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VIEW: Behold a Pale Drone...& Hell(Fire) followed with it

First Published in Economic Affairs (Pakistan) / Dec 2013 Issue

The PM reportedly smiled during joint exercises held in the aftermath of an American strike that took out TTP mastermind Hakimullah Mehsud. It was triggered by one little demo, where a drone was downed - by us, in real time - with some 35mm Oerlikon guns.

A year ago Pakistan had put its pet drone technology on display in the International Defense Exhibition & Seminar (IDEAS). The interest in drone tech surfaces from time to time. It is usually preceded by a laundry list of demands that yoyo between two distinct themes - American drones (shoot ‘em), and NATO supply routes (shut ‘em). Those who bore witness to Pak armed forces fearsome capability and (drone) targeting skills in “Azm-e-Nau 4”, naturally wonder when and if they will ever get to use them. Our ROE’s (Rules of Engagements) permit action against combat aircraft that violate the airspace provided the wreckage falls within our territory. The last clause does not apply in situations where war has been officially declared. Drones fulfill the criterion, but only partially so it is not open season.

A few years ago a pair of ‘MH-60 Black Hawk’ flew under the radar and came prepared to deal with retaliation which never came, The air space violation exposed a breach in the Western border we later tried to patch up. Drones arrive unescorted. Our interception time may have improved since then but there are multiple layers of complexities to engaging intruding UAV’s that are seldom considered. That they would probably consider similar contingency plans for their unmanned missions if they expect to be challenged at the gate is a given. The next generation of predators will be equipped with proper radar jamming capability programmed to make short work of ground defense. Their escorts would take care of the rest.

Unlike previous conflicts, between PAF vs. IAF or PAF pilots vs. Israeli’s where the former acquitted itself with honour, PAF vs. USAF, is a different ballgame and will invoke a new set of rules and demand some major strategic reshuffling. Since both nations are, if not on the same page, then flailing around the same chapter makes military action unrealistic. It also makes televised sessions starring leaders of the free world yowling about sovereignty, irrelevant.

Curtailing drone strikes was on Pak delegation’s agenda when they flew off to Washington this October. The Premier’s request to Obama was allegedly met by a non-committal shrug. A promise grudgingly given to hit pause on strikes anytime peace is in the works, would later be followed by an attack on the fringes of KPK. (21 Nov 2013). Technically this attack was Haqqani related - a group not under the peace umbrella. Yet as they inch closer to settled territory, we stray deeper into a Catch-22 nightmare impossible for spin-doctors to juggle. Drones will probably remain on the menu as long as HVT’s stay on the horizon.

But shadow wars have a dark side that makes them untenable. According to one news agency, Obama signed up for every Pentagon strike but the CIA had autonomy allowing it to operate outside the perimeters. This came in handy when they mistakenly took down a ‘jirga’ instead of the ‘enemy’ and could walk away with an ‘oops my bad’ instead of being court-martialed. But there are some who divide the blame evenly between the two allies.

A piece by a former Navy aviator / top gun graduate (Michael W. Lewis) challenges the grim statistics wielded in the wake of surgical strikes, and diverts attention to Pak military presence maintained in that area that he believes is responsible for much of the fear, and perhaps some of the mayhem. He is referring to a suspected U.S. strike that killed a 68 year old grandmother (Mamana Bibi) last year and flourishes an Amnesty Report in the air to drive his point home. Our fleet of Falco’s that reportedly fly lower than their US counterparts as they patrol the area are his smoking gun as he probes the events of 24 October 2012. Once upon a time we covered for our allies – Lewis’s arguments would imply that they might be returning the favor.

While Amnesty acknowledges the difficulties in gathering ‘Intel’ from no man’s land, the eye witness accounts cited by the author are used as primer. Their statements insist that “up to three drones were hovering above their home for some hours before and at least several minutes after her killing.” Formation flying is admittedly a fighter’s style as he points out, but Pak military does not have Hellfire missiles, which is how they were busted when they tried to take credit for an early drone attack that killed an Egyptian Al Qaeda commander in a bid to cover for the U.S in 2006. The story fell apart when a journalist called Hayatullah Khan exposed the lie and in doing so perhaps signed his death warrant. Since U.S. drone appearances were not the norm back then, the revelation would trigger a chain reaction of resentment and rage that remains on perpetual simmer.

In Mamana’s case, Hellfire missiles were reportedly found on the scene. We still do not have any. The specter of official cover-ups rises unbidden. Journalists like Hayatullah who contradicted the sanctioned version have had a short life span. The so called ‘no-go’ areas do make it easy to keep that shroud of secrecy in place. A manned mission gone wrong is always possible. The accompanying PR nightmare which could affect our ability to conduct future operations – also possible. That said, blurring fact, fiction and fantasy together for the misdirection to work can only last so long with free spirits like Assange,or Snowden on the prowl. If there is any truth to these charges then it is bound to come out sooner or later.

The aviator also refers to the loud noise that kept residents of drone infested territories up. Those who lived among the roar of the jet planes would recognize the sound. But stealth crafts will seldom be described as loud else that will defeat their purpose. Analysts do refer to cases where low flying drones were deliberately deployed to keep the prey on its toes. The ‘whistling death’ usually heard seconds before impact that strikes terror into the hearts of its targets reportedly comes unannounced. An independent inquiry should be launched to plow through the debris of half truths and ‘need to knows’.

Of course none of this absolves either side from the responsibility of providing fair compensation to the victims ($100 does not count), or acknowledging the true cost of ‘signature strikes’ that has a fairly loose definition of ‘combatants’. Washington’s attempts to shift drone ops from CIA to the Defense Department to get that illusion of transparency was met with a nod of approval. There have been over 350 attacks since 2004 - the numbers have fallen over the years with 26 visitations in 2013. Scaling back strikes is on the cards.

The Pak military, on the other hand is busy readying its arsenal for future wars. Pakistan reportedly lacks armed drone tech at the moment. The Falco UAV in production with Selex Galileo (Italy) since 2009 however may be destined for greater things. It has been described as a ‘medium-altitude, medium-endurance surveillance platform capable of carrying a range of payloads including several types of high resolution sensors.’ It could be a useful ally in our COIN (Counter insurgency) operations.

The military option against U.S. drones is always on the table but remains unviable as long as any tacit cooperation is in place and a common enemy lurks nearby. The haze of confusion maintained by an impetuous leadership contaminates the narrative, as does their contradictory stance on unmanned operations. They probably need the plausible deniability for later when they go talking peace.

But the storm whipped up for domestic consumption leads to wasted hours spent logging protests, serving demarches and taking services chiefs away from their job to pacify a gaggle of irate Parliamentarians curious about their warriors continued silence. While it is good to order a review of military preparedness every now and then, it should be viewed in the context of political fall-outs, covert deals, secret bases and diplomatic farces.

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