27 November 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 muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2001 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.