. Bush’s resolve to create a ‘global free-fire zone’.  Kaplan’s criticism of the conditions that the Obama administration now claims restrict counter-terrorism strikes is, I think, fair – though much of what he says derives directly from a draft Department of Justice memorandum dated 8 November 2011 on ‘the use of lethal force in a foreign country outside the area of active hostilities against a U.S. citizen who is a senior operational leader of al-Qa’ida or an associated force’ rather than Obama’s wider speech on counter-terrorism on 23 May 2013 or the ‘fact sheet on policy standards and procedures’ that accompanied it.  But they are closely connected, and Kaplan’s objections have real substance.

First, the Obama administration insists that the threat posed to the United States must be ‘imminent’, yet since the threat is also deemed to be continuing ‘a broader concept of imminence’ is required that effectively neuters the term.

Second, apprehension of the suspect must be unfeasible, yet the constant nature of the threat means that the ‘window of opportunity’ can always be made so narrow that ‘kill’ trumps ‘capture’.

But what of Obama’s third condition: that ‘before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured’?  Kaplan accepts that this is a ‘real restriction’.  Critics of the programme differ on how successful it has been in practice, and supporters like Amitai Etzioni have turned ‘civilian’ into a weasel word that means whatever they want it to mean (which is not very much).  Still, the most authoritative record of casualties – which I take to be the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London – clearly shows that civilian deaths in Pakistan (at least) have fallen considerably from their dismal peak in 2009-10.  Whatever one makes of all this, however, it hardly turns the world into a ‘free-fire zone’.  The war machine will continue to be unleashed outside declared war zones (or what Obama also called ‘areas of active hostilities’, which may or may not mean the same thing), and Obama and his generals will continue to conjure a battlespace that is global in extent.  But if we take the President at his word – and I understand the weight that conditional has to bear – military violence may occur everywhere but not anywhere: ‘We must define our effort not as a boundless “global war on terror” – but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.’

The question is whether we can take the President at his word.  As Glenn Greenwald points out, ‘Obama’s speeches have very little to do with Obama’s actions’.  Tom Junod says much the same about what he continues to call the Lethal Presidency: ‘When a man is as successful in fusing morality and rhetoric as Barack Obama, there’s always a tendency to think that the real man exists in his words, and all he has to do is find a way to live up to them.’  Performativity is not only conditional, as it always is, but in this case also discretionary.

GIBSON The perfect warKaplan also refers to a notorious metric from the Vietnam war: the body-count.  As James Gibson patiently explains in his brilliant critique of The perfect war: technowar in Vietnam (1986), this was one of the central mechanisms in US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s attempt to wage an appropriately Fordist war (he went to the Pentagon from being President of the Ford Motor Company).  The body-count can be traced back to the Korean War, but it came into its own in Vietnam where it was supposed to be the key metric of success – bizarrely, even of productivity – in a ‘war without fronts’ where progress could not be measured by territory gained.  Here too Turse is illuminating on the appalling culture that grew up around it, including the inflation (and even invention) of numbers, the body-count competitions, and the scores and rewards for what today would no doubt be called ‘excellence in killing’.

But what Kaplan has in mind is not quite this, but the central, absurdist assumption that there is a direct relationship between combatants killed and military success:

‘It is worth recalling the many times a drone has reportedly killed a “number 3 leader of al-Qaeda.” There was always some number 4 leader of al-Qaeda standing by to take his place. It’s become a high-tech reprise of the body-count syndrome from the Vietnam War — the illusion that there’s a relationship between the number of enemy killed and the proximity to victory.’

How else can we interpret John Nagl‘s tangled celebration (on Frontline’s ‘Kill/Capture’) of the importance of targeted killing for counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism?

‘We’re getting so good at various electronic means of identifying, tracking, locating members of the insurgency that we’re able to employ this almost industrial-scale counterterrorism killing machine that has been able to pick out and take off the battlefield not just the top level al Qaeda-level insurgents, but also increasingly is being used to target mid-level insurgents.’

Peter Scheer draws a distinction between the two moments in Nagl’s statement that helps clarify what he presumably intended (though Scheer is writing more generally):

‘The logic of warfare and intelligence have flipped, each becoming the mirror image of the other. Warfare has shifted from the scaling of military operations to the selective targeting of individual enemies. Intelligence gathering has shifted from the selective targeting of known threats to wholesale data mining for the purpose of finding hidden threats.’

In other words, the scale of intelligence has become industrial (or more accurately perhaps, post-industrial: see here), far exceeding the scale of intelligence available in Vietnam [though see here for a discussion of the connections between McNamara’s data-driven war and today’s obsession with Big Data, and here and here for an outline of the ‘security-industrial complex’], whereas the scale of killing has clearly contracted from what most certainly was industrial-scale killing in Vietnam.   Yet the networked connections between the two reveal the instantiation of the same driving logic of technowar in a radically new ‘war without fronts’.

For all these intimation of Vietnam, however, the genealogy of the drone with which Kaplan begins his essay is resolutely post-Vietnam (or at any rate outside it).  And this, I think, is a mistake.

Technological history is shot through with multiple sources of inspiration and no end of false starts, and usually has little difficulty in assembling a cast of pioneers, precursors and parallels, so I’m not trying to locate a primary origin.  Ian Shaw‘s account of the rise of the Predator (more from J.P. Santiago here) homes in on the work of Israeli engineer Abraham Karem, who built his first light-weight, radio-controlled ‘Albatross’ (sic) in his garage in Los Angeles in 1981.

Karem's Albatross (Chad Slattery)

He may have built the thing in his garage, but Karem was no hobbyist; he was a former engineering officer in the Israeli Air Force who had worked for Israel Aircraft Industries, and by 1971 he had set up his own company to design UAVs.  Neither the Israeli government nor the Israeli Air Force was interested, so Karem emigrated to the United States.  The Albatross was swiftly followed by the Amber, which was also radio-controlled, and by 1988 with DARPA seed-funding Karem’s prototype was capable of remaining aloft at several thousand feet for 40 hours or more. But fitting hi-tech sensor systems into such a small, light aircraft proved difficult and both the US Navy and the Army balked at the project.  Karem set about developing a bigger, heavier and in many ways less advanced version for a putative export market: the GNAT-750.


This was a desperate commercial strategy that didn’t save Karem’s company, Leading Systems Inc., from bankruptcy.  But it was a sound technical strategy.  In 1990 General Atomics bought the company and the development team, and when the CIA was tasked with monitoring the rapidly changing situation in the Balkans it purchased two GNAT-750s (above) for the job.  They were modified to allow for remote control via a satellite link (the first reconnaissance missions over Bosnia in 1995 were managed by the Air Force and controlled from Albania): the new aircraft was re-named the Predator.

It’s a good story – and you can find a much more detailed account by Richard Whittle in ‘The man who invented the Predator’ at Air & Space Magazine (April 2013) here – but in this form it leaves out much of the political in-fighting.  The second part of Ian’s narrative turns to the role of the Predator in the development of the CIA’s counter-terrorism campaign, and while he notes the enlistment of the US Air Force – ‘ultimately, the CIA arranged for Air Force teams trained by the Eleventh Reconnaissance Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base [Indian Springs, now Creech AFB] to operate the agency’s clandestine drones’ – he doesn’t dwell on the ‘arranging’ or the attitude of the USAF to aircraft without pilots on board.

Kaplan does, and his story starts earlier and elsewhere:

‘The drone as we know it today was the brainchild of John Stuart Foster Jr., a nuclear physicist, former head of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (then called the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory), and — in 1971, when the idea occurred to him — the director of defense research and engineering, the top scientific post in the Pentagon.’

Foster was a hobbyist – he loved making model aircraft – and thought it ought to be possible to capitalise on his passion: ‘take an unmanned, remote-controlled airplane, strap a camera to its belly, and fly it over enemy targets to snap pictures or shoot film; if possible, load it with a bomb and destroy the targets, too.’  Two years later DARPA had overseen the production of two prototypes, Praeire [from the Latin, meaning both precede and dictate] and Caler [I have no idea], which were capable of staying aloft for 2 hours carrying a 28 lb payload.  At more or less the same time, the Pentagon commissioned a study from Albert Wohlstetter, a former RAND strategist, to identify new technologies that would enable the US to respond to a Soviet invasion of Western Europe without pressing the nuclear button. ‘Wohlstetter proposed putting the munitions on Foster’s pilotless planes and using them to hit targets deep behind enemy lines, Kaplan explains, ‘Soviet tank echelons, air bases, ports.’  By the end of the decade the Pentagon was testing ‘Assault Breaker’ and according to Kaplan ‘something close to Foster’s vision finally materialized in the mid-1990s, during NATO’s air war over the Balkans, with an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) called the Predator.’

But the use of the mid-altitude, long-endurance (‘MALE’ – really) drones remained largely the preserve of the CIA because the senior officer corps of the Air Force was hostile to their incorporation:

‘All this changed in 2006, when Bush named Robert Gates to replace Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense. Gates came into the Pentagon with one goal: to clean up the mess in Iraq… He was particularly appalled by the Air Force generals’ hostility toward drones. Gates boosted production; the generals slowed down delivery. He accelerated delivery; they held up deployment. He fired the Air Force chief of staff, General T. Michael Moseley (ostensibly for some other act of malfeasance but really because of his resistance to UAVs), and appointed in his place General Norton Schwartz, who had risen as a gunship and cargo-transport pilot in special operations forces… and over the next few years, he turned the drone-joystick pilots into an elite cadre of the Air Force.’

These are both important narratives, which help to delineate multiple lines of descent, but my own inclination is to push the story back and to move it outside the North Atlantic.  It’s not difficult to find precedents for UAVs around the time of the First World War – I’ve discussed some of them here – and towards the end of the Second World War America attempted to develop remote-controlled bombers to use against Germany (see ‘Project Aphrodite’ here and here).  But if we focus less on the object – the aircraft – and more on its dispositions and the practices mobilised through the network in which it is embedded (as Kaplan’s references to ‘free-fire zones’ and ‘body counts’ imply) then I think here Vietnam is the place to look.  For as I’ve argued in ‘Lines of descent’ (DOWNLOADS tab), not only did the Air Force experiment with surveillance drones over North Vietnam, as Ian briefly notes in his own account, but the US military developed a version of ‘pattern of life analysis’ and a sensor-shooter system that would prove to be indispensable to today’s remote operations.  Seen like this, they confirm that we are witnessing a new phase of technowar in exactly the sense that Gibson used the term: except that now it has been transformed into post-Fordist war and, to paraphrase David Harvey, ‘flexible annihilation’.

The politics of drone wars

I’m in the UK this week for – amongst other things – a seminar with Pete Adey, Sara Fregonese and some of the Geopolitics and Security students at Royal Holloway on my bombing project, Killing space; a workshop at Open Democracy for a new series on Cities in Conflict to be curated by Tom Cowan; and a lecture at Nottingham organised by Steve Legg: another outing for “Deadly Embrace”.

At the RHUL meeting the conversation frequently turned to drones; Pete made an audio recording of it, and I think at least part of what we discussed will appear on the Theory, culture & society website in the near future.  But I’d like to try to set out some of my own puzzlements and positions about the politics of drones here.

There are many ways in which individuals can take a stand against war, and there is a long and principled tradition of conscientious objection that includes pacifists in two World Wars through young Americans who resisted the draft in the 1960s and 70s to high school students in Israel who refuse to serve in the army of occupation.  In recent times most popular mobilisations against war have been against particular wars – I’m thinking of the demonstrations against the wars in S.E. Asia in the 60s and 70s, for example, or the millions of people who took to the streets to express their opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 – or against particular objects of violence: campaigns to ban land mines or cluster munitions, for example.  To me, the most effective political response to the use of Predators, Reapers and other UAVs in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere is to move between the two: to use the drone to draw publics into an apprehension of the wider fields of military violence in which they are deployed.

Global Hawk imagery of aftermath of Haiti earthquakeI think it is a mistake to focus on the object itself because, like all objects, a drone is highly unstable: it’s not a fixed, determinate ‘thing’ but its capacities and dispositions depend on the network or assemblage in which it is embedded. To see what I mean, begin by stripping the bombs and the missiles from these platforms: at present most drones are used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), and these capabilities extend far beyond the domain of offensive operations and even beyond those of the military.  In 2010 US Southern Command used a Global Hawk to provide detailed imagery of the damage caused by the Haiti earthquake (above) and the following year another Global Hawk was deployed to assess the damage to the Fukishima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan; other, smaller and far less sophisticated drones have been used to monitor wildfires in California and to track and disrupt Japanese whaling fleets, while a series of other, broadly ecological-humanitarian projects have been proposed with varying degrees of plausibility.  I don’t rehearse these other possibilities to minimise the military and paramilitary uses of the technology – and we surely know, not least from Nick Turse‘s account in The Complex, that the military and the civilian have become ever more hopelessly entangled with one another – and neither am I indifferent to the blurring of military power and NGO relief operations in the humanitarian present,  but we need to acknowledge, to paraphrase Clive Barnett, that not all ISR operations are sinister: ‘presumptively illegitimate, undemocratic or suspect‘.

Dwell Detect Destroy drone ad

Hellfire missile launch (USAF)This is why Drone Wars UK focuses on ‘armed drones’ and Drones Watch on ‘killer drones’.  It’s clear that militarised ISR is part of a continued ‘rush to the intimate’ that is profoundly invasive and, on many occasions, extraordinarily violent. In Afghanistan the US military embeds its UAVs in a networked kill-chain in which their near real-time, high-resolution, full-motion video feeds are routinely used to call in attacks from conventional strike aircraft.  So let’s now put the bombs and missiles back on these platforms, since the Predators and Reapers are usually armed and their manufacturers boast about their capacity to compress the kill-chain: to ‘dwell, detect [and] destroy’. But it then makes no sense to object to the strikes carried out directly from them and to exempt those carried out by conventional means across the network: what is the difference between a Hellfire missile launched from a Reaper and one fired from an Apache helicopter gunship?  (To put this in perspective, according to the most recent airpower summary, USAF Predators and Reapers directly accounted for just 5-6 per cent of its ‘weapons releases’ in Afghanistan in 2009, 2010, and 2011, though the proportion climbed to 9.25 per cent in the first ten months of 2012).

Medea BENJAMIN Drone WarfareTo answer that question critics usually cite the horror of death at a distance.  This is death from thousands of miles away, conducted by operators in the continental United States: ‘killing by remote control’.  And yet there are countless other ways in which militaries have been killing from ever increasing distances ever since the invention of the slingshot and the longbow. If you insist that it is wrong to kill somebody from 7,500 miles away, then over what distance do you think it is acceptable?  If you are determined to absolutize distance in this way, then don’t you need to consider all the other ways in which advanced militaries are able to kill their adversaries (and civilians) without ever seeing them? Again, I don’t raise the spectre of Cruise missiles launched from ships hundreds of miles from their targets, the US ‘Prompt Global Strike’ capability and its Advanced Hypersonic Weapon which is ultimately  intended to hit a target anywhere on the planet in under an hour, or the prospect of ‘frictionless’ cyberwarfare, to minimise the deaths caused by drones.  I simply want our politics to apprehend the larger field of military violence in which they are deployed.

And there is something different about those deaths that draws us back into the killing fields.  I should say at once that I don’t think this is simply war reduced to a video-game – and in any case there are many other military technologies that also depend on hand-eye co-ordination, multi-tasking and spatial acuity, all skill-sets valorized by video-games – but I also think it a mistake to assume that the screen effectively insulates the viewer from the victim.  In this sense there is a parallel between the platforms, because video-games are profoundly immersive, and those who call in or carry out these strikes insist that they are not 7,500 miles from their targets at all (and Launch & Recovery crews are much closer than that) but ‘eighteen inches away’: the distance from eye to screen.  It’s a highly selective process of compression; as I’ve shown in detail in Lines of descent (DOWNLOADS tab), those involved in the remote kill-chain typically feel remarkably close to their own troops on the ground and remain distant from the life-worlds of the population at large (which in part accounts for the civilian casualties when drones are used to provide close air support).  But unlike most other forms of distant death and destruction, the pilots, sensor operators and others who are networked into these kill-chains can see their targets up close – even if their ‘seeing’ is techno-culturally conditioned and often predisposes them to treat innocent actions as hostile intentions – and they typically remain on station to carry out a ‘bomb damage assessment’ and so see for themselves, often in hideous detail, what they have done.

Flying an MQ-9 Reaper over Kandahar, Afghanistan

The most consequential change is that these new modes of air power deal not in the area bombing of cities like Cologne, Hamburg or Dresden, or the blind bombing of target boxes over the rainforests of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, but – in addition to close air support – in the calculated assassination of individuals or groups: so-called ‘targeted killing‘ or what the USAF calls putting ‘warheads on foreheads‘.  This does not mean that the firebombing of cities in the Second World War should become the moral standard against which we judge contemporary military violence. On the contrary, targeted killing raises its own grave legal and ethical questions – and, not incidentally, those video feeds have given military lawyers a pivotal role in these newly networked strikes – that in turn activate two other no less serious concerns about the emergent geographies of fields of military violence.

First is the fear that the use of remote platforms lowers the threshold at which military violence will be launched.  Predators and Reapers are much cheaper than conventional strike aircraft, and if there are no troops on the ground, there are no body bags to come home.  In short, drone war threatens to become risk-transfer war hypostatised; the risk is transferred wholly to the adversary population.  But at present these platforms have high failure rates – they are vulnerable to weather conditions (and I don’t mean hurricanes and monsoons, I mean clouds), they crash all too frequently and they are so slow and noisy that they can easily be shot down so they can only be used in uncontested airspace.  These limitations mean that, at present at any rate, they are less likely to incite conventional state-on-state war – though there is certainly a global arms race to acquire and develop far more advanced drone technologies.

Second and closely connected is the fear that they make it much easier to engage in war by stealth.  If one of the primary foreign policy challenges of the last Bush administration was ‘conducting war in countries we are not at war with‘, Obama’s version is the determination to wage what Martin Libicki calls ‘non-obvious warfare’: hence the Obama administration’s preference for remote operations, Special Forces and cyber-attacks.  To be sure, there are degrees of obviousness: the drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere are hardly covert – since they are hidden in plain sight – but they are, within limits, more deniable than the deployment of thousands of ground troops and so inherently less accountable to the various publics involved in them.  And in all these cases Predators and Reapers dramatically heighten the asymmetry involved in military and paramilitary operations against non-state actors, where they have made a policy of ‘kill’ rather than ‘capture’ a much more tempting (and much more pernicious) US counter-terrorism strategy.

More to come.