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Civilian contractors playing key roles in U.S. drone operations

Relying on contractors has brought companies that operate for profit into some of America's most sensitive military and intelligence operations. And using civilians makes some in the military uneasy.

December 29, 2011|By David S. Cloud, Los Angeles Times
  • Personnel at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County last year control a Predator drone flying over Ft. Irwin, northeast of Barstow.
Personnel at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County last year control… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Washington — After a U.S. airstrike mistakenly killed at least 15 Afghans in 2010, the Army officer investigating the accident was surprised to discover that an American civilian had played a central role: analyzing video feeds from a Predator drone keeping watch from above.

The contractor had overseen other analysts at Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field in Florida as the drone tracked suspected insurgents near a small unit of U.S. soldiers in rugged hills of central Afghanistan. Based partly on her analysis, an Army captain ordered an airstrike on a convoy that turned out to be carrying innocent men, women and children.

"What company do you work for?" Maj. Gen. Timothy McHale demanded of the contractor after he learned that she was not in the military, according to a transcript obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

"SAIC," she answered. Her employer, SAIC Inc., is a publicly traded Virginia-based corporation with a multiyear $49-million contract to help the Air Force analyze drone video and other intelligence from Afghanistan.

America's growing drone operations rely on hundreds of civilian contractors, including some — such as the SAIC employee — who work in the so-called kill chain before Hellfire missiles are launched, according to current and former military officers, company employees and internal government documents.

Relying on private contractors has brought corporations that operate for profit into some of America's most sensitive military and intelligence operations. And using civilians makes some in the military uneasy.

At least a dozen defense contractors that supply personnel to help the Air Force, special operations units and the CIA fly their drones are filling a void. It takes more people to operate unmanned aircraft than it does to fly traditional warplanes that have a pilot and crew.

The Air Force is short of ground-based pilots and crews to fly the drones, intelligence analysts to scrutinize nonstop video and surveillance feeds, and technicians and mechanics to maintain the heavily used aircraft.

"Our No. 1 manning problem in the Air Force is manning our unmanned platforms," said Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, Air Force vice chief of staff. Without civilian contractors, U.S. drone operations would grind to a halt.

About 168 people are needed to keep a single Predator aloft for 24 hours, according to the Air Force. The larger Global Hawk surveillance drone requires 300 people. In contrast, an F-16 fighter aircraft needs fewer than 100 people per mission.

With a fleet of about 230 Predators, Reapers and Global Hawks, the Air Force flies more than 50 drones around the clock over Afghanistan and other target areas. The Pentagon plans to add 730 medium and large drones in the next decade, requiring thousands more personnel.

The Air Force is rushing to meet the demand. Under a new program, drone pilots get 44 hours of cockpit training before they are sent to a squadron to be certified and allowed to command missions. That compares with a minimum of 200 hours' training for pilots flying traditional warplanes.

The Air Force also has converted seven Air National Guard squadrons into intelligence units to help analyze drone video. About 2,000 additional Air Force intelligence analysts are being trained.

After the attack that killed the Afghan villagers in February 2010, the U.S. Army Special Operations Command questioned whether civilian contractors had a "potential conflict of interest" in analyzing drone video feeds.

A civilian "might be reluctant to make a definitive call, fearing liability or negative contractual action" if he or she passed on incorrect information that was used to call an airstrike, the command said.

McHale rejected that argument. "Although I recognize that a contractor will have a corporate interest separate and distinct from the military interest, in this instance I found no action or inaction by screeners that negatively influenced the engagement," he responded, according to Pentagon documents.

By law, decisions to use military force must be made by the military chain of command or, in the case of CIA strikes, by civilian officials authorized to conduct covert operations under presidential findings or other specific legal mandates.

Writing in a military law journal in 2008, Lt. Col. Duane Thompson, chief lawyer for the Air Force Operations Law Division, warned that allowing nonmilitary personnel to communicate targeting information directly to pilots would violate international laws of war.

Moreover, civilians are not subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which subjects military personnel to prosecution for war crimes or for violations of rules of engagement on when to use force.

"Persons who relay target identification for an imminent real-world mission to persons causing actual harm to enemy personnel or equipment should be uniformed military," Thompson wrote.

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