Manning the Unmanned

Taking a closer look at drone warfare

by by Emily Gogolak

illustration by by Julieta Cardenas

The ten people driving out of the small Pakistani town of Miramshah on January 23 probably heard a distant buzz before a deafening explosion sent their car tumbling off the side of the dirt road. The passengers, later described as suspected militants by the United States and Pakistan, were incinerated on impact, their remains left inside the charred vehicle.

Their fate was decided more than 7,000 miles away when two pilots sitting in a virtual cockpit at an Air Force base in Nevada spotted the car on their screens. A pilot pushed a button, a drone responded, and the Hellfire missile took out its target.

Drones, otherwise known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are largely considered the next wave of contemporary warfare and have become a mainstay—and a major point of criticism—in the Obama administration’s ongoing War on Terror.

In addition to unarmed surveillance drones, the US operates two types of armed drone programs. The first is a publicly acknowledged operation led by the US military in declared warzones, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and most recently Libya. The second is a covert campaign directed by the CIA primarily in Pakistan, an undeclared warzone.

Top Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders are known to have established strongholds in Pakistan’s tribal regions, where their followers launch attacks on US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. But because these areas are rugged and isolated, it’s nearly impossible for ground troops to stop cross-border attacks. “If not for drones, we wouldn’t be conducting cross-border strikes in Pakistan: there’s no way we’d send in troops—risking their capture or deaths—to take out ordinary suspected terrorists,” said Dr. Patrick Lin, Director of the Ethics and Emerging Sciences at California Polytechnic State University. “Osama bin Laden, I think everyone sees, is a special case.”

Drone warfare is widely credited with disrupting al-Qaeda and its allies in Pakistan, but it has seriously strained the US relationship with Islamabad, a key ally in the peace process in Afghanistan. The dynamic is dicey: Pakistan’s government publicly condemns drone attacks, saying they undermine national sovereignty, but it shares intelligence with the United States. A report from Reuters this week quoted am unnamed security official who confirmed that Pakistani intelligence is continuing to cooperate with the US in its drone campaign against the tribal areas. The official called two recent US drone strikes, on January 10 and 12, “joint operations” carried out by US UAVs with the help of Pakistani “spotters.” He added that the intelligence agencies have a much better relationship with the US than do the political or military leadership.

But political tension has only increased since the US commando raid that killed Osama Bin Laden in May of 2011. Soon after, members of Pakistan’s parliament made a similar statement in which they “condemned the unilateral action, which constitutes a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.” Seeing the US drone campaign as a symbol of this violation, civilians in May filled the streets of Pakistan’s cities holding signs with phrases like “No to US Drones. No to US Aid. We Can Stand By Ourselves.”

The civilian impact might be the greatest impact of drone warfare. But the question of carnage is a matter of heated debate: accounts of the strikes from official and unofficial sources are consistently contradictory. A recent study from the Brookings Institution suggests that drone strikes may kill “10 or so civilians” for every militant killed. In contrast, The New America Foundation estimates that 80 percent of those killed in attacks have been militants. And the UK-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism says that between 391 and 780 civilians were killed out of between 1,658 and 2,597 in total, and that among these deaths, 160 were children.

However, all of these estimates are at odds with the CIA’s account of the toll. The debate reached new heights in June, when President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, said in reference to the drones program that “there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop.”

The debate took another unprecedented turn this week. During his hour-long “White House Hangout” chat, President Obama confirmed that unmanned vehicles regularly struck Pakistan’s tribal areas. “For the most part, they have been very precise precision strikes against al-Qaeda and their affiliates,’’ he said. “And we are very careful in terms of how it has been applied. I want to make sure that people understand that actually, drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties.”


But even as the world debates the legal and social implications of unmanned combat, there continues to be little understanding of just how these mysterious weapons work. How does a UAV make it from Nevada to North Waziristan? Anyone involved in launching attack drones will tell you that these unmanned vehicles require much more manpower than their name would suggest.

“At the end, it’s always about people, no matter what,” said Asaf Gilboa, a former UAV operator for the Israeli Air Force and now the CEO of Themis Ltd., an international UAV consultant firm. There may be no pilot in the air, but from development and maintenance to navigation and battlefield management, there are a lot of people manning the journey of the drone.

The drone itself consists of five or six parts that can be disassembled, packed into a container known as “the coffin,” and deployed anywhere in the world. But inside that container is an entire system, with satellite communication equipment, cameras, sensors, lasers, rangefinders, and moving target indicators.

Long before materials are packed and launched, a drone’s journey begins with production and testing, which the US military outsources to private contractors. According to, an official federal finance tracking website, US government drone purchases rose from $588 to $1.3 billion over the past five years. “The military is like a rich kid with a trust-fund. It wants to buy the finished product, and its interest is more in maintenance and operation than in actual development. So it hands over the money to private companies,” said Ricardo Valerdi, a professor of engineering at University of Arizona who works with defense contractors on UAV development. Companies such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing or General Atomics—together capturing about 80 percent of the UAV market in the United States—build the drones from start to finish.

From here, the private contractors deliver the final product to the US military, where the drone is synced with the two other key components of the operation: the cockpit on the ground and the data system that glues the whole mission together.

UAV pilots on the ground fly the drone as if it were any conventional aircraft, ready for takeoff with the joystick in their right hand. “It’s the same as the environment of the typical cockpit, but the pilot is displaced,” Gilboa, the Israeli UAV consultant, said. So, when the vehicle takes off, instead of viewing the field through a windshield, the pilot sees a rolling image streamed from a camera on the drone’s nose, inside a virtual cockpit.

The information relayed from the drone is fed to not only the pilot in Nevada, but to a host of other people as well. UAV missions “are about the movement of data instead of people,” Gilboa said. This is exactly what makes them so appealing from an intelligence standpoint. The pilot can be sitting anywhere, free from danger, and the images received in flight can be streamed anywhere—to legal advisors, to CIA personnel, to ground troops in Pakistan, and beyond. And thanks to this mobility of data, the decision-making process in UAV combat is much more complex than in traditional warfare.

“Pilots are looking at the screen, but they do not have ultimate decisions to do everything that they’re capable of. Other people looking may be people parked on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. Or it could be people at the Pentagon who are making the real decisions,” Valerdi said. “Say we are going to send the drone with a bunch of weapons on it, and depending on how that looks, there will be a bunch of people involved in that decision — and all of the social and political risks that it comes with.”

The risks are manifold.

“It is a human controlling an autonomous robot,” Valerdi said. “By the nature of this autonomy, they have a lot of divergent behaviors.” Pilots on the ground, for example, lack the same situational awareness and physical cues they would have in the cockpit of a jet. Instead of the pilots’ own senses, navigation relies on sensors. “A bunch of sensors are trying to find each other in an environment where there may be no GPS or no radio,” Valerdi said. If something abnormal happens in the air, hovering over Miramshah, there’s not much the pilots sitting on the ground can do about it.


As the US drone campaign moves into the public spotlight, it’s unclear what shape the program will take in the future. With defense spending cuts, drones seem to be an increasingly enticing option: they are cheaper than boots on the ground. And as troop withdrawal looms in Afghanistan, the military will likely turn more and more to remote warfare in Pakistan to quell al-Qaeda along the border.


If anything is certain, it’s that the drone is changing the face of contemporary warfare. A pilot flying combat drones over a warzone can finish his shift and drive a few miles off base to home be in time for dinner with his family. Yet this pilot has no normal day job: he may have just manned an operation that killed suspected terrorists in tribal Pakistan.

Once the drone was in flight, the pilot would have watched live-streamed videos from the field. The target—a vehicle filled with suspected militants, say—would be identified on the ground. The pilot would have the go-ahead to fire. And with a distant buzz and a fiery explosion, a missile piloted from Nevada would hit its target in North Waziristan.


EMILY GOGOLAK B’12.5 has no normal day job.