Tag Archives: unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)

The Power of Yes-Men

American military engagement in Niger is a $110 million drone base the U.S. is building about 450 miles northeast of Niamey in Agadez…Its existence was partially confirmed in February 2018, inadvertently, when it was discovered that Strava, a fitness app used mostly  by westerners, had released location data that showed the global movements of the users of workout trackers like Fitbit — and the data showed unusual activity in far-off Aguelal, Agadez, Niger.

On the southeast edge of the civilian airport, accessible by tracks in the sand used mainly to exit the town, is Nigerien Air Base 201, or in common parlance “the American base.” The base, scheduled for completion in late 2018, is technically the property of the Nigerien military, though it is paid for, built, and operated by Americans. It is being constructed on land formerly used by Tuareg cattle-herders. … The U.S. currently flies drones out of an airport in Niamey, but those operations will be shifted to Agadez once the new base is completed.

When asked to confirm the American presence in those areas of Niger, U.S. Africa Command spokesperson Samantha Reho replied, “I can confirm there are approximately 800 Department of Defense personnel (military, civilian, and contractor) currently working in Niger, making that country the second-highest concentration of DoD people across the continent, with the first being in Djibouti at Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa.”

The U.S. is just one of several Western militaries that have established and strengthened military ties to Niger over the past few years. France has had soldiers in the country since 2013, when it launched Opération Serval in neighboring Mali. In 2015, France reopened a colonial fort in Madama, close to the border with Libya — unthinkable during the times of Moammar Gadhafi; the Libyan leader maintained a sphere of influence in the region that would have been at odds with a French military presence. Germany sent its own troops in Niger to support the United Nations peacekeeping mission across the border in Mali, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel even visited Niger in 2017. And Italy recently announced it would send 470 troops to a French base in the north of Niger to fight migrant transporters….

The base in Agadez is about 6 square kilometers, though most of the land is yet to be developed. ….. The base is tucked away and hidden from Agadez first by the 8-to-10-foot wall that separates the city of 125,000 from the airport, and it is surrounded by a barbed wire fence with sandbags, so despite there being a few hundred Americans in Agadez, you would hardly know they were there unless you went looking. Both the Nigerien and the American governments prefer to keep it this way…

The man the middle is Mahamadou Issoufou, the president of Niger. In power for six years, he has adopted a clear strategy for trying to keep control of things – by aligning himself closely with Europe and the United States, while presiding over an electoral system that his opponents describe as rigged. This is not a recipe for stability in a country that has had little of it since its founding in 1960, at the end of French colonial rule.

Issoufou is a trained engineer and a former secretary-general of Somaïr, a uranium mine that was run by the French company Areva. Until migration and terrorism, uranium was the focal point of outside, particularly French, interest in Niger. France’s electricity grid is powered by nuclear energy, and Areva’s uranium concessions in Niger provide up to one-fifth of the uranium necessary to power that grid. Issoufou’s predecessor, Mamadou Tandja, had sparred with the French over the concession, and in 2009, then-French President Nicholas Sarkozy visited Niger to negotiate a deal on opening a new mine called Imouraren. After a $1.2 billion deal was struck, Tandja tried to reverse the constitution to stay in power for a third term, and after street protests, a group of low-ranking army officers carried out a coup d’état.

When the transition period ended with Issoufou’s election in 2011, the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan caused a sharp downturn in global uranium prices. Areva dropped its plans for Imouraren, and Issoufouacquiesced to the French firm’s plans for delaying the mine until prices rose, denting economic growth prospects for the country. But despite losing out on Imouraren, Issoufou quickly became a donor darling and found that the closer he was to France and the West, the better his image and the more firm his hold on political power. Issoufou was criticized heavily for going to Paris to attend the “Je Suis Charlie” march in January 2015, and some human rights organizations view him as a lackey of the West. He works with Image Sept, a French firm with close ties to the Parisian political elite, to manage his image.A couple of months before his re-election in 2016, Issoufou jailed his main political opponent and former close ally, Hama Amadou of the Moden Lumana party….

Many people I spoke to in Niger feel their country has had its autonomy usurped by Westerners. “The reality is that Niger is not at a level where it can say yes or no to the French or Americans. … We only have sovereignty on paper,” said Djibril Abarché, president of the Nigerien Human Rights Association.

Exceprts from Joe Penny, Drones in the Sahara, the Intercept, Feb. 18, 2018

Handcrafted Terror

An attack on Russian forces in Syria on January 5th, 2018 by 13 home-made drones is a good example of “asymmetric” warfare..The craft involved in these attacks resembled hobbyists’ model aircraft. They had three-metre wingspans, were built crudely of wood and plastic, and were powered by lawnmower engines. Each carried ten home-made shrapnel grenades under its wings.  The drones were guided by GPS and had a range of 100km. The electronics involved were off-the-shelf components, and the total cost of each drone was perhaps a couple of thousand dollars. The airframes bore a resemblance to those of Russian Orlan-10 drones, several of which have been shot down by rebel forces in Syria. The craft may thus have been a cheap, garage-built copy of captured kit.

Guerrillas have been using commercial drones since 2015. Islamic State (IS), one of the groups active in Syria, makes extensive use of quadcopters to drop grenades. In 2017 alone the group posted videos of over 200 attacks. IS has also deployed fixed-wing aircraft based on the popular Skywalker X8 hobby drone. These have longer ranges than quadcopters and can carry bigger payloads. Other groups in Syria, and in Iraq as well, employ similar devices. Their use has spread, too, to non-politically-motivated criminals. In October, four Mexicans allegedly linked to a drug cartel were arrested with a bomb-carrying drone…

Existing defences are not geared up to cope with small drones, which are difficult to spot, identify and track, and which may be too numerous to stop. Jamming might be thought an obvious solution….Many jammers, with names like Dedrone, DroneDefender and DroneShield, have already been employed by various countries. …Drones are, however, becoming increasingly autonomous. This means there is no operator link to jam…But new technologies such as optical navigation (which permits a drone to compare its surroundings with an on-board electronic map, and thus to know where it is) will make even GPS jammers useless. Hence the need for “kinetic solutions”, to shoot drones down.

Small drones are surprisingly hard targets, however. Iraqi forces in Mosul used to joke that trying to deal with an IS drone attack was like being at a wedding celebration: everyone fired their Kalashnikovs into the air with no effect. A recent American army manual …suggests that rather than aiming directly at a drone, the entire squad should fire their weapons at a fixed point ahead of it, hoping to bring the small drones down with a curtain of fire. The manual also advises commanders that the best course of action may be “immediate relocation of the unit to a safer location”….

A similar problem applies at sea, where billion-dollar ships might have their defences overwhelmed by squadrons of cheap, jerry-built drones. The mainstay of American naval air defence is Aegis, an orchestrated arrangement of radars, computers, missiles and cannons. The short-range element of Aegis is a Dalek-like, rapid-fire cannon called Phalanx, which spits out 75 rounds a second and can shoot down incoming cruise missiles. This will not cope well with lots of small drones, though. The navy is now upgrading Aegis’s software to handle multiple simultaneous incoming targets by scheduling bursts of fire to destroy as many members of a swarm as possible. It is doubtful, however, whether one gun could account for more than a handful of attackers coming in from all directions at once. An unclassified study suggests that it could be overwhelmed by as few as eight [handcrafted drones].

Developers of drone-countering measures hope to overcome that by using laser weapons…An American army document from 2016 thus emphasises the importance of stopping drones “left of launch”—that is, before they can take off. IS drone workshops and operators have been attacked to stop the drone threat… Until adequate defences are in place, then, guerrilla drone swarms will be a real danger.

Excerpt from Buzz, buzz, you’re dead, Economist, Feb. 10, at 70

Drone Strikes: the body count

The U.S. assaults… have been far more deadly than is generally recognized. Military sources say that drone strikes have killed between 20,000 and 25,000 Islamic State operatives in Iraq and Syria. U.S. conventional attacks have killed about 30,000 more, for a total “body count” of over 50,000….The CIA and JSOC both conduct roughly the same number of drone flights every day. But the sources said the military’s drones conducted more than 20,000 strikes over the last year, in Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria, while the CIA is said to have struck less than a dozen targets over that same period.

The CIA oversaw much of America’s drone warfare during the first half of Obama’s presidency, when it was targeting al-Qaida operatives in Pakistan. But the agency’s focus on such counterterrorism “direct action” appears to have diminished over the past several years.

Obama’s  preference for special operations forces and their “small-footprint” tactics, as opposed to big conventional assaults….One unlikely legacy of Obama’s presidency is that he made the secret, once-impermissible tactic of targeted killing the preferred tool of U.S. counterterrorism policy.

Excerpt from David Ignatius, Pentagon and CIA in a terror turf war,  Washington Post. Dec 12, 2016

Trapping and Killing Drones

The rapid evolution of small unmanned air systems (sUAS) technologies fueled by the exponential growth of the commercial drone sector, has created new asymmetric threats for [conventional armies]…[There is is a need to] identify, track, and neutralize these sUASs while mitigating collateral damage.

DARPA is soliciting proposals for award for the Mobile Force Protection (MFP) program … The MFP program [seeks to develop a system] capable of defeating a raid of self-guided, small Unmanned Aircraft Systems attacking a high value asset on the move. The program …seeks to develop an integrated system capable of providing protection to ground or naval convoys against self-guided sUAS and, to the extent possible, other asymmetric threats… By focusing on protecting mobile assets, the program plans to emphasize low-footprint solutions in terms of size, weight, power (SWaP),and manning….The Mobile Force Protection program has selected the U.S. Army Maneuver Aviation and Fires Integration Application (MAFIA) as the software architecture…(www.fbo.org)

Note that In 2016 the Islamic State tried to use small commercial drones to launch attacks, prompting American commanders in Iraq to issue a warning to forces fighting the group to treat any type of small flying aircraft as a potential explosive device.  (NY Times).

Killing Civilians in Theory and Practice

[T]he long list of errant airstrikes carried out by American warplanes: Weddings, funerals, hospitals and friendly forces have been mistakenly attacked, with each strike prompting fresh outrage.

While most of those killed have been civilians — in Afghanistan alone, the United Nations recorded 1,243 civilians killed in airstrikes between 2009 and 2015 — American-led forces have repeatedly struck friendly forces. It is a pattern that was repeated last weekend with a pair of separate airstrikes in Syria and Afghanistan that have again cast a harsh spotlight on the seeming inability of the United States to avoid hitting the wrong targets in its air campaigns.

[A]lmost all the mistaken strikes over the years have come down to two main reasons: Faulty intelligence, and what military strategists call “the fog of war,” referring to the confusion of the battlefield.

WRONG TARGETS

Many of the deadliest American airstrikes to hit civilians in the last 15 years have taken place in Afghanistan.

·         JULY 1, 2002

An American AC-130 gunship struck an engagement party in the village of Kakrak in Uruzgan Province, killing 48 people.

·         MAY 4, 2009

American airstrikes in the village of Granai in Farah Province killed 147 civilians, the Afghan government said. The United States estimated that 20 to 30 civilians and as many as 65 Taliban fighters had been killed.

·         SEPT. 4, 2009

An American F-15E fighter jet, acting on orders from a German commander, dropped a 500-pound bomb on a tanker truck outside the village of Haji Sakhi Dedby in Kunduz Province, killing at least 70 people, and possibly dozens more.

·         OCT. 3, 2015

An American AC-130 gunship, called in by American Special Forces, struck a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in Kunduz, killing 42 people…

No matter what the intent, killing civilians by mistake can amount to a war crime, though the military almost never brings criminal charges against those involved. That was the case with the strike on a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in Kunduz, in northern Afghanistan, in 2015, that killed 42 people. The military’s own investigation found that those who took part in the attack “failed to comply with the” laws of armed conflict, and though 12 service members were disciplined, none faced criminal charges…

One of the issues, experts say, is the culture of the Air Force itself….“One of the core aspects of air power theory is this idea that with enough reconnaissance, with enough data with enough data crunching, we can paint an extremely hyper-accurate picture of the battlefield that is going to not only eliminate accidental strikes, but it’s going to make it so we can strike directly and precisely,” Mr. Farley said.“So in some sense, that kind of extreme optimism about air-power targeting is baked into Air Force culture, is baked into the Air Force cake,” he added.

But bad information leads to bad outcomes. Faulty readings of surveillance from drones and other sources appear to have been involved in the strike in Syria, which infuriated the Syrian government and its Russian backers, further undermining an already shaky cease-fire there.

The attack occurred on September 17, 2016  when fighter jets from the American-led coalition struck what the military believed was an Islamic State position. The attack was methodical and merciless — the jets took run after run over the camp in an effort destroy it, cutting down men as they fled.But about 20 minutes into the strike, Russia notified the United States that the jets were hitting troops loyal to the Syrian government, not the Islamic State. Russia and Syria have since said that more than 60 Syrian troops were killed.

Excerpts from  MATTHEW ROSENBERG,It’s Not Like Hollywood: Why U.S. Airstrikes Go Awry 20, NY Times Sept. 20, 2016

Drones Inside Ships: Military

Small-deck ships such as destroyers and frigates could greatly increase their effectiveness if they had their own unmanned air systems (UASs) to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and other capabilities at long range around the clock. Current state-of-the-art UASs, however, lack the ability to take off and land from confined spaces in rough seas and achieve efficient long-duration flight. TERN (Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node) , a joint program between DARPA and the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research (ONR), seeks to provide these and other previously unattainable capabilities. As part of Tern’s ongoing progress toward that goal, DARPA has awarded Phase 3 of Tern to a team led by the Northrop Grumman Corporation….  The Tern Phase 3 design envisions a tail-sitting, flying-wing aircraft with twin counter-rotating, nose-mounted propellers. The propellers would lift the aircraft from a ship deck, orient it for horizontal flight and provide propulsion to complete a mission. They would then reorient the craft upon its return and lower it to the ship deck. The system would fit securely inside the ship when not in use.

Tern’s potentially groundbreaking capabilities have been on the Navy’s wish list in one form or another since World War II. The production of the first practical helicopters in 1942 helped the U.S. military realize the potential value of embedded vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft to protect fleets and reduce the reliance on aircraft carriers and land bases.  The Tern demonstrator will bear some resemblance to the Convair XFY-1 Pogo, an experimental ship-based VTOL fighter designed by the Navy in the 1950s to provide air support for fleets. Despite numerous successful demonstrations, the XFY-1 never advanced beyond the prototype stage, in part because the Navy at the time was focusing on faster jet aircraft and determined that pilots would have needed too much training to land on moving ships in rough seas….Moving to [drones removes the need for training aircraft pilots].

Excerpt from DARPA Tern Moves Closer to Full-Scale Demonstration of Unmanned VTOL Aircraft Designed for Small Ships

Leaked Papers on US Drone War: 2015

The Obama administration has portrayed drones as an effective and efficient weapon in the ongoing war with al Qaeda and other radical groups. Yet classified Pentagon documents obtained by The Intercept reveal that the U.S. military has faced “critical shortfalls” in the technology and intelligence it uses to find and kill suspected terrorists in Yemen and Somalia.
Those shortfalls stem from the remote geography of Yemen and Somalia and the limited American presence there. As a result, the U.S. military has been overly reliant on signals intelligence from computers and cellphones, and the quality of those intercepts has been limited by constraints on surveillance flights in the region.

The documents are part of a study by a Pentagon Task Force on Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance. They provide details about how targets were tracked for lethal missions carried out by the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, in Yemen and Somalia between January 2011 and summer 2012. When the study was circulated in 2013, the Obama administration was publicly floating the idea of moving the bulk of its drone program to the Pentagon from the CIA, and the military was eager to make the case for more bases, more drones, higher video quality, and better eavesdropping equipment.

Yet by identifying the challenges and limitations facing the military’s “find, fix, finish” operations in Somalia and Yemen — the cycle of gathering intelligence, locating, and attacking a target — the conclusions of the ISR study would seem to undermine the Obama administration’s claims of a precise and effective campaign, and lend support to critics who have questioned the quality of intelligence used in drone strikes.

One of the most glaring problems identified in the ISR study was the U.S. military’s inability to carry out full-time surveillance of its targets in the Horn of Africa and Yemen. Behind this problem lies the “tyranny of distance” — a reference to the great lengths that aircraft must fly to their targets from the main U.S. air base in Djibouti, the small East African nation that borders Somalia and sits just across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen. Surveillance flights are limited by fuel — and, in the case of manned aircraft, the endurance of pilots. In contrast with Iraq, where more than 80 percent of “finishing operations” were conducted within 150 kilometers of an air base, the study notes that “most objectives in Yemen are ~ 500 km away” from Djibouti and “Somalia can be over 1,000 km.” The result is that drones and planes can spend half their air time in transit, and not enough time conducting actual surveillance….

Compounding the tyranny of distance, the ISR study complained, was the fact that JSOC had too few drones in the region to meet the requirements mandated for carrying out a finishing operation.  The “sparse” available resources meant that aircraft had to “cover more potential leads — stretching coverage and leading to [surveillance] ‘blinks.’” Because multiple aircraft needed to be “massed” over one target before a strike, surveillance of other targets temporarily ceased, thus breaking the military’s ideal of a “persistent stare” or the “unblinking eye” of around-the-clock tracking.

JSOC relied on manned spy planes to fill the orbit gap over Yemen. In June 2012 there were six U-28 spy planes in operation in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula,..Only in the summer of 2012, with the addition of contractor-operated drones based in Ethiopia and Fire Scout unmanned helicopters, did Somalia have the minimum number of drones commanders wanted. The number of Predator drones stationed in Djibouti doubled over the course of the study, and in 2013, the fleet was moved from the main U.S. air base, Camp Lemonnier, to another Djibouti airstrip because of overcrowding and a string of crashes.

Expanding the use of aircraft launched from ships.

JSOC already made use of Fire Scout helicopter drones and small Scan Eagle drones off the coast of Somalia, as well as “Armada Sweep,” which a 2011 document from the National Security Agency, provided by former contractor Edward Snowden, describes as a “ship-based collection system” for electronic communications data. (The NSA declined to comment on Armada Sweep.)…

The find, fix, finish cycle is known in the military as FFF, or F3. But just as critical are two other letters: E and A, for “exploit and analyze,” referring to the use of materials collected on the ground and in detainee interrogations..  F3EA became doctrine in counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan in the mid-2000s…

[But] Assassinations are intelligence dead ends.  The ISR study shows that after a “kill operation” there is typically nobody on the ground to collect written material or laptops in the target’s house, or the phone on his body, or capture suspects and ask questions. Yet collection of on-the-ground intelligence of that sort — referred to as DOMEX, for “document and media exploitation,” and TIR, for “tactical interrogation report” — is invaluable for identifying future targets.,,,[Another issue is whether the US government can rely on foreign governments for intelligence]….In 2011, for example, U.S. officials told the Wall Street Journal that they had killed a local governor because Yemeni officials didn’t tell them he was present at a gathering of al Qaeda figures. “We think we got played,” one official said. (The Yemeni government disputed the report.)…
With limited ability to conduct raids or seize materials from targeted individuals in Yemen and Somalia, JSOC relied overwhelmingly on monitoring electronic communications to discover and ultimately locate targets.  The documents state bluntly that SIGINT is an inferior form of intelligence. Yet signals accounted for more than half the intelligence collected on targets, with much of it coming from foreign partners. The rest originated with human intelligence, primarily obtained by the CIA. “These sources,” the study notes, “are neither as timely nor as focused as tactical intelligence” from interrogations or seized materials.  Making matters worse, the documents refer to “poor” and “limited”capabilities for collecting SIGINT, implying a double bind in which kill operations were reliant on sparse amounts of inferior intelligence.

The disparity with other areas of operation was stark, as a chart contrasting cell data makes clear: In Afghanistan there were 8,900 cell data reports each month, versus 50 for Yemen and 160 for Somalia. Despite that, another chart shows SIGINT comprised more than half the data sources that went into developing targets in Somalia and Yemen in 2012.  Cellphone data was critical for finding and identifying targets, yet a chart from a Pentagon study shows that the military had far less information in Yemen and Somalia than it was accustomed to having in Afghanistan….

After locating a target, usually by his cellphone or other electronics, analysts would study video feeds from surveillance aircraft “to build near-certainty via identification of distinguishing physical characteristics.”

A British intelligence document on targeted killing in Afghanistan, which was among the Snowden files, describes a similar process of “monitoring a fixed location, and tracking any persons moving away from that location, and identifying if a similar pattern is experienced through SIGINT collect.” The document explains that “other visual indicators may be used to aid the establishment of [positive identification]” including “description of clothing” or “gait.” After a shot, according to the British document and case studies in the Pentagon’s ISR report, drones would hover to determine if their target had been hit, collecting video and evidence of whether the cellphone had been eliminated...  Yet according to the ISR study, the military faced “critical shortfalls of capabilities” in the technologies enabling that kind of precise surveillance and post-strike assessment. At the time of the study, only some of the Reaper drones had high-definition video, and most of the aircraft over the region lacked the ability to collect “dial number recognition” data.

Excerpts from Firing Blind, Intercept, the Drone Papers, Oct. 2015