Drones and Spies

Drones and Spies

Drones and Spies

Science, technology, and life.
Feb. 24 2009 11:12 AM

Drones and Spies

How are humans and unmanned vehicles getting along in our experimental robot proxy war in Pakistan? Pretty well. Yesterday's New York Times revealed more about collaborations between U.S. drones and Pakistani ground forces. A few highlights:

1. Pakistanis on the ground are spotting targets for the drones.

William Saletan William Saletan

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


"The intelligence sharing has really improved in the past few months," said Talat Masood, a retired army general. ... Intelligence from Pakistani informants has been used to bolster the accuracy of missile strikes from remotely piloted Predator and Reaper aircraft against the militants in the tribal areas, officials from both countries say. More than 30 attacks by the aircraft have been conducted since last August, most of them after President Zardari took office in September. A senior American military official said that 9 of 20 senior Qaeda and Taliban commanders in Pakistan had been killed by those strikes.

2. The drones are tracking targets for Pakistanis on the ground.

The C.I.A. helped [Pakistani] commandos track the Saudi militant linked to Al Qaeda, Zabi al-Taifi, for more than a week before the Pakistani forces surrounded his safe house in the Khyber Agency. The Pakistanis seized him, along with seven Pakistani and Afghan insurgents, in a dawn raid on Jan. 22, with a remotely piloted C.I.A. plane hovering overhead and personnel from the C.I.A. and Pakistan's main spy service closely monitoring the mission, a senior Pakistani officer involved in the operation said.

3. Pakistan is tracking the drones. Its agents know their whereabouts in real time.

In addition, a small team of Pakistani air defense controllers working in the United States Embassy in Islamabad ensures that Pakistani F-16 fighter-bombers conducting missions against militants in the tribal areas do not mistakenly hit remotely piloted American aircraft flying in the same area or a small number of C.I.A. operatives on the ground, a second senior Pakistani officer said.

4. Reliance on drones is protecting American but not Pakistani troops. This is the chief strategic problem exposed by the war. We can hit the enemy from an unmanned aerial vehicle with impunity. But the enemy can retaliate against our ally on the ground, thereby putting pressure on the alliance. According to the Times , "Pakistani Army officers say the American strikes draw retaliation against Pakistani troops in the tribal areas, whose convoys and bases are bombed or attacked with rockets after each United States missile strike."

Human Nature's interest in the Pakistan conflict is all about its experimental lessons in unmanned warfare. Toward that end, two of the key factors to watch are 1) the ability of manned and unmanned forces to work together and 2) the enemy's ability to punish manned forces for damage inflicted by unmanned forces. We'll keep watching both.