“…The West’s war on Islamist terror is currently being waged between these two conflicting priorities. Nothing is more indicative of the asymmetry of the war, and nothing is as symbolic of the cultures that are waging it. It’s a war between those who are willing to sacrifice everything and those who are unwilling to give up anything — a war of sacrifice versus convenience, bodies versus technology and risk versus safety.” – Dirk Kurbjuweit, in Der Spiegel.


The writer, Dirk Kurbjuweit, appears to think that this war against extremists is a sort of  ‘virtueless war’. One without chivalry and sacrifice in the technology being used.

Maybe, but to him, I have this to say…..so what?

In the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, in a blind rush to seek vengeance, a number of eminent American scholars, journalists and politicians (Republicans and Democrats alike), suggested that the US government should remove all legal shackles on targeted killings. The ban on state-sponsored assassination had been in place since the Presidency of Gerald Ford in the 70s, through an Executive Order. After the towers fell, advocates for lifting the ban contended that the ability to eliminate key targets within a framework that is legal within the US would be a necessary tool for it to prosecute its new war against terrorism.

The first step that President George W Bush took after 9/11 was to acknowledge that the US had a war to fight, a war where the rules of engagement of conventional warfare didn’t apply. As a start, he officially termed the hunt for terrorists as a ‘war against terror’ and designated terrorists as enemy combatants, endangering the safety and security of the US, its citizens and the rest of the free world. The targeted killings of such individuals would then lie well within US law and would be accepted by its close allies.  I won’t mince words here. I am in complete agreement with this policy. I’m hoping that one day, my own country of birth, India, will develop the capability to annihilate anyone who seeks refuge across our western borders and trains to kill ordinary Indians.

Having taken care of the legality issue, the US Government centralized all unmanned combat drone operations under the Special Operations Group, a shadowy cell within the CIA, basing it’s operational headquarters at the Creech Air Force Base near Indian Springs, in Nevada.

Enter the Paveway series of drones. I’m not sure how the name ‘drone’ got coined. Some believe that the name was derived from the first unmanned aircraft designed in the UK in the 1930s for military use, which was given the name ‘Queen Bee’. But maybe the name was coined from the monotonous, high-pitched sound that a drone is heard to make in flight.

First came the Predator, which is basically an airborne surveillance platform with a couple of Hellfire missiles to kill any target of opportunity. Then came the larger and swifter Reaper which is a heavily armed hunter-killer that also has surveillance capability. The Reaper carries two 500lb GBU-12 Paveway laser-guided bombs, each capable of vaporizing a large sized reinforced concrete structure and its inhabitants. You may have heard of the GBU earlier, as the ‘smart bomb’ of the ’91 Gulf War. The current upgrade is far more lethal and accurate.

The Reaper is the ‘Lone Ranger’ to the Predator’s ‘Daniel Boone’. Though faster than the Predator, the Reaper is still slow enough at 300 mph to enable it to circle 25000ft above a targeted site for hours like a falcon, while it waits for the prey to emerge and be positively identified through its high definition video cameras. Night vision is no problem, with it’s high resolution, image-enhancing infra-red video camera through which you can watch a target, clear as day. A laser-guided Hellfire missile or a GBU-12 then takes care of the rest. The image below gives salient details on the two drones.

Click on the image below-


(Image courtesy Der Spiegel)

With the Predator and the Reaper deployed, the bad guys suddenly realized that they had virtually no place to hide. Most times, treachery from within gave their locations away. Instead of planning further terrorist strikes, these gents began spending more and more time watching their backs, emerging only to change residence frequently, sending messages only through couriers because these drones can pick up phone calls.

I would have asked the bearded one to start making reservations for those 72 virgins right away. The leader of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, Baitullah Mehsud, reclining on his cot on his father-in-law’s rooftop, had no clue that his end was near. 7500 miles away, inside an air-conditioned trailer at the Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, drone pilot, Major Curtis Oakley, had finally received the confirmation just a minute ago. He proceeded to orient and arm one of the GBU-12, holding the cross hairs of the laser guidance system steady on the Taliban leader’s chest. Satisfied that his sensor operator, Lt. Kyle Caldwell had the target well illuminated, his thumb came down on the red button on the joystick.

Oakley cannot recall when the boy first appeared on the screen, but he is positive it was well beyond the cut-off point of 12 seconds to detonation before which the warhead could have been reprogrammed. On the video feed, he watched in horror as a small boy suddenly appeared on screen as he raced up the naked concrete stairs onto the roof with something in his hand that he now ran across to hand over to the Mehsud. It looked like a wireless handset or some sort of remote control.

The kid couldn’t have been more than 7 or 8, dressed in crumpled khaki shorts and bare feet. In that frozen moment, with  the boy still a couple of feet from the terrorist leader, the GBU-12 struck in a blinding flash that consumed the entire building, releasing a great mushroom shaped fireball and thick smoke that dissipated and cleared quickly to reveal the extent of devastation. Where the building had been was just this huge crater with absolutely nothing recognizable anywhere nearby.

Major Curtis Oakley’s voice was a hoarse whisper as he spoke into his headset, “Target neutralized.”

“Well done, Major, you can catch that coffee now,” said his commander who had been watching the operation from a remote corner of a military airfield in Saudi Arabia.

But Oakley remained glued to his seat, unable to move. He turned toward Caldwell,” Was that a boy we just took down?”

“It was a boy all right,” came the response.

“It was not a boy, people, it was a dog,” The voice from Saudi Arabia floated in, driving home a message.

Lt. Caldwell looked at Oakley,” A dog on two legs?”

In drone strikes, the US have strict guidelines, one which says that a strike is prohibited if there is a possibility of innocents being within the kill radius. However, American rules of engagement are replete with amendments, one of which was applied tonight. This amendment makes it clear that, if the target is very high value, such as Baitullah Mehsud had been, then any collateral damage, however unfortunate, is permitted. The Reaper’s video feed was now showing a small crowd gathered at the blast site, when Oakley’s headset crackled one last time. The voice, spanning two continents, was curt.

“Erase the tape, Major, erase it now. That’s an order.”