The classified situation report from the "RC East" region in eastern Afghanistan at first reads like a routine transcript: "Oct. 17, 2009: At approximately 1300 ANA (Afghan National Army) received intelligence that approximately 20 insurgents were moving south of their position in the wadi (dried-out river bed). At approximately 1400 the Raven was launched, and flew directly to FB. We observed no enemy in the wadi." But problems were then experienced with the flight of the Raven, a US military reconnaissance drone. "While making the U turn, approximately 300M from FB (Fire Base) -- the bird suddenly lost altitude and crashed," the report states.
Then the situation grew hectic: "Immediately we attempted to secure a dismounted patrol from FB to secure the bird, and prepared a patrol of 6 US (soldiers) 40 ANA (Afghan soldiers) ... and requested immediate CCA (air cover) to over watch the crash site and try to get eyes on the raven. While preparing to SP (conduct a search patrol) the ANA got cold feet and decided they did not want to do the dismounted patrol."
In the end the soldiers did set out to search for the crashed drone, but they had to turn back because insurgents were reportedy already waiting for the opportunity to ambush the soldiers as they attempted to salvage the drone.
System Failures, Computer Glitches and Human Error
Indeed, the secret memos reveal the drawbacks of a weapon that has been lauded by the US military as a panacea, a view shared by the president. In his short time in office, Barack Obama has unleashed double the number of drone missions ordered by his seemingly trigger-happy predecessor, George W. Bush.
The unmanned assassin can fly for more than 20 hours and kill at lightning speed. But they are not always reliable. According to official reports, 38 Predator and Reaper drones have crashed while on combat missions in both Afghanistan and Iraq, while a further nine have crashed during test flights on military bases in the US. Each crash costs the government between $3.7 million (2.8 million) and $5 million.
The US Department of Defense accident reports show that system failures, computer glitches and human errors are common occurrences during drone missions. It seems that serious problems were ignored because of the need for the drones to be deployed as quickly as possible. The new weapon was urgently in demand following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and the hasty start of the invasion of Afghanistan.
"The drones were not ready for going into combat," says Travis Burdine, manager of the Air Force Unmanned Aircraft Systems Task Force. "We had no time to iron out the problems." Burdine's statement is backed up by reports in the war logs. Indeed, the quiet killers seem to have a lot of defects.
It is not just the costs incurred by these crashes that worry the US military. Even the smaller reconnaissance drones are packed with complicated computer technology -- advances the military doesn't want to fall into enemy hands. Both Reapers and Predators have a so-called "zero out" function, which allows data to be deleted remotely. Unfortunately, this feature sometimes fails. And out of fear that important information could fall into the hands of the Taliban, each drone crash necessitates elaborate -- and dangerous -- salvage operations.
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