The Complex

Afghan Drone War in Steep Decline

A March 6 airstrike in Afghanistan killed at least five Afghan soldiers and wounded eight more - an egregious accident that prompted the U.S.-led military coalition to launch an ongoing investigation into what occurred. Afghan officials allege the attack was carried out by a drone, long the Obama administration's weapon of choice, while the U.S. says it involved a manned aircraft. Either way, the strike highlights an important -- and surprising -- shift:  Both the amount of time drones spend over Afghanistan and the number of total coalition airstrikes are in steep decline, and that trend is likely to accelerate as the U.S. withdraws most of its remaining troops in the months ahead.

Statistics released to Foreign Policy show that the amount of time spent  by U.S. drones over Afghanistan was down 22 percent between 2012 and 2013. The number of drone flight hours over Afghanistan dropped even more drastically over the last six months -- 30 percent over the previous half-year. Coalition officials declined to disclose the specific number of hours flown, but said the primary mission for U.S. drones - remotely piloted aircraft in military jargon -- remains intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance from the sky. The military also refused to say whether the numbers of drone strikes have been increasing or going down.

Drone usage declining in Afghanistan may catch some by surprise. The military has used them widely in other countries where the United States has a small presence of troops, including Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. It would seem logical, then, that with fewer U.S. troops now in Afghanistan, drones would be called on more. But it turns out the opposite is true: as the coalition military drawdown in Afghanistan continues, the amount of high-tech equipment used there also is declining. That goes not only for drones, but for ground-based surveillance equipment. One example commonly used by U.S. forces is the Ground Based Operational Surveillance System, typically known in military-speak as a "G-BOSS." It includes an 80-foot tower that has infrared cameras, radar equipment and other sensors on it, and is capable of watching insurgents from long distances.

Officials at the White House, Pentagon and the military coalition with headquarters in Kabul all declined to comment on the change. But retired Adm. James Stavridis, who served as the supreme allied commander of NATO until retiring last year, said that while technology has been helpful to U.S. forces, the gear wouldn't be as useful to the Afghans after coalition forces leave "because the enemy operates so often in a primitive context."

The Afghan forces' "knowledge of culture, language, geography, personality and so on means that they see the world in technicolor, while we are at best looking at a fuzzy black-and-white picture in so many scenarios," Stavridis said. "For counter-insurgency, the human and physical terrain knowledge is vital, the high-tech capability is helpful. While additive, high-tech is not crucial in my view."

The use of drones has continued to be controversial in Afghanistan, however, especially when it leads to civilians getting caught in the crossfire. In one recent example, a Sept. 7 airstrike in Kunar province, along Afghanistan's eastern border, killed 14 civilians, surviving family members later told the Los Angeles Times. The U.S. military coalition contended that 11 were killed, many of them insurgents, but villages later said the dead included women and children.

"There were pieces of my family all over the road," one 28-year-old farmer, Miya Jan, told the Times. "I picked up those pieces from the road and from the truck and wrapped them in a sheet to bury them."

The Air Force stopped releasing statistics about the number of drone airstrikes it conducted last year, causing outcry from transparency advocates. U.S. Central Command told Air Force Times last year that the decision was made because doing so placed a disproportionate emphasis on the strikes, rather than other drone missions. The change occurred as both Afghan President Hamid Karzai and some members of Congress increasingly called for scrutiny on them.

The military coalition in Kabul says that drones -- remotely piloted aircraft, or RPAs, in military jargon -- are used judiciously, however.

"Only 3 percent of RPA sorties are involved in airstrikes," said Lt. Col. Will Griffin, a coalition spokesman in Kabul. "Our efforts to reduce civilian casualties are comprehensive and involve our civilian casualty mitigation board, as we as tightly restricted, meticulously planned, carefully supervised and coordinated use of aerial weapons applied by qualified personnel. This applies to both manned and remotely piloted aircraft."

The latest numbers released show that the overall air war in Afghanistan continues to decline. The Air Force dropped weapons 400 times between November and February, a 60 percent decrease when compared to the same period a year ago. The heaviest single month of the air war came in October 2010, as the United States flooded thousands of additional troops into Afghanistan and assaulted numerous areas of the country that had little coalition presence. The Air Force dropped 1,043 weapons that month alone - 82 percent more than it did this past October.

Defense Department photo

National Security

Did Obama Order a New Cyber Attack?

On June 21, 2013, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, issued a classified order authorizing the military to conduct an operation in cyberspace. That the order came down through the military chain of command, from President Barack Obama to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and then to Dempsey, seems beyond doubt. The question is, did the military actually launch a cyber attack on a computer network -- which would be one of the few in documented history -- as a result of the order?

That's the intriguing possibility raised by an Air Force document released earlier this month that contains a single, veiled reference to a "execute order," or a command to initiate military operations. One sentence in the 15-page document, which is filled with military jargon, states that command and control procedures governing the Air Force's offensive and defensive operations in cyberspace "are addressed in a classified CJCS Execute Order (title classified) issued on 21 Jun 13." (The acronym refers to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.) The existence of the document was first disclosed by Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists.

An execute order is the equivalent of a green light for battle. But the document says nothing about whether this particular order was followed by any further instructions or if it precipitated a cyber strike by the Air Force. And it says nothing about what the target might be. The United States used a cyber weapon to disable centrifuges inside an Iranian nuclear plant between 2007 and 2010. If the Air Force order pertains to an actual attack, it would be one of the few documented instances of the military doing battle on a computer network.

But former military intelligence officers, including two with first-hand experience conducting offensive operations on computer networks, urged caution, saying that the document could could be a kind of "standing order" and indicate that the Air Force is gearing up for a possible cyber attack, but not that it has necessarily conducted one. The Army, for instance, has for several years had a standing execute order that describes the duties and responsibilities of all aspects of cyber operations within the Army's own computer networks, but it didn't direct forces to carry out a specific operation, like an attack, said one former official.

An order to strike a computer network would also come from the commander of U.S. Cyber Command, who oversees cyber war and defense for all branches of the armed forces, the formers officials said. The current commander, Gen. Keith Alexander, is expected to step down soon and would be replaced by Adm. Michael Rogers, whose nomination is pending in the Senate. If there had been an attack, it would likely be spelled out in another document, called an "operational order," from the cyber commander, one former official said.

Of course, such an order might exist. The Air Force document makes no mention of one. If Alexander did issue it to Air Force cyber forces, it would probably have been pursuant to the execute order given by Dempsey in June.

The Air Force didn't provide a comment for this article in time for publication.

Even if there was no cyber attack, the document further shows how Obama and his top military advisers have been laying out plans for the military to conduct operations in cyberspace and offers a rare glimpse into the bureaucratic workings of America's growing cyber force. It shows that, just as in conventional operations, rules and regulations, chains of command, and official hierarchies govern nearly every move the military makes.

The military's cyber war plans and the measures it takes to protect government networks are among the most highly classified secrets in the in the military. Senior officials have publicly declared cyberspace a "fifth domain" of operations where the armed forces must be ready to use force -- just as they are on land, in the air, at sea, and in space. And U.S. military and intelligence officials say the threat of cyber attacks from American adversaries, including China, Russia, and Iran, is growing.

The Air Force in particular has some of the most technologically savvy and experienced groups of cyber warriors in the armed forces. In an interview with Foreign Policy last July, Lt. Gen. Michael Basla, the Air Force's chief of information dominance and its chief information officer, said that Obama had begun to lay out lines of authority for conducting cyberspace operations.

Those rules are spelled out in a classified presidential directive that Obama issued in October 2012, but was never published. Revealed last year by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the directive makes clear that only the president can authorize the military to conduct cyber attacks, with the exception that the secretary of defense may give the order in the event of a national emergency, such as an imminent attack on a U.S. power grid or piece of critical infrastructure that could result in loss of life or significant damage to the economy. It also instructs the military to identify potential targets and be prepared to strike at them on the president's order.

The directive went out eight months before the Air Force execute order, suggesting that the latter could be an effort to codify the procedures for conducting a cyber strike should the president ever call for it.

"An execute order like this could describe a specific operation, but it could also be an order to implement a broad-based policy," like the president's directive, one of the former military intelligence officials said.

William Belcher / U.S. Air Force