The U.S. used a drone, controlled from an Air Force base thousands of kilometers away, to kill Iran’s top general. Are drones reshaping war?

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A U.S. MQ-4 Predator drone at Balad Air Base, north of Baghdad, Iraq, 21 June 2007 (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

By Bernd Debusmann

The death of Iran’s most powerful general in a drone strike ordered by U.S. President Donald Trump has highlighted the vast scale and technical sophistication of U.S. drone warfare.

It has also raised fresh questions about high-tech assassinations and their effectiveness in changing the course of a conflict.

To help understand how drone strikes work, consider a few details about the January 3 killing of Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, which is part of the Iranian military, not a non-state group like Islamic State or al-Qaeda. The U.S. designated Quds a terrorist organization in 2007.

Soleimani had arrived at Baghdad airport shortly after midnight. He left the airport building after being greeted by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of a pro-Iranian Iraqi militia. According to media reports from the region and military sources in Washington, two cars were waiting outside. As they began pulling away, they were hit by 100-pound Hellfire missiles launched from MQ9 Reaper drones high overhead.

The cars exploded into fireballs, incinerating Solimani, al-Muhandis and eight of their aides.

Sent from across the globe

The American Air Force officer who pushed the launch button, killing Solimani, was sitting in front of a bank of computer screens at Creech Air Force Base in the U.S. state of Nevada, nearly 12,000 kilometers from Baghdad, U.S. military sources said.

For years, most of the American drones in the skies over conflict zones have been “flown” via satellite links from Creech, which according to an Air Force fact sheet is “the home base of remotely piloted aircraft systems which fly missions across the globe.”

While the drones, officially known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are physically located on bases in the Middle East, Central and South Asia and Africa, they are controlled from the United States, where pilots deeply resent comparisons with video game players. They face no physical risks, but a 2013 Pentagon study found that pilots of drone aircraft experience stress of the same intensity as pilots of manned aircraft.

Details on Soleimani’s itinerary, precise enough to be coordinated with a drone strike, came from agents working for U.S. intelligence and from days of aerial surveillance of his activities. Why the American president ordered his death has become a subject of dispute. Trump and others in the U.S. administration have offered shifting reasons for the strike. Doubting lawmakers have demanded evidence that Soleimani posed an imminent risk.

Lethal action

The American campaign to kill individuals on an enemies list by remote control began in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.

A few weeks later, the U.S. military succeeded in fitting Hellfire missiles to Predator drones previously only used for surveillance. The first attempt to use the new weapon failed on October 7: The missiles missed a convoy carrying the supreme leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammed Omar.

Despite the miss, the era of the armed drone had begun, soon followed by a legal distinction between “assassination” and “targeted killing.” The former was expressly banned by a succession of executive orders, the latest issued by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 and still valid.

“No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination,” the order says.

After September 11, administration lawyers came up with a definition that skirted the ban on assassinations. The new expression, “targeted killings,” applied to cases of self-defense against imminent threats.

There has been no definition of “imminent,” and critics have likened the term “targeted killing” to “enhanced interrogation,” the term used to skirt a ban on torture.

The idea of lethal action without risking American lives appealed to former U.S. President Barack Obama, a law professor before he entered politics.

In his eight years in office, Obama gave the green light to 563 drone strikes, according to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Under his predecessor, George W. Bush, there were 57. The number of civilians killed runs into the hundreds — “collateral damage,” in military jargon. While Trump has embraced drone strikes, military experts agree they have been less frequent than they were under Obama.

Proliferation of drones

In the 19 years between the failed drone killing of Mullah Mohammed Omar and the death of Soleimani, drones became a central part of the American arsenal. Drone production and use exploded: In the late 1990s, they numbered in the dozens. By 2014, specialist websites tallied more than 10,000.

The growth was so rapid that by 2011, the Air Force was training more drone pilots than pilots of bombers and fighters, according to then Air Force Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz.

Unmanned aircraft come in a large variety of sizes and ranges, from drones no bigger than those flown by civilians for weekend fun with their children to the Global Hawk, a massive, long-range reconnaissance aircraft with a wingspan larger than a Boeing 737’s.

The rapid proliferation of drones in the U.S. military prompted other countries – friends and foes alike – to start their own drone programmes. According to a report last year by the Center for the Study of Drones at New York’s Bard College, 95 countries now operate military drones.

They include Iran, which used a swarm of 18 drones and several missiles to hit oil processing facilities in Saudi Arabia last September. The strike on Aramco, the state-owned oil company, temporarily knocked out oil production by the world’s largest processing unit and reduced world oil supply by five percent.

Dan Gettinger, director of the Center, noted that the proliferation of drones around the world “will have a significant effect on the future of armed conflict.” It remains to be seen what that effect will be and to which extent other countries will follow the U.S. example and use their drones to kill adversaries.

(For other News-Decoder stories on drones, click here.)

THREE QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:

  1. Why did the author contrast the Iranian military with ISIS and al-Qaeda?
  2. Do you think a drone operator in Nevada can be considered a combatant?
  3. “Imminent” is a flexible term. How would you define it?

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Bernd Debusmann is a News-Decoder correspondent and former columnist for Reuters who worked as a correspondent, bureau chief and editor in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and United States. He has reported from more than 100 countries and lived in nine. He was shot twice in the course of his work – once covering a night battle in the center of Beirut and once in an assassination attempt prompted by his reporting on Syria.

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