Drone surge

Technology Use of unmanned aircraft over central Asia is on the rise as the war there ‘ends’ | Daniel James Devine

Drone surge

DRONE: U.S. Air Force Predator at unnamed location.
Staff Sgt. Jeremy T. Lock/USAF/AP

President Barack Obama has spoken of ending the war in Afghanistan in order to “do some nation-building here at home.” He has reduced the number of American troops in Afghanistan to 68,000, down from the height of 100,000 last year. His plan is to end combat operations there by 2014.

But as troops withdraw, other U.S. firepower has increased. Drones are now making more strikes against Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan than at any point during the 11-year conflict. Newly released figures from the U.S. Air Force for the first time chart the number of annual “weapon releases” from U.S. drones in Afghanistan—333 from January to October 2012, an average of about one strike per day.

Drones are responsible for only a portion of total U.S. air strikes in Afghanistan, which are decreasing overall. But the robotic aircraft are playing a more prominent role, carrying out 9 percent of all air attacks this year, up from 5 percent last year.

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Drones are a favorite counterterror weapon of the Obama administration, although the president rarely discusses the topic. Critics—both conservatives and liberals—say the administration should be more transparent about its drone strikes and the thousands of foreigners they kill, including not just terrorists but some civilians. 

Drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, though less frequent than in Afghanistan, are executed covertly by the CIA and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command, which draw from on-the-ground intelligence to target leading al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives.

The drone strategy for the global war on terror began under President George W. Bush and came of age under Obama, who has overseen about 350 strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia during the past four years, according to estimates published on Foreign Policy magazine’s website. Bush, by comparison, oversaw about 50 drone strikes in the region.

In November the U.S. Department of Defense began requiring its electronic parts suppliers to mark certain microcircuits with a special ink made of plant DNA. The ink glows under laser light and is difficult to replicate, making it an ideal tool to prevent unscrupulous suppliers from selling fake electronic components to the government.

Counterfeit electronics—flawed, sometimes recycled parts passed off as top-grade components and deeply discounted—are a growing problem for the military, aerospace, and healthcare sectors. In October the research firm IHS reported the number of “high risk” suppliers the U.S. government flagged as unsafe for contracts because of questionable business practices (including counterfeiting) increased about 60 percent over the past decade, to 9,539 in 2011. Earlier this year the company noted the number of global incidents involving counterfeit electronics reached a record high in 2011. The estimated value of such parts in the U.S. supply chain is $5 billion.

Counterfeit parts are dangerous because a flawed component could cause a medical device or an aircraft to malfunction. It’s also possible that foreign powers could purposely introduce flawed parts into the U.S. military supply chain, sabotaging jets or missiles. In 2010 the Missile Defense Agency found suspected counterfeit components inside the computers controlling its portable, high-altitude missile-defense system. The agency did fix the problem, but it cost taxpayers $2.7 million. —D.J.D.

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