The Life and Death of American Drones

Nick Turse, from TomDispatch, on the vulnerabilities of America’s robot war.

According to statistics provided to TomDispatch by the Air Force, Predators have flown the lion’s share of hours in America’s drone wars.  As of October 1st, MQ-1’s had spent more than 1 million hours in the air, 965,000 of those in “combat,” since being introduced into military service.  The newer, more heavily armed MQ-9 Reaper, by comparison, has flown 215,000 hours, 180,000 of them in combat.  (The Air Force refuses to release information about the workload of the RQ-170 Sentinel.)  And these numbers continue to rise.  This year alone, Predators have logged 228,000 flight hours compared to 190,000 in 2010.

An analysis of official Air Force data conducted by TomDispatch indicates that its drones crashed in spectacular fashion no less than 13 times in 2011, including that May 5th crash in Kandahar.

About half of those mishaps, all resulting in the loss of an aircraft or property damage of $2 million or more, occurred in Afghanistan or in the tiny African nation of Djibouti, which serves as a base for drones involved in the U.S. secret wars in Somalia and Yemen.  All but two of the incidents involved the MQ-1 model, and four of them took place in May.

In 2010, there were seven major drone mishaps, all but one involving Predators; in 2009, there were 11.  In other words, there have been 31 drone losses in three years, none apparently shot down, all diving into the planet of their own mechanical accord or thanks to human error.

Other publicized drone crashes, like a remotely-operated Navy helicopter that went down in Libya in June and an unmanned aerial vehicle whose camera was reportedly taken by Afghan insurgents after a crash in August, as well as the December 4th loss of the RQ-180 in Iran and an even more recent crash of a MQ-9 in the Seychelles, are not included in the Air Force’s major accident statistics for the year.

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