27 April 2014

The usual bosh is getting into the press about the technological
prowess of U.S. weaponry as deployed against Afghanistan. He's been getting
some great scoops in his New Yorker dispatches, but in this instance,
Seymour Hersh ran some amazing rubbish in the New Yorker a couple of weeks
ago about the capabilities of the Predator unmanned reconnaissance vehicle.
So did Thomas Ricks in the Washington Post in a story titled "U.S. Arms
Unmanned Aircraft/Revolution In Sky Above Afghanistan." The Predator is made
by General Atomics, a San Diego-based company, and each plane costs $20.5
million, which is a bargain in this day and age, though you don't get much
for your money.

Hersh described a Predator operation over Afghanistan wherein
the machine was supposedly "capable of beaming high-resolution images ...
identified a group of cars and trucks fleeing the capital (Kabul) as a
convoy carrying Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader ... The Predator tracked the
convoy to a building where Omar, accompanied by a hundred or so guards and
soldiers, took cover." At this point, the Predator's controllers could have
directed it to fire its two "powerful" Hellfire missiles to eliminate the
one-eyed Mullah Omar. But, alas, a finicky military (CENTCOM JAG) lawyer was
queried in "real time" and nixed the plan.

This is one hell of a remote-controlled machine, if you believe
Hersh's source. It was able to identify a "group of cars and trucks" as
conveying Mullah Omar; to distinguish "guards" from "soldiers," and to
target the building "where Omar (himself) ... took cover." Quite obviously,
the Predator was able to distinguish the specific signature of Mullah Omar's
convoy (from any other conglomeration of "cars and trucks"); could tell the
difference between "guards" from "soldiers," and, finally, recognized Mullah
Omar himself.

Sniffing eagerly along the trail blazed by Hersh, the Washington
Post article picked up on this event as described by the New Yorker and
characterized Predator's capabilities as "a revolutionary step in the
conduct of warfare" and "a turning point in military history." The point was
confirmed in the Post's article by "an expert in military strategy at John
Hopkins," Eliot Cohen, who issued the solemn judgment that " this war is
going to give you the revolution in military affairs."

Whenever you hear the words "revolution in military affairs" be
aware that the Brooklyn Bridge is on the auction block. Discussing the Hersh
story, a knowledgeable Hill staffer drew our attention to the Pentagon's
unclassified "Operational Test & Evaluation Report" on the Predator from
September 2001 (i.e. well before the articles). It highlighted numerous
shortcomings, such as "poor target location accuracy, ineffective
communications, and limits imposed by relatively benign weather, including
rain, negatively impact missions ... " To sum up: The best Predator sensor
needs daylight and clear skies, and at operational ranges (15,000 to 30,000
feet) it can make gross distinctions between what type of vehicle it is
looking at.

Now recall the Predator of Hersh and the Post's Ricks,
distinguishing between not just tanks and trucks (and cars) but between just
anybody's car or truck and Mullah Omar's. They also had Mullah Omar himself
driving around and running into buildings.

There is an alternative explanation for the Predator
capabilities described in these articles: The Predator got close to these
targets to overcome its resolution deficiencies; very, very close. If that
were the case, the authors failed to mention it. If that had been the case,
Predator also would have almost certainly been extremely vulnerable with its
low, slow, predictable flight path.

As one seasoned Hill staffer remarked apropos the Predator
puffery: "During the course of this conflict, there will likely be more puff
pieces on the wondrous capabilities of new (and some not so new) systems.
Waiting for GAO or some other entity to show more than one side of the story
can take an awfully long time -- if indeed GAO or others get it right. We
may need a real revolution in military affairs; we also need one on
reporting military hardware capabilities."

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St Clair of the

newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read
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