Global Education

Predator drones

By Deanna Badizadegan
Published: June 2010

The RQ-1 Predator, more commonly known as a drone, is the primary unmanned aerial vehicle used defensively in Afghanistan.

With its capability to fly 400 miles to a target, hover for 14 hours, and then return to base, the drone can be a powerful tool but must be operated carefully.

When the operators get lazy, innocent people can lose their lives, as seen in an attack on 35 unlucky Afghan civilians on February 21 of this year.

Drone operators, stationed at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, had been tracking a group of suspected insurgents near the village of Shahidi Hassas, a Taliban-dominated area in the southern part of Afghanistan.

After three and a half hours of tracking, the operators had reported the presence of insurgents on their way to reinforce other fighters.

They didn’t appear to notice that women and children were also in the vehicles.

With approval from their superiors, the Special Operations team fired Hellfire missiles and rockets at the civilians. The helicopter crew spotted brightly colored clothing at the scene and stopped firing after the initial attack, suspecting that civilians might have been inside the vehicles.

But they did not notice early enough to prevent 23 deaths and 12 non-lethal injuries.

Additionally, the ground commander and others who knew about the incident failed to report that they had potentially harmed civilians in a timely manner.

In an investigation of the incident, military officials revealed that intelligence analysts who had been monitoring the drone’s video feed before the attack had sent two messages warning the drone operators and ground commanders that they had seen children.

The report nevertheless states that the drone operators saw only men who looked military-age, meaning that information indicating otherwise was either downplayed or ignored, according to General McHale.

General McChrystal apologized to President Hamid Karzai after the attack, and reported that four American officers had been reprimanded and two junior officers disciplined.

He has recommended that military personnel participate in additional training exercises before coming to Afghanistan and while they are already there.

23 civilian lives could have been spared if drone operators had done better than “inaccurate and unprofessional reporting.

Military officials hope to decrease the level of civilian casualties in the future with the additional training exercises and by emphasizing the quality of the operators’ work.

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