Game of Drones

An employee of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency crashed a DJI Phantom 1 into the lawn of the White House about 3:00 a.m. Monday, January 26th.  Alcohol may have been involved.  The mangled wreck was all that remained of the $479 drone, save for the panic it created among Secret Service personnel charged with guarding the President.  Of course, the wisdom of flying under the influence is questionable at best, but the more important issue is where the drone crashed.  In the ensuing days much has been made about the vulnerability of the White House and other government buildings to drone attacks. [1]

Infamous DJI Phantom I After Abrupt Flight Termination on White House Lawn

Infamous DJI Phantom I After Abrupt Flight Termination on White House Lawn

While the capability of the downed drone was limited, the US military has a fleet of deadly killing-machines that are deployed through Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and other countries for both surveillance as well as combat.  Instead of drones, we should refer to them as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).  The UAVs used by the military and CIA have little in common with the infamous DJI Phantom 1, save for remote control joystick.

Military Drones 101

Television doesn’t do them justice.  Photographs often make them appear as big toys or something from a sci-fi movie.  Let me disabuse you of those ideas; military drones are deadly killing machines.  Television news describes the outcome of drone attacks in euphemistic terms, elimination of potential hostiles, but fails to convey the details of what is fast becoming the primary weapon of war for the US.

Military drones were first developed by Englishman Archibald M. Low in 1917 as remotely controlled aircrafts that could be used as guided missiles.  Such remotely controlled weapons bear little resemblance to UAVs of today.  Military use of UAVs was born in the early 1960s and the Cold War, and today there are three programs within the US government that use offensive UAVs – the military, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), and the CIA.  [2]

MQ-1 Predator UAV

MQ-1 Predator UAV

Two varieties of drones used in offensive action.  The Predator, MQ-1 was introduced in the mid-1990s.  But predators are now being replaced by the more powerful and sophisticated MQ-9, Reaper.  Both have been used in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq, Libya, Serbia, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.  The launch, recovery, and maintenance of offensive UAVs is conducted at a site far removed from their pilots and command control operations.  Using satellites and fiber optic cable, a drone launched from Masirah Island, off the coast of Oman, can be controlled by pilots at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.  This means that only about 60 people are required at a site near the field of engagement to launch, recover, and maintain the drones.  About 45 people are required at command and control centers to pilot the drone, but they can be located a safe distance away.  An additional 80 or so people are required to manage the data and satellite link. It is also possible to deploy the entire drone package, including the drone, disassembled into six main components, the ground control station, and all support equipment, by military transport to remote launch sites by both ground and air.

Given the limited range of our offensive UAVs, they must be deployed relatively near their targets.  Unlike the well-known B-2 Stealth bomber with a range of over 6,000 miles (11,000 km), Reaper drones have a range of slightly over 1,150 miles (1,852 km) and Predators have even less.    While many missions are controlled from Air Force bases in Nevada or CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, drones can be piloted from a ground control station approximately the size of a large shipping container located almost anywhere in the world.

MQ-9 Reaper UAV Fully Armed with 4 Hellfire Missiles and 2 Laser Guided 500 lb Bombs

MQ-9 Reaper UAV Fully Armed with 4 Hellfire Missiles and 2 Laser Guided 500 lb Bombs

We have all seen images of drone pilots sitting in front of multiple monitors displaying images from  drones in real time.  As in the television show Homeland, there is a darkened room in Nevada where people are watching the drone cameras and making decisions to launch missiles on unsuspecting targets.  Just 1.2 seconds after the launch button is pressed in Nevada, a Hellfire missile is launched from a drone over the Waziristan region of Pakistan.

The armament of choice is the Hellfire missile.  It is a 106 lb (48kg) air to ground missile carrying a 20 lb (9kg) warhead fired from a Predator or Reaper drone and has a range of 5 miles (8km).  The particular variety of Hellfire missile that is the weapon of choice in our War on Terror in the Middle East is the AGM-114N, a particularly vicious weapon.  It is has a thermobaric blast fragmentation warhead that is exceedingly destructive in confined spaces.  A thermobaric weapon uses atmospheric oxygen to generate an intense, high-temperature explosion and concomitant blast wave.  Thermobaric weapons pack considerably more explosive power than conventional weapons.  Gunpowder, for example, contains 25% explosive and 75% oxidizer.  Since thermobaric weapons rely on atmospheric oxygen as an oxidizer they are almost 100% explosive.

AGM-114N, Hellfire Missile

AGM-114N, Hellfire Missile

Euphemistically referred to as an “enhanced blast weapon,” the Hellfire N has a warhead packed with fluorinated aluminum powder surrounding a small charge.  When it hits its target, the charge disperses the aluminum powder throughout the target building or structure. The cloud then ignites, causing a massive secondary blast in an enclosed space.  The blast creates a vacuum, drawing air and debris back into the closed space, creating intense pressure. The more heavily the structure is protected, the more concentrated the blast.  The effect of the blast is 12 to 16 times more destructive than conventional high explosives against targets with large surface areas, such as frame buildings, bunkers, and vehicle shelters. The thermobaric Hellfire is “capable of reaching around corners to strike enemy forces hiding in caves, bunkers and hardened multi-room complexes”. [3]

Individuals near the ignition point are obliterated.  Those at the fringe likely suffer internal injuries, including burst eardrums and crushed inner ears, severe concussions, ruptured lungs and internal organs, and possible blindness.”  The antipersonnel effect of the blast wave is more severe in foxholes, on people with body armor, and in enclosed spaces such as caves, buildings, and bunkers.

Blast survivors can suffer from bowel perforation, ruptured liver or spleen, myocardial infarction from an air embolism, shock, renal laceration, acute renal failure and hypotension. Up to 10% of all blast survivors have significant eye injuries. Perforation of the tympanic membrane is the most common injury to the middle ear.  “Blast lung” is a direct consequence of the over-pressurization wave, and is the most common fatal primary blast injury among initial survivors.  Gas-containing sections of the GI tract are most vulnerable to primary blast effect. This can cause immediate bowel perforation, hemorrhage, mesenteric shear injuries, solid organ lacerations, and testicular rupture.  Primary blast waves can cause concussions or mild traumatic brain injury (MTBI) without a direct blow to the head.[4]  Perhaps most disturbing, another Defense Intelligence Agency document speculates that because the “shock and pressure waves cause minimal damage to brain tissue…it is possible that victims are not rendered unconscious by the blast, but instead suffer for several seconds or minutes while they suffocate.” [5]


How Many and How Much?

How many drones does the US have?  Best estimates for the numbers of offensive drones deployed overseas is less than a thousand total for the Army, Special Operations (JSOC), and the CIA.  Predator drones are no longer being produced and have been replaced by the more lethal Reaper, but the Predator continues to be a “useful” weapon and will likely be used far into the future.  Of course, the drone industry is moving rapidly to develop more sophisticated, faster, and more lethal weapons and satisfy the perceived need of our Administration for these types of weapons.  In meeting the need, they reap the financial rewards.

When compared to the standard US fighter jet of the 21st century, the F-22 (Raptor) costs $150M (total cost of 187 aircraft – $66.7B), drones are a bargain.  The base model Reaper MQ-9 UAV will set you back a paltry $15.6M and fully armed with four Hellfire missiles ($100k each) and two 500 lb laser guided bombs ($24K each) the drive out (or fly off) price is $16M.  And after a successful mission, a complete tune up and maintenance is less than $1M, so the destruction of mud huts in northern Waziristan is a bargain by government standards.

For most of us, the scale of spending by the US government is almost impossible to comprehend.  To put our drone warfare program into perspective see the following Table.

US Budget 2015

US Budget 2015

We spend more on Reaper drones alone than for the Departments of Labor, Commerce, Interior, the Corps of Engineers, the National Science Foundation, the Small Business Administration, the Social Security Administration, the National and Community Service Program, and the Environmental Protection Agency.  Imagine what adding over $12 billion dollars to any or all of these governmental agencies could do for the productivity, health, and well-being of the nation.  Rest assured, if the drone program were eliminated tomorrow, the Department of Defense would find some other way to spend the money.

The Inhumanity of Drones

Imagine that you are sitting outside on your porch, deck, or under a tree enjoying the afternoon.  Overhead you hear the engine of a small airplane.  You look up but you can’t see the airplane.  Imagine that the sound continues for several hours, or even an entire day.  The next day the same thing happens and still no airplane is visible.  This continues intermittently for the next month. One day a truck is driving down the road in front of your house, and without warning it explodes.  What has happened is an attack from a Predator or Reaper UAV.  Every time you hear the sound of a circling airplane it could mean another attack.  Such logic will, in all likelihood, dictate that to take cover at the sound of the airplane is a prudent course of action.  Unfortunately, the sound of the aircraft does not always predict an attack.  From the perspective of a potential target, the sound of the UAV is guaranteed to induce a strong response to avoid being killed.

Drone warfare has raised serious moral and ethical questions.  Consider for a moment the difference between warfare and murder.  Warfare is vicious and unrelenting conflict between combatants.  Murder is killing another human being under specific legal definitions.  The question arises whether the launching of missiles against unknown or ill-defined combatants is an act of war, or is it murder.  Since the victims have no way to fight back and often are killed before they know they are targeted, is this really warfare?

Almost 2,500 people have been killed in drone strikes outside the US’s war zone since President Obama took office.  In the 456 confirmed strikes, at least 314 civilians were killed. [6]  While these data are the best available to the public, they are likely underestimates of the civilian casualties, since the Administration considers all military-age males [killed] in a strike zone to be combatants … unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent. [7]

The unprecedented use of drones has created a tsunami of anti-American sentiment throughout the Middle East.  In Washington, the drone has become the weapon of choice.  Supposedly capable of surgical precision and pinpoint accuracy, Americans are not told of the drone’s inaccuracy, loss of life by innocent civilians, and damage to property caused by misguided or poorly informed drone strikes.  The practice of using two missiles when one has already obliterated the target is one with far reaching consequences.  Villagers have rushed in to help those injured in an attack, only to be killed by a second missile, the “double tap.”  Frequently, two missiles are required because of misses by the first.[8]  Aid workers are instructed not to enter target areas for hours after an attack.

Drone strikes have generated “a wave of terror” in the targeted communities.  The drone strikes have created a pervasive worry about the future that is having deleterious effects on noncombatants in the targeted areas.  People feel that they are powerless to minimize their exposure to the strikes, exacerbating their already high levels of emotional and psychological stress.

“Drones are always on my mind.  It makes it difficult to sleep.  They are like a mosquito.  Even when you don’t see them, you can hear them, you know that they are there. [9]

In addition to obliterating their targets, drone strikes that kill noncombatants impose severe economic hardships on grieving families in a society reliant on men as the primary income earners.  The strikes often deprive victims’ families of a major, if not sole source of income.  Strikes have also had a profound effect on education in the region, since many families have pulled their children out of school to take care of injured relatives or to compensate for lost income.  Families also report taking children out of school for fear that they will be killed in a drone strike.  Religious practices in target areas have also been disrupted by the drone strikes.

Drone and Small Propeller Driven Aircraft in Comparison

Drone and Small Propeller Driven Aircraft in Comparison

David Rohde offers a chilling picture of what living under the threat of drone attack is like.  Rohde was kidnapped by the Taliban in November 2008, outside Kabul and ferried into the tribal areas of Pakistan.  He was held captive for over 10 months along with two Afghan colleagues.  In June 2009, he and his colleagues escaped.  During his captivity, Rohde experienced the constant sound of drones overhead.  American drones were a fixture in the skies over Waziristan.  They sound like a small propeller driven aircraft.  The constant buzzing is a feature of life.  Rohde describes them as dark spots in the sky and from the ground it is impossible to tell what or who they are tracking. [10]  The Hellfire missiles travel at Mach 1.3 (990 mph or 1,593 kph) so the victim never hears the missile that kills him.  It is impossible to know the number of civilians that have been killed by American drones, and the government is unwilling to make public information about the attacks.  While there are watchdog organizations that attempt to keep track of numbers, it is difficult at best.

The People

It is easy to forget that drones have been deployed in the greatest numbers in the tribal areas of Pakistan, including in Waziristan, home to ethnic Pashtuns.  Pashtuns live in the northern and western parts of Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan.  They are a patrilineal and patrilocal society and are governed by Pashtunwali tradition.  While many have left the remote tribal areas, perhaps most notably Malala Yousafzai, significant numbers have remained.

Afghanistan and Pakiston Superimposed on a Map of the Eastern US.  Pashtun Tribal Areas in Dark Green.

Afghanistan and Pakiston Superimposed on a Map of the Eastern US. Pashtun Tribal Areas in Dark Green.

Pashtunwali is the self-governing tribal system that informs all aspects of Pashtun life.  Melmastia and Nanawatai are traditions of hospitality toward guests and asylum against all enemies granted to visitors regardless of race, religion, national or ethnic affiliation, or economic statues.  In an inhospitable area characterized by frequent tribal conflict, this tradition makes good sense.  However, today it poses some considerable risk for those who practice it.  For example Navy Petty Officer First Class Marcus Luttrell, the sole survivor of a Navy SEAL team ambushed by Taliban fighters.  Luttrell evaded the enemy and was given asylum in a Sabray village, where the villagers administered first aid, and fed, clothed, and protected him from Taliban attacks until Luttrell was rescued by US forces.

Perceived injustice calls for swift revenge and males are expected to protect Zan, Sar, Samka (females, gold, and land).  Nonetheless, there are many cultural traditions that dictate a peaceful coexistence.  Nanawatai, the admission of guilt for a wrong should result in automatic forgiveness from the wronged party.  In keeping with their patrilineal society, the main institution of authority is the jirga, which is a council of elders (male) that makes decisions about tribal life, and more importantly is the community-based conflict resolution process.  Pashtuns are Moslem, and most are Sunni, but there are small Shia communities in the remote tribal areas.

Pashtun Jurga.  Note the Coca Cola Sign.

Pashtun Jurga. Note the Coca Cola Sign.

The Pashtun areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan are poor, with over half of those in the tribal area of Pakistan existing on $250 per year.  The literacy rate is low and governmental infrastructure is virtually nonexistent.  Families live together in compounds that contain several homes constructed of mud.  Most compounds include a hujra, a room or covered area where men gather and is the place for entertaining guests.  The hujra is close to the other rooms in the compound occupied by women and children.  While the hujra may be the target of drone attacks, women and children are often killed.

Drone attacks have disrupted the Islamic burial tradition of showing respect for the dead by ritual bathing and burial as soon after death as possible.  Bodies are not cremated nor embalmed.  The funeral and ritual grieving are traditional ways of coping with death, but are short-circuited by the threat of drone strikes.  Funerals have been the target of drone strikes and this has led to inability of families to bury their dead in an appropriate manner.

Unintended Consequences

Drone strikes have replaced Guantánamo as the primary recruiting tool for militants.  Drone attacks radicalize individuals, tribes, and entire villages in a way that armed conflict does not.  According to Admiral Mark Mullen,

“Each time an errant bomb or a bomb accurately aimed but against the wrong target kills or hurts civilians, we risk setting our strategy back months, if not years. Despite the fact that the Taliban kill and maim far more than we do, civilian casualty incidents such as those we’ve recently seen in Afghanistan will hurt us more in the long run than any tactical success we may achieve against the enemy.” [11] 

Dennis Kucinich and 25 other member of Congress sent a letter to President Obama in 2012 characterizing drones as ““faceless ambassadors that cause civilian deaths, and are frequently the only direct contact with Americans that targeted communities have.”  Faisal Shahzad, the inept Times Square bomber in 2010, blamed his actions on drone attacks.  And on and on…

Americans are concerned about the drone strikes, as evidenced in a 2013 Pew Research Center poll.[12]  Eighty one percent of those surveyed were concerned about the danger of drone strikes to noncombatants, while 66% were concerned about the legality of the strikes.   Nonetheless, the administration continues to express confidence in the ability of drone strikes to disrupt and destroy extremist groups in Africa and the Middle East.  US citizens appear more skeptical.  While a slim majority of Americans still approve of the attacks, support is waning among our allies.


My Bottom Line

Many Americans and their elected representatives view drone warfare in a positive light.  It allows politicians to continue the “War on Terror” and endear themselves to the right.  It allows politicians to say that they voted against boots on the ground, thereby saving American lives.  It allows the President to continue to bolster his image as a decisive leader.  The drone war is a proven money-maker for the military industrial complex, so as wars go it is a “win-win.”  As a sidebar, the drone war has killed a few militants, who were indeed hell-bent on destroying the US.

Drone warfare is conducted thousands of miles away from our couches and flat-panel TV sets.  We are entertained by television shows that show the good guys, the CIA, Special Forces, Apache gunship pilots and the like, killing those determined to do harm to the homeland.  Yessiree…America the beautiful, home of the brave and the gullible.  No doubt some will take issue with my characterization, but it is my opinion that Americans just don’t care.  If it doesn’t affect our personal finances then ‘what the hell.’  Sure, there are symbolic events to recognize our military, but they are ephemeral pangs of conscience, at best.  Drone attacks are not a part of everyday life in America, and are easily shunted aside for the more pressing issues of the day.  In fact, most people really don’t want to know details of what goes on in our “War on Terror.”  If Americans continue to be in the dark about the real costs of drone attacks, it is highly likely that nothing will change.  More drone attacks lead to more resentment, recruitment of more militants, more attacks, and on and on.  Another election cycle will come and go, promises will be made, politics and greed set in and it is business as usual.

Military strategists have freely admitted that our “War on Terror” is a losing proposition so long as it continues in its present form.  So why continue?  Drones allow us to conduct warfare by remote control.  No need to put hundreds of thousands of troops in harm’s way, when a few hundred dedicated Special Operators and the CIA are willing and able to do it for us.  Let me be clear.  US Special Operations personnel are superb at what they do.  They routinely execute missions that read like the stuff out of science fiction.  I have great admiration for their abilities, expertise, and patriotism.  However, in our efforts to keep the horror of war at a distance, Americans have been deluded into thinking that drone warfare is the answer.  It is not.  We are killing civilians with little recognition of the long term consequences of our actions and we are not doing an effective job of dealing with the bad guys.  The damage we continue to inflict on people in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan will likely come back to haunt us.    It is far too easy to call it warfare when far too often it amounts to long distance murder.

What is the alternative?  Well, maybe General Norman Schwarzkopf was right about overwhelming military force.  Frankly, I am not sure.  I do have the strong feeling that what we are doing now is not effective, and worse, it will never be.  I hope that Americans will speak their minds and demand that our elected officials concern themselves with solving problems that do not include worrying about reelection, their egos, or their personal net worth, but I am not holding my breath.



  1. Shear, M.D. and M.S. Schmidt. White House Drone Crash Described as a U.S. Worker’s Drunken Lark. 2015; Available from:
  2. United States Department of Defense. MQ-1 Predator / MQ-9 Reaper. 2014; Available from:
  3. Anonymous. Hellfire II Missile System. 2014 [cited 2015 1 January]; Available from:
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Explosions and Blast Injuries: A Primer for Clinicians. nd; Available from:
  5. Human Rights Watch. Backgrounder on Russian Fuel Air Explosives (“Vacuum Bombs”). 2000; Available from:
  6. Serle, J. Almost 2,500 Now Killed by Covert US Drone Strikes Since Obama Inaguration Six Years Ago: The Bureau of Investigative Journalism Report for January 2015. 2015; Available from:
  7. Becker, J. and S. Shane, Secret ‘Kill List’ Porves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will, in New York Times. 2012: New York.
  8. Nasuti, M.J. Hellfire Missile Accuracy Problems Uncovered in Pentagon Data. 2011 ; Available from:
  9. International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic at Stanford Law School and Global Justice Clinic at NYU School of Law, Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians from US Drone Practices in Pakistan. 2012.
  10. Rohde, D. The Drone Wars. 2012; Available from:
  11. Mullen, M.G. Admiral Mullen’s Speech on Military Strategy, Kansas State University, March 2010. 2010; Available from:
  12. Dimock, M., C. Doherty, and A. Tyson. Continued Support for U.S. Drone Strikes: Civilian Casualties a Concern, Even Among Supporters. 2013; Available from:
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EO Smith

Interests include biological anthropology, evolution, social behavior, and human behavior. Conducted field research in the Tana River National Primate Reserve, Kenya and on Angaur, Palau, Micronesia, as well as research with captive nonhuman primates at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center and the Institute for Primate Research, National Museums of Kenya.
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