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Ten Things You Didn't Know About Drones

Author: Micah Zenko, Douglas Dillon Fellow
March/April 2012
Foreign Policy

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1. The first armed drones were created to get Osama bin Laden.

In 1998, U.S. President Bill Clinton's administration shut down an operation to kill the al Qaeda leader in Afghanistan with cruise missiles, given collateral damage estimates of 300 casualties and only 50 percent confidence in the intelligence. As the 9/11 Commission noted, "After this episode Pentagon planners intensified efforts to find a more precise alternative." In 2000 and 2001, the U.S. Air Force struggled to reconfigure a Hellfire anti-tank missile to fit onto a Predator surveillance drone. Meeting one week before the 9/11 attacks, the National Security Council agreed that the armed Predator was not ready to be operationally deployed. The first known killing by armed drones occurred in November 2001, when a Predator targeted Mohammed Atef, a top al Qaeda military commander, in Afghanistan.

2. So far, drones tend to crash.

On Dec. 4, an RQ-170 Sentinel surveillance drone crashed in Iran; a U.S. official involved in the program blamed a lost data link and another unspecific malfunction. Two weeks later, an unarmed Reaper drone crashed at the end of a runway in the Seychelles. "This should not be a surprise," a defense official told Aviation Week & Space Technology, saying the United States had already lost more than 50 drones. As of July 2010, the Air Force had identified 79 drone accidents costing at least $1 million each. The primary reasons for the crashes: bad weather, loss or disruption of communications links, and "human error factors," according to the Air Force. As Lt. Gen. David Deptula, former Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, has noted with refreshing honesty, "Some of the [drones] that we have today, you put in a high-threat environment, and they'll start falling from the sky like rain."

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