The Global Hawk is a persistent bastard. The single Rolls Royce turbofan engine that it carries on its back can keep it in the air, doing figures of eight at 60,000 feet, for upwards of 32 hours between refuelings. In April 2001, this little snit made aviation history when it completed the first non-stop flight across the Pacific Ocean by an unmanned, powered aircraft, flying from the Edwards Air Force Base, in California, to the Royal Australian Air Force Base, in Edinburgh, South Australia. After a brief R & R, the bird then participated in a series of exercises with the RAAF, the Royal Australian Navy and the US Navy, which led to another record – flying non-stop for 13,840kms (42 hours). This feat was recognized by Guinness World Records as the longest full-scale unmanned flight ever.
Oh yeah, America’s power, America’s resolve and America’s resourcefulness are unmatched. If only one could count integrity in, but hey, no one is perfect, right?
The Global Hawk is a busybee too. While it is buzzing around, its SAR-MTI sensor system watches everything that is moving on the ground 12 miles below, with a resolution of just 6ft . You might not be able to read the Arabic newsprint on a paper that a Bedouin might be reading down there but you sure could recognize the guy if he looked up at you. Besides the radar package, the Hawk also has an optical/infrared sensor with telescopic close-up capability. This one can literally count the hairs on your butt, if you are a Bedouin, squatting to take a leak in the bushes.
That is not all. The images and video that the Global Hawk records are transmitted in real time through a ring of geostationary communications satellites operated by the Joint Special Operations Command, from anywhere in the world
That June evening in 2011 one such Global Hawk had launched from the Khamis Mushayat Air Base, 200kms to the north in Saudi Arabia and was on station, circling over a section of the hills in the south of the Shabwah Province in central Yemen, relaying live video feed to around twenty military and civilian personnel sitting inside a large room in the Pentagon that had a large TV screen on one wall.
Dusk was settling over the dry undulating shrublands, when the watchers were rewarded by movement. A gaunt, heavily bearded and bespectacled man in his late thirties, emerged from a shack with two other individuals and got inside a dusty Toyota Tacoma truck, his face covered by a chequered keffiyeh. Before he opened the door of the vehicle, the bearded man committed a cardinal error – he looked up at the sky. The image, almost immediately run through sophisticated image analyzers 7000 miles away, was clear enough for the man to be positively IDed, as the man they were hunting – one of the world’s most dangerous Islamic terrorist masterminds, a man with a $10 million price tag on his head – Anwar Al-Awlaki.
Its wheels spinning briefly in the gravel to gain traction, the truck surged forward and began trundling down a trail toward a dirt road that would lead into the mountains. It was when the pickup was driving through Ataq, when the gathering gloom suddenly lit up with a blinding flash that was quickly followed by a roar which shattered the vehicle’s windows. At first Awlaki thought the attack was an ambush.
The sudden murderous intrusion was actually an AGM-176 Griffin Air-to-Surface missile from the Dragon Spear gunship that had appeared high overhead and the Griffin had done something unthinkable – it had missed the Toyota by a whisker.
“Speed up!” Awlaki yelled at the driver, while he looked around the truck and took stock of the situation. He was not hurt. The back of the pickup was filled with canisters of gasoline and they were still there, miraculously untouched.
“Alhamdulillah (Praise be to the Allah)”, the preacher breathed to himself, according to the detailed account of the incident which later appeared in his online terror mag, Inspire. Still believing it was a ground ambush, he broke security protocol and screamed for help into his satellite phone.
As the Toyota’s wheels spun desperately in the sand, scrambling to get away, the Global Hawk recorded the truck emerging from the dense cloud of smoke and dust from the strike. At JSOC, the mission controllers watched in disbelief. Later investigations would zero in on a malfunction in the Griffin’s targeting pod and guidance system which had lost the lock on the vehicle.
Awlaki’s misery however was just beginning. On came the next wave in the awesome strike capability of the most powerful nation on earth – the cavalry – carrier launched Harrier jump jets.
As the cleric cowered in the back seat of the pickup, Strike-2 set in motion. All of a sudden, the sky lit up with a fireball, so massive that the gawkers at JSOC got ready to pop the champagne, convinced that the terrorist was now truly history. But celebrations proved premature – on the large monitor the watchers gaped in shock as the truck emerged once again from under the smoke. Its back bumper seemed to have taken some punishment, but the truck was once again on the run, careening and weaving its way, trying to gain traction on the loose gravel, as it sped toward the shelter of the mountains to the south.
By then, the Harriers had been in the air too long and had to abandon the mission as they were running low on fuel. Banking steeply, they headed out over the gulf to make rendezvous with their base – the USS George Washington, a 104000-ton nuclear-powered Nimitz-class aircraft carrier that was a part of the two-carrier 5th Fleet. Bigger than most national navies of the world, the US 5th Fleet is tasked to patrol the waters around Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Yemen, Diego Garcia and Turkey. It includes 300 combat aircraft, 45 auxiliary aircraft (choppers and recon planes), 30 ships and 35000 personnel – sailors, marines, airmen and support staff.
To get a handle on the scale of things, the 5th Fleet restocks with 2 million bananas alone, every month. Judging by the ‘5th’, there must be at least four other fleets like this one and in fact there are even more, upto the 7th Fleet. Boy, they must be keeping the economy of one or two Central American ‘banana republics’ afloat, all by themselves.
Strike-3 (the drone) didn’t have the fuel problem that had made the Harriers turn back. The MQ-1 was built to stay in the air for 20 hours at a stretch. Launched from Camp Lemonnier, a strategically located US Military Base in Djibouti, at the Horn of Africa, the drone was idling at 25000feet, already locked on Awlaki’s Toyota. Its control had been handed over by the take-off specialist at Djibouti to its pilot – a US Army Lieutenant, sitting inside a trailer 50kms outside the Hungarian capital of Budapest .
It was when the frightened terrorist peered over the edge of the shattered window of the truck, desperately looking out for the perpetrators of what he though was an ambush, that he noticed the Predator in the sky above, a tiny spec which made an annoying buzz with its small rear-mounted Honeywell turboprop engine.
The sky quite literally rained down hell fire then. A Hellfire missile from the drone obliterated much of the landscape ahead of the truck in a flash and a resounding boom. Smoke and dust once again engulfed the area, completely choking off the view on the monitor back at the JSOC. The satellites that provided the video feed for the targeting, afforded only ‘top-down imagery’. And so the men in the JSOC sat around helplessly, while a large plume of smoke completely blocked their view.
Maybe their attention had been too focused on that one pickup, because they didn’t see the Suzuki Vitara SUV which slipped in under the smoke cover right then. It was driven by two brothers, Abdullah and Musa’d Mubarak al Daghari, known among the members of AQAP as the suicidally loyal ‘Al Harad brothers’. The Harad brothers quickly marshaled Awlaki and his driver into the Suzuki and themselves jumped into Awlaki’s pickup. They gave Awlaki directions to a patch in the mountains where he could take shelter. Awlaki hastily said goodbye and sped off in the Suzuki. The Harad brothers then headed in the opposite direction, driving in the truck the Americans had tried to blow up moments earlier.
As the two vehicles emerged from under the smoke and took off in opposite directions, the Americans running the operation had to decide which one to follow. They ended up making the wrong call, sticking with the Toyota. Awlaki managed to make it to the mountains and from there, he watched as another Hellfire came streaking down and blew up the pickup, instantly killing the Harad brothers. There had been one more Predator in the sky that he hadn’t noticed.
As the JSOC celebrated what it thought was a successful hit and the drones (now useless, relieved of their single warheads) turned their noses south and disappeared from his view, Awlaki knelt by some bushes on the hard rocky soil. He didn’t have a prayer mat but for once the sharp pain of the jagged stones against his knees did not seem to matter. He fished out the dog-eared Quran that had accompanied him ever since he had arrived from Britain and bowed his head in prayer. Quite inadvertently, his nervous fingers fluttered over the pages until they fell on one at random – a verse that, without ado, he began to recite in a flat monotone……
‘Praise be to Allah the ever benevolent and merciful – let it be said and let it be written that no human being will die until he completes his livelihood and reaches his appointed time…….’
(to be continued…)