September 15, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Fatal Mistakes in the Fight on Terror

• The news that the Egyptian military attacked a tourist convoy, killing twelve civilians, is the latest case in which civilians have been mistaken for insurgents

• Drone and airstrikes without on-the-ground spotters are inherently inaccurate, and while they give the illusion of a ‘clean strike,’ they tend to cause as many problems as they address

• While trying to be as precise as possible, the U.S. military has repeatedly seen airstrikes based on profiles or patterns go horribly wrong, especially in Afghanistan

• As countries are understandably more reluctant to insert troops into complicated and ill-defined conflicts, drones and airstrikes are filling a larger role in threat mitigation, with uneven results.


The reports that an Egyptian Apache attack helicopter accidentally attacked a four-vehicle convoy of Mexican tourists in the western desert, killing twelve and injuring ten, are a tragic example of how difficult airstrikes are without on-the-ground information. The issue is both a tragedy for the families involved and a policy challenge for many nations, as airstrikes and drone strikes have increasingly become the tactic of choice in combating terror. While mistakes are inherent in armed conflict, airstrikes and drone strikes are particularly susceptible to tragedy when there are no trained spotters in place to properly identify a threat, or lack thereof.

Trying to identify threats while flying at several hundred feet over terrain in which insurgents are mixed in with civilians is a recipe for disaster. In July, a U.S. airstrike killed at least ten Afghan soldiers in Logar Province, after the pilot mistook the soldiers for insurgents. Another airstrike last week in Helmand Province killed eleven counter-narcotics agents—again a result of mistaken identity, though it is unclear who conducted the airstrike, as NATO flatly denies any involvement. The 14 years of combat in Afghanistan have seen numerous incidents of ‘friendly fire’ that have created serious rifts between the Afghan government and the coalition forces conducting most of the strikes.

Making a proper and timely assessment of a potential target from the air is hard enough for pilots; when it comes to unmanned drone strikes, the issue becomes far more difficult. Most U.S. airstrikes are done without on-the-ground spotters; the U.S. is understandably reluctant to put personnel into fluid and unsecured environments without appropriate force protection. Despite the Hollywood image of pinpoint accuracy, drone strikes are quite often error-prone, since drone operators do not have an adequate picture of the target and surroundings. Very often, in a ‘signature strike,' the object in question is targeted based on behavior patterns or a profile, rather than an actual identification. Cars moving in a certain area in a particular formation can either be insurgents moving to attack or could be civilians going about their lives. Drone operators often have very uncertain information with which to base decisions that result in very absolute outcomes: death and injury.

The Saudi-led and U.S.-supported air campaign in Yemen has made several mistakes that have killed almost 2,000 civilians. Airstrikes on a bottling plant, mosques, apartment buildings, and camps are the result of improper targeting and the attempt to fight a war from the air with no one on the ground to call in the strikes. It reduces the casualties of those conducting the airstrikes while increasing the casualties of those mistakenly identified as combatants.

The problem will likely get worse as more nations turn to drones and airstrikes as the preferred ‘clean’ military tactic. Better optics may make it easier to identify friend or foe, but they cannot replace eyes on the ground. Signature strikes were once a last resort for the most immediate and critical of threats. Now the tactic is widespread; both manned and unmanned combat platforms strike something or someone not because it is a target, but because it has behaved similar to one. Today’s conflicts are exceedingly dirty; there are no defined lines or actors, and there is no clean strike capability that can bring about their resolution.


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