Terminator 2: Attack of the Drones

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Sept. 15 2008 8:13 AM

Terminator 2: Attack of the Drones

Speaking of Terminators : The drone war over Pakistan is escalating.

Boom. Sept. 4 : Seven people killed in a strike on Chaar Kehl, near the Afghan border.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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Boom. Sept. 5 : Six to 12 more killed in a hit on Al Must.

Boom. Sept. 8 : 23 dead and at least 18 wounded in a five-missile barrage on Daande Darpkhel.

Boom. Sept. 12 : Twelve more dead in an attack on Tole Khel.

That's about 50 fatalities in four strikes in a single week, all at the hands of unmanned vehicles. An impressive warning from the bloodless killers of tomorrow . Even before the hit on Tole Khel, the Washington Post reported, "The number of Hellfire missile attacks by Predators in Pakistan has more than tripled , with 11 strikes reported by Pakistani officials this year compared with three in 2007." According to the Wall Street Journal , "One official in Afghanistan estimated that drone usage in Pakistan has doubled since the summer, and he said missiles are now being fired at Pakistani targets virtually every day ."

Why the increase? Media reports from the ground and military sources indicate several factors: 1) Pakistan isn't really helping, so we've taken the killing into our own hands. 2) We don't want to literally use our own hands, since our ground forces might be captured . So, where possible, we're using drones instead. 3) Drone attacks cause less friction with Pakistan than ground incursions do , since U.S. personnel are never at the scene . 4) We're sick of our troops being picked off in Afghanistan, so we're using drones to even the score . 5) We're relying more on drones to spy in Pakistan because we've failed to develop informants on the ground . 6) Or maybe we're getting better ground intelligence, which is giving us more hot targets to shoot at.

The most intriguing factor, however, seems to be an upgrade in drone technology. In Friday's Los Angeles Times , Greg Miller and Julian Barnes report that Predator drones "above the tribal belt along Afghanistan's eastern border" are now "equipped with sophisticated new surveillance systems." The new systems permit

the tracking of human targets even when they are inside buildings or otherwise hidden from Predator surveillance cameras. Equally important, officials said, the systems have significantly speeded up decisions on when to strike. The technology gives remote pilots a means beyond images from the Predator's lens of confirming a target's identity and precise location. ... The technology allows suspects to be identified quickly. "All I have to do is point the sensor at him," said a military officer familiar with the system, "and a missile can be off the rail in seconds." The devices are roughly the size of an automobile battery, but are heavy enough that outfitted Predators in some cases carry only one Hellfire missile instead of two.

Tracking invisible targets? Nonvisual identification? Miller and Barnes don't explain how the system works. All they disclose is that it "was developed as part of a special project within the CIA's Directorate of Science and Technology." But if U.S. drone managers are willing to shed 50 percent of their missiles to make room for these target trackers, they must be pretty valuable.

The arrival of these devices in Afghanistan is only half the story. The other half is where they're coming from. They've been "instrumental in crippling the insurgency in Iraq," according to Miller and Barnes:

A military official familiar with the systems said they had a profound effect, both militarily and psychologically, on the Sunni Arab insurgency in Iraq. "It is like they are living with a red dot on their head," said a former U.S. military official familiar with the technology who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity because it has been secret. ... Officials said introduction of the devices coincided with the 2007 U.S. troop buildup in Iraq, and was an important, but hitherto unknown, factor in the subsequent drop in violence in that country.

How much of the credit we've given to the troop surge in Iraq actually belongs to these devices? Are they working some similar magic now in Afghanistan and Pakistan? And, if so, what the heck are they? I don't know, and the U.S. government doesn't want to tell us, but I'll keep looking for answers with my primitive human eyes. In the meantime, if you've got any good intel on them, let's hear it .