Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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You Might Have Missed: Drones, Drones, and Drones

by Micah Zenko
November 3, 2012

A MQ-1 Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Prepares to take off on a mission in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. (U.S. Air Force by Master Sgt. Demetrius Lester) A MQ-1 Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Prepares to take off on a mission in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. (U.S. Air Force by Master Sgt. Demetrius Lester)

Editorial Board, “Pulling the U.S. Drone War Out of the Shadows,” Washington Post, November 1, 2012.

(3PA: It’s a positive step that ten years after drones were first used for targeted killings outside battlefields, the Washington Post is raising some questions about how they are used. Over seven years after the first drone strike in Yemen on November 3, 2002, the editorial board addressed this prominent feature of U.S. foreign policy for the first time. Previously, the editorial board endorsed killing U.S. citizens without Fifth Amendment due process protections, although called on the Obama administration to declassify the Office of Legal Counsel memo that justifies killing U.S. citizens.)


Brian Ballou, “Rezwan Ferdaus of Ashland Senteced to Seventeen Years in Terror Plot,” Boston Globe, November 1, 2012.

Prosecutors said Ferdaus planned to kill American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan using improvised explosive devices detonated by the modified cellphones. He also planned to blow up the Pentagon and US Capitol using remote-controlled planes measuring up to 80 inches in length and capable of speeds greater than 100 miles per hour. The planes would be guided by GPS and contain 5 pounds each of plastic explosives. He also planned to enlist otthers for a ground assault on the federal buildings.


Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: An Assessment of Their Impact on San Diego’s Defense Economy, National University System Institute for Policy Research, November 2012.

San Diego is uniquely positioned to benefit from this increased demand. Northrop Grumman (39.5 percent) and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (24.9 percent) dominate worldwide UAV manufacturing. No other individual company has more than 3 percent of market share.


Paul D. Shinkman, “New Iranian Surveillance Drones Likely, Expert Says,” U.S. News and World Report, October 30, 2012.

It is also unclear if the drone that Israel shot down on Oct. 6, nearly 20 minutes after flying deep into Israeli airspace from the southern Mediterranean coast, contains any of the RQ-170′s technology. Iranian officials claimed at the time they would “reverse engineer” the unmanned aerial vehicle, though Kochersberger says that’s impossible.

“It is difficult to put together a gas grill without instructions,” he says. “Imagine recreating something as complex as a surveillance UAV without the manual.”


Noah Shachtman and David Axe, “Most U.S. Drones Openly Broadcast Secret Video Feeds,” Wired, October 29, 2012.

Military officials have known about — and mostly shrugged off — the vulnerability since the development of the Predator in the 1990s. But the problem drew increased attention in 2008, when drone video footage was found on the laptops of Shi’ite militants in Iraq, who were able to intercept the feed using a piece of $26 software. The Pentagon and the defense industry assured the public that they’d close the hole by retrofitting the robotic aircraft with new communications protocols and encrypted transceivers that would keep the video from being intercepted again.

Four years into the effort, however, only “30 to 50 percent” of America’s Predators and Reapers are using fully encrypted transmissions, a source familiar with the retrofitting effort tells Danger Room. The total fleet won’t see its communications secured until 2014. This source and others who work closely with drone operations say that drones flying overseas are among the first to get the newly secured equipment. They also noted that they are unaware of any incidents of militants using America’s unmanned eyes in the sky to their advantage. “But I’m surprised I haven’t,” the source adds. “And that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.”


Kurt Volker, “What the U.S. Risks by Relying on Drones,” Washington Post, October 26, 2012.

Yet as necessary as some drone strikes have been—and will be in the future—over-reliance on drones raises problems. In establishing a long-term approach, a good rule of thumb might be that we should authorize drone strikes only if we would be willing to send in a pilot or soldier to do the job if a drone were not available.

(3PA: In a letter to the editor, former CIA operations officer David Parker responds: “Ambassador Kurt Volker makes a cogent and balanced case, particularly from a moral standpoint, for more circumspection in ourthe United States’ reliance on the use of drone strikes to degrade or eliminate terrorist capabilities. However, he neglects one critical argument. By killing terrorists instead of capturing them, admittedly a significantly more difficult task, the United States deprives itself of vital intelligence which could help disrupt future acts of terrorism. Former senior CIA official Jose Rodriguez and others have made this case very eloquently. The moral argument against over-reliance on the use of drones notwithstanding, our country would derive much greater benefit from capturing and interrogating these individuals instead of simply killing them.”)

Post a Comment 1 Comment

  • Posted by Don Bacon

    Thank you for staying on this US terrorism strategy, AKA The War OF Terror where these people are killed — this includes OBL and Awlaki et fils — because the US has no case against them. That point needs to be made.

    Even ISAF doesn’t kill “suspected terrorists” any longer — but Obama does.

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