Attrition: Hellfire, Reapers, Predators and Griffins


September 16, 2010: The American UAV campaign against the Taliban and al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan is into its third year, and attacks are at an all time high. So far this year, there have been about two attacks a week. In some cases there have been as many as four in 24 hours. In all of 2009 there were 53 attacks, and only 35 in 2008. This year, it appears there will be well over a hundred attacks. While there are more attacks, fewer civilians have been killed. It's difficult to tell who is an innocent civilian in these circumstances, but since the Taliban have rarely claimed, and identified civilian deaths from these attacks, there are apparently very few civilians killed. There are several reasons for this. One is better intel, but there's a new weapon in use. The CIA controlled UAVs are using a smaller missile; the Griffin. This enables targets to be destroyed with less risk to nearby civilians. The Griffin is an alternative to the Hellfire II, which weighs 48.2 kg (106 pounds) and carries a 9 kg (20 pound) warhead and has a range of 8,000 meters. In contrast, the Griffin weighs only 16 kg (35 pounds), with a 5.9 kg (13 pound) warhead which is larger, in proportion to its size, than the one carried by the larger Hellfire missile. Griffin has a pop-out wings, allowing it to glide, and thus has a longer range (15 kilometers) than Hellfire. UAVs can carry more of the smaller missiles, typically two of them in place of one Hellfire.

In the last three years, the UAV campaign in Pakistan has killed about a thousand people. Some 30 percent of the dead were civilians, largely because the terrorists try to surround themselves with women and children. The Taliban and al Qaeda don't like to discuss these attacks, even to score some media points by complaining of civilian casualties. But the U.S. and Pakistani intelligence services do monitor radio and email in the area, and believe that about 700 terrorists, including two dozen senior al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, and nearly a hundred mid-level ones, have died from the UAV missile attacks. Civilian deaths are minimized by trying to catch the terrorists while travelling, or otherwise away from civilians. Journalists visiting the sites of these attacks later, find few locals claiming lots of civilian casualties. Unlike Afghanistan, the Pakistani Pushtuns tend to avoid criticizing their government, for fear of retribution from tribal leaders or the government itself.

In North Waziristan, a section of Pakistan's tribal territories that borders Afghanistan, there is growing fear among the Islamic militants who have long used the area as a base area and refuge. That's because of American UAVs, often operating in pairs, or packs of four, that roam the skies almost constantly. Terrorist leaders are now terrorized, and have cut back on travel, and use of satellite phones. When terrorist leaders do travel, they try to use public transport, surrounded by women and children. The terrorists know that American ROE (Rules of Engagement) discourage "collateral damage" (civilian casualties), so the terrorists try to have women and children around at all times. But the locals know that the ROE doesn't absolutely forbid civilian casualties, and either refuse to rent rooms in their compounds to al Qaeda or Taliban leaders, or flee if the terrorists insist on staying.

The Arabs and Afghan tribesmen have long been impressed by Western technology, and tend to exaggerate its capabilities. After you've handled an iPhone for a few minutes, that's not hard to do. So the continuing accurate missile attacks have the terrorists imagining all manner of capabilities for the UAVs and missiles.

While the terrorist groups are concerned about the losses, especially among the leadership, what alarms them the most is how frequently the American UAVs are finding their key people. The real problem the terrorists have is that someone is ratting them out. Someone, or something, is helping the Americans find the terrorist leaders. That would be Pakistani intelligence (ISI), which promptly began feeling some heat when the civilians were back in power in 2008. After the purge of many Islamic radical (or pro-radical) officers from ISI, the information from the ISI informant network began to reach the Americans.

This UAV campaign is hitting al Qaeda at the very top, although only a quarter of the attacks so far have taken out any of the most senior leaders. But that means over half the senior leadership have been killed or badly wounded in the last two years. Perhaps even greater damage has been done to the terrorist middle management. These are old and experienced lieutenants, as well as young up-and-comers. They are the glue that holds al Qaeda and the Taliban together. Their loss is one reason why it's easier to get more information on where leaders are, and why rank-and-file al Qaeda and Taliban are less effective of late. The deaths of so many bodyguard and aides has rank-and-file terrorists thinking that the Hellfire missiles are actually being fired at any al Qaeda or Taliban, no matter what their rank.



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