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Drones are here to operate

By Imtiaz Gul

Weekly Pulse April 23, 2009

The US Army is building nearly $4 billion worth of military bases and other facilities in Afghanistan and is planning to start projects costing an additional $1.3 billion in projects this year. That is definitely indicative of a long-term commitment for the US military to stay in the country.

The US and NATO forces are also preparing for a long-term engagement in Pakistan. A number of assessment missions – including the one for setting up of the US auditor general for overseeing the proposed US aid to Pakistan - ahead of the Kerry-Lugar Pakistan Aid bill promising 1.5 billion dollars a year provide clear indicators for the new-found focus on Pakistan. With dozens of US aid consultants already in Islamabad and scores of them settled in Peshawar, gearing up to take care of projects, the rush for house rental has also picked up.

The news of greater western and US engagement with Pakistan also coincided with Defence Secretary Robert M. Gates going on record, sharply lowering expectations for the war in Afghanistan and warning that the conflict will be "a long slog" and that US and allied military forces could achieve limited goal. On April 7, Gates sought funds for 50 additional unmanned aircraft, same as those used against suspected terrorist targets in
Pakistan’s tribal areas.

While submitting the Pentagon’s 2010 budget to the US Congress, Gates announced an extra $2 billion for intelligence and surveillance equipment, including more spending on special forcers units and 50 new Predator and Reaper drones that are currently used in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq. “This capability, which has been in such high demand in both Iraq and Afghanistan, will now be permanently funded in the base budget,’ he said.
A new report by Paul Rogers ( www.opendemocracy.org), a professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England, on the sources of violent death in Iraq is relevant to an assessment of the changing nature of the air-war over Pakistan. ( April 20, 2009). It also deals in detail with the issue of drones – pilotless aircraft.
“The present reality of these "drone" deployments is that United States forces are flying large and heavily armed aircraft over Pakistan for virtually every hour of every day, frequently accompanied by actual attacks. These air-raids have killed hundreds of people, many of them civilians and including scores of women and children,” Rogers writes. The size and power of the weapons being used, the rapid increase in their use, and the impact

in terms of civilian casualties. If a so-called "Al-Qaida Central" is genuinely trying to target countries such as Britain - a claim that has arisen from the detention of twelve
people at seven addresses in northwest England on 8 April 2009, though without any firm evidence so far - then a possible motivation for new recruits to the movement is readily at hand in western Pakistan.”

While pointing out the civilian deaths caused by the continuous rain of Hellfire missiles fired off pilotless planes, Rogers said that “the weapon of choice for United States forces was until recently the Predator, manufactured by General Atomics. The much larger and more powerful MQ-9 Reaper is now becoming their favourite. The Reaper's turboprop engine is nearly eight times as powerful as the Predator; it carries fifteen times the weapons load and yet travels three times more quickly.”

A recent version of the Reaper has a wingspan of over twenty-five metres (about the same as a Boeing 737 passenger-jet), and can carry sufficient fuel to stay airborne for thirty-four hours. If fitted with two drop-tanks and 300 kilograms of weapons, it can fly a forty-two-hour sortie; as pilot fatigue is not an issue, shifts of operators can be used to sustain this length of time in the air.

These aircraft, which have been scaring quite a few in Waziristan, Bajaur and of late in Swat, are operated remotely, often by CIA technicians at bases in the United States can easily carry a range of weapons on a par with a conventional strike aircraft, which include Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, Paveway laser-guided bombs or GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs).

According to Paul Rogers, quoting a former chief-of-staff of the United States air force (Usaf), General T Michael Moseley, the US air force has moved from using UAVs primarily in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance roles before Operation Iraqi Freedom, to a true hunter role with the Reaper." An even better indication of its growing role is that in 2008 the New York Air National Guard 174th fighter wing began to make the change from flying F-16 strike aircraft to "flying" Reapers.

“A recent customer for the Reaper is Britain's Royal Air Force, which has deployed the aircraft in Afghanistan since autumn 2007. Its initial deployment was an unarmed reconnaissance vehicle, but the armed variant is now in use. The ministry of defence (MoD) acknowledges the MQ-9's "[complementary] mission" to be "a persistent
hunter-killer against emerging targets to achieve joint force commander objectives." The MoD has, however, been notably reticent about publicizing actual cases where the Predator has engaged in combat, or about any casualties resulting from this,” Rogers wrote.Britain may not be involved in any of the air-raids across the Afghan border
into Pakistan, but the country is widely seen as the United States's closest ally. If "al-Qaida central" does exist and does see an opportunity to undertake operations in Britain, it could well see the changing nature of the war in western Pakistan - including the many civilians being killed each month in air-raids - as fuel and succour in its effort,” Rogers concluded, indicating that Pakistani concerns on Reaper operations in the border and
adjacent areas are likely to remain a source of friction between Pakistan and the US-led coalition forces. As long as the Coalition leaders believe they have legitimate targets inside Pakistani territory, they would keep deploying Reapers. And to offset the human losses and balm the bruised egos of Pakistani people, they would keep doling out handouts as a means of appeasement. But whether money alone would extinguish the simmering national sentiment, also wrapped in the Islamic ethos, is an altogether different issue. ends


(The author heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad.

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk