Drone Wars : Throughline Unseen, they stalk their targets from thousands of feet in the air. Operators are piloting them from military bases halfway across the world. At any moment, they could launch a strike that comes without warning. The attack drone was supposed to be a symbol of the era of precision warfare — a way to wage wars with fewer casualties on both sides. It's a technology that's been honed since it was first dreamed up during World War 1. But are drones actually precise enough? Do drones desensitize us to the casualties of civilians caught between us and our enemies? In this episode, we will explore the past, present and future of drone warfare.

Drone Wars

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Before we get started, we want to let you know that this episode contains reenactments of violence and language that might be upsetting to some listeners.


ABDELFATAH: Sunday, February 21, 2010, on a mountain road in central Afghanistan.

ANDREW COCKBURN: It was the middle of the night when the story starts. There was no moon, so far as I know. It was also very cold, and a group of poor people who were crammed into these three very rickety vehicles were headed to Kabul - men and women and children, altogether about 30 of them. Some of the women are carrying turkeys, which they were bringing as presents for their relatives they were going to stay with in Kabul. The men were hoping to find work in Kabul, or some of them were going on to Iran.


Many of these people were...

COCKBURN: ...Hazaras, who are a Shia population in Afghanistan, who are considered heretics by the Taliban and treated mercilessly by the Taliban, and therefore they were afraid because they were traveling through Taliban-held territory. They thought, you know, they could get through in the dark, and no one would see them. So they thought they were alone. And they were wrong.


ARABLOUEI: Fourteen thousand feet above them, a predator drone as big as a three-story building flew between the clouds, virtually invisible to anyone looking up at the night sky, like a giant hawk circling its prey. Below its belly, a sensor with cameras tracked their every move, snapping infrared heat-sensing images and transmitting them to a satellite orbiting the Earth...

COCKBURN: ...Twenty-two thousand miles up above...

ARABLOUEI: ...Then down to a receiver in Ramstein, Germany...

COCKBURN: ...Then by fiber optic cable across Western Europe, across the Atlantic, across the continental United States...

ARABLOUEI: ...To a windowless metal box at a military base just outside Las Vegas, Nev.

COCKBURN: And that appears on the screen of the drone operators.

ARABLOUEI: Dressed in dark green Air Force flight suits with their hands on a joystick, the drone operators zoom in on the video image they've just received.

COCKBURN: That blurry, you know, somewhat indistinct image - black and white and shades of gray with the, you know, generally black and then blobs for the vehicles. And then they could see inside the vehicles individual blobs, which would be the people, and it's all completely silent. A routine day for a drone operator is mostly incredibly boring, sitting there looking at a TV screen for hours and hours and hours and hours, in which normally not much is happening.

ARABLOUEI: But on this particular day, the drone was deployed to keep watch over the area where a U.S. Special Forces team looking for insurgents was conducting a raid. So when the three rickety vehicles caught the eye of the drone, the operators were on high alert.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Screeners say at least one child in their SUV.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Bullshit. Where? Send me a fucking still. I don't think they have kids at this hour. I know they're shady, but come on.

ARABLOUEI: This interaction, which is dramatized here, comes from the actual transcript released by the military of conversations between drone operators on this mission. They suspected the group of people they were seeing through the drone images were MAMs - lingo for military-aged males, a.k.a. a potential threat. Even though the images were too blurry to really be able to tell, they were relaying that message up the chain of command - what they call the kill chain.


ABDELFATAH: 5:18 a.m. Central Afghanistan.

COCKBURN: The adults got out on a riverbank. The children stayed in the vehicles.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) They're praying.

COCKBURN: They get out to pray, which is what millions of - billions of Muslims do every morning, anywhere in the world.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) This is definitely it. This is their force. Praying? I mean, seriously, it's what they do.

COCKBURN: Everything was being fitted into a predetermined context of a threat.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) They're going to do something nefarious.

COCKBURN: So whatever the vehicles did was fitted into that threat. So at one point, they're heading towards the military, the American force that's on the ground. So that is construed as, you know, hey, they're moving towards our people. Therefore, they're a threat. Then the road, you know, bends, and they're now driving away from the military force on the ground, so therefore, that's construed as a flanking maneuver.

ABDELFATAH: 6:59 a.m.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Can't wait till this actually happens with all of this coordination and shit.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Yeah.


ARABLOUEI: The drone operators were convinced a threat was imminent and had alerted the U.S. Special Forces commander on the ground in Afghanistan. Plans for an attack were underway.

COCKBURN: By this time, dawn has broken, it's getting light, and they hear a thump of helicopter rotor blades. That was the first inkling they had that they were under observation by somebody. And they then begin to get very afraid, and they're telling the driver to slow down, not to look suspicious 'cause they knew that the sound of a helicopter anywhere near can mean danger.

ABDELFATAH: 8:45 a.m.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Hey, MC.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Yes?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Remember, kill chain.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Will do.


COCKBURN: The first rocket hit the vehicle in front. Bang on, killed 11 people right away. The second missile hit the one in the back. And then the third one just missed the third vehicle but blew out all the windows, killed some more people.


ABDELFATAH: 9:15 a.m.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) It looks like one of those in the bright garb may be carrying a child.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Younger than adolescent to me.

COCKBURN: It's now daylight, so they have a slightly better picture. And, you know, what had been just these, you know, MAMs, military-age males, were suddenly turning into women in burqas, and, you know, they could see there were children. We know that in that room thousands of miles away, the mood kind of changed, and they realized that they enabled a horrible thing. And one of them said...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Well, no way to tell, man.

COCKBURN: No way to tell. And the other one said...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) No way to tell from here.

COCKBURN: No way to tell from here.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

ABDELFATAH: The attack on February 21, 2010, left 23 civilians dead, including two children.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The leader of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan has gone on national TV there to apologize for a deadly airstrike on a convoy of civilians.

ABDELFATAH: The U.S. military took responsibility for the attacks and offered to pay reparations to the families of those killed.

COCKBURN: The families got $5,000 and one goat in compensation.

ABDELFATAH: Five thousand dollars and one goat.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: McCrystal, though, made a similar apology last year following another attack that killed civilians, and some say his words are starting to ring hollow.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: It's very difficult for us, for the people of Afghanistan, to find answer why civilian people are dying.


ABDELFATAH: In the weeks after, the U.S. military conducted an investigation into what led to this tragedy. The findings were published in a report. Andrew Cockburn read through that report over and over again while working on his book.

COCKBURN: "Kill Chain: The Rise Of The High-Tech Assassins."

ARABLOUEI: There's that phrase again - kill chain, the same one the drone operators used right before the attack was launched.

COCKBURN: Basically, it's a technical military term, describing the sequence of actions that you have to take from when you first perceive the target to when you actually destroy it or seek to destroy it. The kill chain isn't designed to kill civilians, but it often does, because the kill chain implies a precision all too often not there.

ARABLOUEI: And in recent decades, the kill chain has relied more and more on drones, those predators of the sky, circling above, watching and waiting.

COCKBURN: You have a technology that removes you from the fact that you're killing or thinking of killing a human being.

ABDELFATAH: Since that attack in 2010, the United States has conducted hundreds of drone strikes in Afghanistan alone. Many civilians have been caught in the crossfire, including most recently in an attack on a suspected ISIS target in Kabul that turned out to be faulty information. That attack, which killed 10 civilians, including seven children, was the last known military strike by American forces in Afghanistan before the U.S. officially withdrew after 20 years of war there.

ARABLOUEI: As more and more countries embrace this new drone-style warfare, we have to confront some difficult questions. What is the cost of distance? How does it change the way we as a society think about killing? And what happens when precision attacks go wrong?

ABDELFATAH: So on this episode of THROUGHLINE from NPR, we're exploring the past, present and future of drone warfare because one thing is clear - this is just the beginning.


TORI: This is Tori (ph) in Corvallis, Ore., and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4, BYLINE: Part 1 - Destroy Everything.


ABDELFATAH: On a cold, cloudy day in December of 1903, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, two brothers made history.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: The world's first airplane, created by Orville Wright and his brother Wilbur, is about to take flight. Here at Kitty Hawk, N.C., this primitive kite made aviation history.

ABDELFATAH: Wilbur Wright had tried and failed to pilot their newly invented flying machine just a few days earlier. So on this next attempt, his brother Orville geared up, braved the wind and climbed into the flyer.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: With this first catapulted takeoff, man's age-old dream of flight became a reality.


ABDELFATAH: The invention of aviation would change the world forever. It would change travel. It would change trade. And it would change war.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As Woodrow Wilson) It is a fearful thing to lead this great, peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance. But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts for democracy.

ARABLOUEI: On April 2, 1917, less than 15 years after the Wright brothers took that first flight, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to formally enter World War I.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As Woodrow Wilson) Such a concert of free peoples shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free.


JAMES ROGERS: And so you have hundreds of thousands of American troops who are deployed onto the bloodiest battlefields of Europe, into those entrenched, muddy, bloody places.

ARABLOUEI: The trenches were cold and damp and dirty, full of rats and lice, infections and disease. These dugouts were places full of nightmares, not dreams.

ROGERS: And you have a vast amount of casualties.

ARABLOUEI: Over 100,000 U.S. soldiers died, and almost twice as many were wounded.


ROGERS: And as this generation comes home - this lost generation, as it's often called - you have mass public outcry. You have protests in the streets. Why is it that America is sending its troops - its best, its brightest, its youngest, its sons - over abroad to fight these foreign wars? There wasn't the public appetite for this.

ARABLOUEI: This is James Rogers. He's a war historian who's co-writing a book called "Drone Warfare: Concepts And Controversies."

ROGERS: And there's a branch of the military, a fledgling branch of the military, that starts to listen to this public outcry. And this is the U.S. Army Air Service.

ARABLOUEI: The American people made it clear that they weren't going to stand for so many casualties. And so the military responded not by deciding to fight fewer wars, but how to fight wars with fewer deaths, a novel pursuit of how to fight ethically. And this brand-new branch of the military, the Air Service, thought, well, planes could help.

ROGERS: They're like, well, if we don't want to send our troops on the ground into these trench warfare battlefields, then maybe air power can provide us with an alternative. And they come up with this idea of instead of going through the enemy, you go over the enemy.

ARABLOUEI: Over the enemy with planes and bomb specific targets that were crucial to the enemy war effort, maybe weapons depots or industrial sites.

ROGERS: And actually, they ended up using the term precision bombing doctrine. So this term, precision, goes all the way back to 1917.

ARABLOUEI: And here's how it worked.


ROGERS: You fly over the enemy. You bomb their ammunition factories. You bomb their oil refineries. You bomb the places they make tanks. You bomb the places they make rubber. You bomb these things that weaken their ability to fight on the battlefield. And that means that when you eventually do send troops in to face the enemy, you won't have that entrenched, bloody, muddy warfare where it's a stalemate for years on end because the enemy has nothing to fight with. So you move through, and you move through swiftly to victory because air power allows you to do it.

ABDELFATAH: Because World War I sparked a public outcry over the hundreds of thousands of American dead and wounded, the pressure was on politicians to figure out a way to avoid this from ever happening again. And they saw precision bombing as the golden ticket.

ROGERS: And so quite a lot of money then goes into developing technologies that will allow this to happen

ABDELFATAH: Money that funded the first iteration of the drone.

ROGERS: Although it was perhaps more accurately known as the aerial torpedo. And this was the Kettering Bug.

ABDELFATAH: The Kettering Bug.

ROGERS: And this was invented by somebody called Charles Kettering, who was responsible for advancing all sorts of strange things. And it was a partner project with someone called H.H. Arnold.

ABDELFATAH: H.H. Arnold - one of the first-ever military personnel who was taught to fly by some of the only people who knew how to fly.

ROGERS: The Wright brothers. But this is how early we're talking here. This is fledgling air power. I mean, the planes have only just taken off the ground, and now we're already thinking how to use them and how to bomb and how to bomb in more of an ethical way, I suppose, if you can call it that.

ABDELFATAH: So 1917 is when Charles Kettering developed this first drone prototype, or aerial torpedo, and, as many male inventors like to do, named it after himself - the Kettering Bug. And what made this plane so dronelike? There was no pilot.

ROGERS: It was about the size of a normal single-engine plane.

ABDELFATAH: It was set on rails.

ROGERS: It had a Sperry gyroscope to keep it stable in the air.

ABDELFATAH: It had a motor.

ROGERS: And so it would take off in the air off these rails. It would fly straight as the crow flies. And then once that motor had spun its certain amounts of revolutions, it would shut off because, technically, then that would be when it was above the target.

ABDELFATAH: At that moment, the wings would fold up against the body of the plane.

ROGERS: And then it would swoop down on its enemy, on its prey, like an eagle.

ARABLOUEI: And it was automated, right?



ROGERS: It was as high-tech as you could get in 1917, '18.

ABDELFATAH: Which, turns out, wasn't high-tech enough. The bug had some bugs. It was a complete flop.

ROGERS: In reality, it was worse than useless. It would flail around in the sky. And it would even sometimes turn back on its own people who were testing it. So it was really unpredictable. But that almost doesn't matter in what we're talking about 'cause what matters is the intention behind it. And the intention there was to separate the human from the practice of killing, to separate American troops from having to be sacrificed in war and to be put at risk by deploying robots, remote systems, systems that could be sent off to go and kill the enemy without putting American service personnel at risk. And that was the birth of this idea.


ARABLOUEI: The Kettering Bug was revolutionary but, at the same time, a failure. The idea of a plane without a pilot that shed its wings and turned into a torpedo that could hit a precise target was literally too good to be true. But lessons were learned.

ROGERS: They learned that they had to use piloted aircraft to do the bombing because you needed the pilot to guide the aircraft.

ARABLOUEI: That in order to be precise, you still needed a human being to make the call. You needed a person behind the robot.

ROGERS: And what they did actually was they invented a thing called the Norden Bombsight. And this was by an engineer called Carl Norden.

ARABLOUEI: Right in time for the U.S. to use this technology in World War II. The Norden Bombsight wasn't a drone but was basically an early analog computer that helped a pilot drop bombs with more precision.

ROGERS: You could put in wind speed. You could put in altitude, the velocity, and it would compute when you should drop the bomb. And so when you were over the enemy cities and you had your target, it would tell the bombardier when they needed to release the bomb.

ABDELFATAH: Strategically, this was important. In the past, hitting targets was so unlikely that you had to fly tons of planes overhead over and over and over again and drop bombs over and over and over again in order to finally hit the intended target. This obviously wastes fuel, manpower, weapons and causes massive civilian deaths. The Norden Bombsight allowed you to, for the first time, somewhat successfully hit your target with just a few or sometimes even just one plane.

ROGERS: So there's a strategic element to it there, but there's also that moral element. I remember reading through the archives, and it said explicitly to avoid the enemy populace and their livelihoods.

ABDELFATAH: So you can stick to striking a weapons factory without obliterating the neighborhood next door.

ROGERS: Now, of course, there are blurred, gray lines there, but that's the ambition. This is the core of American bombing strategy through the early years of the war.

ABDELFATAH: This is in stark contrast to the strategy of their allies in Britain and enemies in Germany. Their air strategies were almost the opposite - to bomb the morale of the enemy.

ROGERS: To bomb their cities into submission - carpet-bombing, you could call it - destroy everything in order to destroy something...

ARABLOUEI: Including civilians.

ROGERS: Especially civilians, 'cause if you bomb the morale of a population, then you will force those civilians to go to their political leaders and say, stop this war. That's the theory behind it. I mean, you think of a Hamburg, you think of a Dresden - the firebombing of these places. You think of the destruction of London during the Blitz, of Coventry, of Hull, of Grimsby, of Plymouth. I mean, they are destroying each city systematically, one by one by one, in order to destroy the will of those publics.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: The face of London changed. Historic landmarks disappeared. Night after night, London was left a sea of fire.


ABDELFATAH: Britain's Winston Churchill tried to convince the U.S. to follow suit, telling them they needed to go big to win the war, that...

ROGERS: In order to destroy something, you have to destroy everything.

ABDELFATAH: And by the end of the war, the U.S. gave in.

ROGERS: And so you have this twist, this turn towards area bombing, carpet-bombing, which you see in places like Tokyo.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Superforts on Saipan, a task force of B-29s. Their noses point towards Japan. Their shining bellies are filled with bombs for Tokyo.

ROGERS: A hundred and eighty thousand dead in one night with the firebombing of Tokyo.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: The Nakajima aircraft plant is the main target.


ARABLOUEI: The irony of this shift in strategy is that when the U.S. decided that it needed to destroy something in order to destroy everything, like the firebombing of Tokyo...

ROGERS: To create maximum destruction.

ARABLOUEI: ...They used the technology invented to do the exact opposite, the Norden Bombsight.

ROGERS: And so this precision technology, with its moral and ethical intentions behind it, was turned to unintended extremes. You know, when it comes down to the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, what bombsight are they using to make sure that the bombs are dropped in the place they want to? Well, it's the Norden bombsight.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: The bomb was finally released exactly at the designated hour. And the explosion occurred as planned.

ROGERS: It's madness. Why are you thinking about precision when it comes to nuclear bombs?

ARABLOUEI: Well, for maximum impact.

ROGERS: To make sure that these expensive weapons are successful in their first test on an enemy target.


ABDELFATAH: The original intentions behind the creation of precision bombing was to save lives. But people discovered, as precisely as these weapons could save lives, they could take them.

ROGERS: Yeah. Exactly. I mean, some of the most heinous things in the history of humanity have happened with the best intentions.

ABDELFATAH: When we come back, precision gets an upgrade.


MARGARET: Hi. This is Margaret (ph) from San Francisco. And you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.


ABDELFATAH: Part 2 - white flags.


ARABLOUEI: After World War II, the United States military continued to experiment with both precision bombing and with pilotless spy planes. In every war, they tried something new. But it wouldn't be until the Vietnam War that they started to find some success with the drone.


ROGERS: When you think of Vietnam, you don't really think of precision, do you? There's not much precision in napalm. And there's not much precision in these vast, conscripted wars in which thousands of U.S. troops are sent into this battle.


UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER: I can't say that I'm scared stiff. But I'm scared. I mean, after a while, you know it's going to come. And you can't do nothing about it. And you just look to God. It's about the only thing you can do.

ROGERS: There's one side where precision missiles continue to be developed. And there's another side where drones continue to be tentatively developed.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: Some of the most remarkable contributions to aerial reconnaissance during the Vietnam War came from an unusual assortment of remotely piloted vehicles.

ARABLOUEI: And those remotely piloted vehicles, those drones flying high above the thick rainforest canopies of Vietnam, became known as

ROGERS: The Lightning Bug.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: The Ryan Firebee drone, otherwise known as the Lightning Bug.


ARABLOUEI: The Lightning Bug was a small aircraft, so small that it would be attached to a much larger one. And once that was in the sky, the Lightning Bug would be deployed and split off from it.

ROGERS: They were used to take pictures over enemy territory. And then the drones would swing back around. And they would crash land almost.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: At a designated location and time, the drone shut off its engine and deployed a parachute system.

ROGERS: And then they would be picked up by intelligence corps. And then that film would be taken back to U.S. bases. And it would be processed and pieced together. And then you would try and create a picture of where the enemy were. They were also used, quite interestingly, as almost wingman to crude aircraft, to bombers going in. They would fly off the wing of them to draw enemy fire. They would be like a deflective shield for aircraft. It would look like more aircraft were coming in. And so it would hopefully protect the central aircraft, going in and fulfilling its mission. They were disposable in the air in order to try and reduce the risk to American pilots' lives.


ARABLOUEI: The U.S. military believed the Lightning Bug drones saved American lives. And so they called it a success. The only problem was, initially, the Lightning Bugs had a short lifespan.

ROGERS: They weren't particularly reliable. They would crash an awful lot. And you would just lose drones. And that's why, you know, well over a thousand of them were used during Vietnam because they just churned them out almost disposably to try and use them for those intelligence and surveillance-gathering uses.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: While more than 200 drones were ultimately shot down, their use prevented the loss of at least that many reconnaissance groups and undoubtedly many more.


UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: This is Car 101. They're blocking the street - 1700 block...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) The whole world is watching. The whole world is watching. The whole world is watching.

(Chanting) Hell no, we won't go. Hell no, we won't go. Hell no, we won't go.

(Unintelligible chanting).


ABDELFATAH: During the Vietnam War, thousands of American soldiers and millions of Vietnamese people died.


MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: The time has come for America to hear the truth about this tragic war.

ABDELFATAH: It was a bloody and brutal conflict fought by a large number of drafted soldiers, meaning they had no choice but to go fight. And this meant many, many Americans had a loved one in Vietnam. The longer the war went on, the more people in the United States took to the streets to protest against it.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Some 175,000 people from all walks of life, with differing ideologies and purposes, marched from the White House from the Capitol.

ABDELFATAH: Once again, like in World War I, there was public pressure on politicians and the military to end the war and bring American soldiers home. And the impacts of this protest movement would be felt in American politics for decades to come.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) The whole world is watching. The whole world is watching. The whole world is watching.


GEORGE H W BUSH: Five months ago, Saddam Hussein started this cruel war against Kuwait. Tonight, the battle has been joined.

ABDELFATAH: In 1991, the United States went to war against Iraq's dictator, Saddam Hussein, in Kuwait. For the first Gulf War - Operation Desert Storm - there was no draft. The U.S. military was all-volunteer. And from the beginning, the American military was focused on keeping their own casualties as low as possible.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: It is a prescription for war, this Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the tiny country that is a primary source of oil for much of the western world.

ROGERS: Saddam Hussein chooses to invade Kuwait because he wants to have the financial gain of the vast oil reserves in Kuwait. And so he goes into Kuwait thinking that America will not send in vast amounts of troops onto the ground to stop his military. They won't repeat the mistakes of Vietnam. He says that America is not the type of country that can take 10,000 casualties in one battle.

ABDELFATAH: In some ways, Saddam Hussein was right.

ROGERS: What he does not realize, however, is that there has been vast advancements in technologies in the U.S. - vast advancements in microcomputing, in the ability to achieve precision strike in aircraft, in everything that you need to win a new, super-fast, high-tech war.

ABDELFATAH: By 1991, the U.S. military had an assortment of new technologies to conduct precision war - laser-guided missiles, stealth aircraft and better drones. Pilotless planes could fly higher, go farther than they ever had before, and had advanced computer software on board. And they were ready to use them.

ROGERS: And it's at this point the drone becomes an incredibly useful surveillance and target acquisition tool. So it is able to then fly back and to tell U.S. targeters where Saddam's troops are, and then they can send in the ever-more advanced cruise missiles, and they can send in the precision bombing and the U.S. Air Force aircraft in to go and bomb those troops.

ABDELFATAH: And the U.S. dropped a lot of bombs - over 88,000 tons on Iraqi military and civilian infrastructure, killing thousands of people.


ROGERS: It is here that you start to hear stories coming out when Saddam's troops saw drones flying high above them, they knew that it meant certain death and certain destruction was coming.


ROGERS: And so they'd try to surrender to the drones in the sky.

ARABLOUEI: The live video feedback showed five Iraqi soldiers waving white flags as they surrendered to the drone.

ROGERS: It's the first time in the history of warfare that you had a human try and surrender to a robot.


ARABLOUEI: During Operation Desert Storm, precision weapons seemed to do their job. The war only lasted about a month. There was no massive protest movement like Vietnam. And the U.S. military lost 143 soldiers - a relatively low number. And then something happened that would totally change the game.

ROGERS: You start to see this coupling of the lethal targeting and the utility of the drone itself. And this continues.

ARABLOUEI: Now, drones became armed with missiles. The angel in the sky watching out for soldiers had now become the angel of death.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: The Air Force's Predator system, its unmanned reconnaissance and strike plane, hunts enemies covertly from the sky, attacks on commands received by satellite and removes enemy leadership with precise geographic target information.

ROGERS: And so you have the merging of the drone and the precision missile into one integrated system.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: But it's good enough if we see a truck or an HVT - a high value target - that we need to prosecute immediately, that we would be able to at least scare them a lot. It's a precision asset, and it's very, very accurate.


ABDELFATAH: With this new weapon, some in the U.S. military believe they'd fulfilled the promise of the Kettering Bug, the Norden bombsight and the Lightning Bug. It was the culmination of generations of research and development. And it suddenly gave the U.S. high command a godlike ability to stalk enemies and kill them at a moment's notice.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: You do definitely get the sense that you are sort of a guardian angel. You're like an eye in the sky for them. You're sort of their third eye, if you will.


ABDELFATAH: When we come back, the drone wars begin.


LINDSEY: Hi. My name is Lindsey (ph). I'm calling from unceded Duwamish territory. And you are listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

LAINE KAPLAN-LEVENSON, BYLINE: Part 3 - Death from Above.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: (Reading) For the angel of death spread his wings on the blast and breathed in the face of the foe as he passed. And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill. And their hearts, but once, heaved, and forever grew still.




GEORGE H W BUSH: Good afternoon. On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against al-Qaida terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

ARABLOUEI: On October 7, 2001, a plane glided in the sky over the city of Kandahar, Afghanistan.


ARABLOUEI: It looked down on Earth like a giant hawk circling its prey.


ARABLOUEI: But there was nothing alive inside it - no pilot. This was an MQ-1A predator drone controlled by operators thousands of miles away. It was a 27-foot war machine carrying hellfire missiles, and it was looking for a target. It flew so high that it would have been virtually undetectable by anyone looking up at the night sky.


ABDELFATAH: Almost one month had passed since the U.S. was attacked on 9/11 by al-Qaida, a terrorist group based in Afghanistan. The Taliban - the rulers of Afghanistan - were harboring al-Qaida's leader, Osama bin Laden. And it appeared they were in the crosshairs of the U.S. military. But on the ground, on October 7, the stillness of a Kandahar fall night would tell you nothing of the things that were to come.



ARABLOUEI: ...The target for the Predator drone was a man named Mullah Omar. He was the leader of the Taliban government. The U.S. military thought, maybe if we take him out, the Taliban will fall apart. This was it. This is what the drone was built to do - use precision bombing to take out the leader of the enemy and use limited numbers of special forces fighters and their allies to avoid a costly, full-scale invasion, saving thousands of American lives.


ABDELFATAH: Mullah Omar sat in a building with no idea that a Predator drone was above him, watching and waiting for the command to fire. U.S. military and intelligence staff were keeping tabs on him through a satellite feed from thousands of miles away. But what they were seeing wasn't some crystal-clear image of the ground - nothing even close to that.

ROGERS: Back at that point, it's like viewing the world through a kind of grainy straw, I guess. You're looking through a straw at a small part of that country, focused in on what these people are doing, but you can't really tell. You're kind of just filling in the gaps.

ABDELFATAH: Even with this fill-in-the-gaps type of information, the U.S. military personnel still had to make a call. They had to decide where the drone should shoot its missile.

ROGERS: They take the strike.


ROGERS: But they end up blowing up a truck near to his compound - sends loads of smoke into the sky, loads of dust into the sky. And Mullah Omar escapes. Just think of the implications for that. What different war would we have had if a drone had taken out the head of the Taliban on the first day of the war in Afghanistan?


ARABLOUEI: The Predator drone strike missed its mark. Mullah Omar would live, and a U.S. ground invasion of Afghanistan would follow. But this wasn't seen as just a failure. No, in fact, the drone program continued. So this tells us that many of the military personnel in that room - the officers, drone operators and intelligence experts - must have, on some level, realized that they just witnessed the beginning of a new era in warfare.

ROGERS: You know, I've spoken to a few of those who were in the room on that first strike. And they were in the room thousands of kilometers away, watching the video feed. This is that first case of remote warfare. And you can't escape feeling that that is a fundamental, revolutionary change in war. It's that achievement of that long-standing U.S. Air Force ambition that goes back to U.S. air power thinkers all the way back in 1917.

ARABLOUEI: After that first failed strike against Mullah Omar, the Predator drone, the great technological breakthrough, would be used over and over by the CIA and U.S. military under President George W. Bush.

ROGERS: We can talk to about 50-plus drone strikes during the Bush administration.


GEORGE W BUSH: There are some who feel like - that if they attack us, that we may decide to leave prematurely. They don't understand what they're talking about, if that's the case. Let me finish. There are some who feel like - that, you know, the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is bring them on.


ABDELFATAH: In 2003, the U.S. invaded and occupied another country - Iraq. And as that war intensified, drones were used there too. And they continued to get more advanced.

ROGERS: So the technology improves, of course. That is the nature of humanity. We improve technologies over time. We are ever more high-tech.

ABDELFATAH: Drone communications got more reliable. The aircraft could fly longer and faster. And with every year, their impact on the war increased.

ROGERS: Here's the key thing about a drone, I guess. If you have a piloted aircraft within a conflict, you have to send it from a base to fly over. It can take maybe 10 minutes to get there. It then has to fly, hit the target, turn around and go back. And it cannot linger because the longer it lingers, the more it is at risk of being shot down. With a drone, it flies high in the sky, almost unseen, and it just loiters. It can sit there above troops, above a key area where you know the Taliban are operating, and it can just wait until the target presents itself.


ROGERS: Like an eagle hovering over its prey, looking for a field mouse on the ground. And then when it sees it, it can swoop in and it can strike. And that's what a drone can do. If you want to kill in war and you believe that that war is something that increases your national security, then you want to be effective as possible. And so the drone is an effective way to kill in that regard.


BARACK OBAMA: We've lost thousands of American lives, spent nearly a trillion dollars, alienated allies, neglected emerging threats, all in the cause of fighting a war for well over five years in a country that had absolutely nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks.

ARABLOUEI: When President Obama campaigned for office in 2008, the U.S. was embroiled in two wars - both very messy - that had caused the death of thousands of U.S. soldiers and thousands more Afghan and Iraqi civilians.

ROGERS: Public support invariably faded as the body bags started to come home, as the improvised explosive device, the IED, started to make it so that you couldn't have troops on the ground. The infantry personnel couldn't trust the ground they were walking on. But as - it was at this point that President Obama was elected, of course. He made a promise to the American people. He would withdraw them from the bad war in Iraq, and he would win the good war in Afghanistan. But over time, he would reduce that risk to American military lives, and he would make it so there would be less of a human footprint - an American military human footprint on the ground, because we no longer had the appetite for the war on terror.


OBAMA: As a candidate for president, I pledge to bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end, for the sake of our national security and to strengthen American leadership around the world.

ROGERS: But that leaves you with a dilemma, right? How would you continue to take on the global threats of terrorism but without deploying your troops on the ground? Well, here is where the drone is a panacea because it allows you to deploy force thousands of miles away with a minimal footprint. And this, of course, in turn, reduces the risk of the threat to life to American military personnel. But if you have a reduction of the amount of troops, or at least you're trying to reduce the amount of troops, then you want to fill that gap. And that gap for Obama, who becomes known as the drone president, is filled by the drone.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided that the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009 is to be awarded to President Barack Obama for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.


OBAMA: Let me be clear. I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments but rather as an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations.

ROGERS: It always comes down to strategy. And under the Obama administration, there is a real change in strategy. It starts off with what we call signature strikes. Now, signature strikes are based upon a predefined terrorist signature. And that signature can be based upon the gender of a target, and it could be based on how you define a terrorist, right? So, for example, they could be males of fighting age in regions where the Taliban are known to operate. What do you think the fighting age is?

ARABLOUEI: Oh, man - 15, 16?

ROGERS: Fourteen years old and above is what we're talking about here.


ROGERS: And again, it's hard to tell an age through the grainy image of a drone.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character, unintelligible) They're all armed.

ROGERS: And that, it's argued, leads to a confirmation bias. You think you're seeing a terrorist conducting terrorist activity, and so you take the strike because it fills out all of your tick boxes. And so you've had vast amounts of mistakes that happen as a result of signature strikes.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: The aftermath of a drone strike in Pakistan's South Waziristan region in 2008 - amongst the victims were numerous civilians.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: (Through interpreter) I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer gray skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are gray, and for a short period of time, the mental tension and fear eases.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: In Yemen's rugged and barren countryside, people live in constant fear, fear of what they call the killer planes or drones.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: Eighteen male laborers, including at least one young boy, 14-year-old Saleh Khan, were killed by a U.S. drone.

ROGERS: As the drone war spread around the world to Somalia and to Yemen, to those places that we don't really talk about 'cause we don't know so much about the drone wars there, but you do have weddings being hit with hellfire missiles from drones or funerals being hit.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: As people came to assist them to see if there were any injured, any survivors, they, too, were also attacked.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: (Through interpreter) May tragedy strike them. They killed my relatives and destroyed our lives. My father-in-law was the family's only breadwinner. Life has never been the same for us again.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: It was an astonishing bulletin today, another public enemy taken out by the United States, the al-Qaida leader called the most dangerous man in the world, the American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki.

ROGERS: A lot of these strikes come with the commander in chief's seal of approval.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #8: The Justice Department has acknowledged that four American citizens had been killed in drone strikes. Today, the president said only one of them was specifically targeted, New Mexico-born Anwar al-Awlaki, a top al-Qaida leader in Yemen.

ROGERS: If you're killing a U.S. citizen, that's going to come straight from the commander in chief.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #9: Mr. Obama has deployed drones more aggressively than President Bush. For that, the president offered no apology.

ROGERS: When was the last time in the history of American warfare the commander in chief was directing strikes on the battlefield?


OBAMA: The decisions that we are making now will define the type of nation and world that we leave to our children.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #10: The Obama administration says it has killed more than 2,300 enemy combatants by counterterrorist strikes. But it acknowledged the harsh reality that the once secret drone program may have been involved in anywhere from 64 to 116 civilian deaths since 2009 in areas outside active war zones.

ABDELFATAH: Despite all of the controversy surrounding the use of predator drones, at a White House press center President Obama still found a way to make a joke about it.


OBAMA: The Jonas Brothers are here.


OBAMA: They're out there somewhere. Sasha and Malia are huge fans. But, boys, don't get any ideas. I have two words for you - predator drones. You will never see it coming.


OBAMA: You think I'm joking?


ROGERS: President Obama has also said that one of the things that surprised him about becoming president was that he got pretty good at killing. And he did get pretty good at killing.


ABDELFATAH: Some estimate that during the Obama administration, there were almost 1,900 drone strikes. The total number of civilian casualties during the Obama drone wars has never been definitively recorded, mostly because we're depending on news reports and NGOs. The U.S. government is resistant to providing that information and often count anyone who is of fighting age as a combatant, whether or not they were carrying a weapon. The range for civilian casualties from U.S. drone strikes are in the low hundreds to a couple thousand. In a leaked Defense Department document provided by a whistleblower to the news outlet The Intercept, it was reported that between 2012 and 2013, quote, "U.S. special operations airstrikes killed more than 200 people. Of those, only 35 were the intended targets.


DONALD TRUMP: Well, thank you very much, and good afternoon. As president, my highest and most solemn duty is the defense of our nation and its citizens. Last night at my direction, the United States military successfully executed a flawless precision strike that killed the No. 1 terrorist anywhere in the world, Qasem Soleimani.

ROGERS: You look back to January 2020, and you look back to President Trump's drone strike on General Qasem Soleimani, who is a state representative of the Iranian state, one of the most high-profile and high-ranking military commanders of the Iranian state - that drone killed a state representative in a third-party country in Iraq without that country's permission. So the drone violated the sovereignty of Iraq.

ARABLOUEI: We should note here that Qasem Soleimani was an Iranian military commander who'd been directing lethal attacks in Iraq for years. The U.S. had long blamed him for the deaths of hundreds of Americans and allies there.

ROGERS: The precedent that is set here is that it is OK to kill representatives of a nation-state by lethal drone strike in nations of a third party without their approval. What does that mean for the future of drone warfare as a lot of hostile nations around the world are getting armed drones? Will they start using them against representatives of the West when they're in Yemen or in Iraq? The U.S. founds the United Nations along with the victorious allies after the Second World War. It's meant to be an upholder of international law. If we get to a point where the U.S. is undermining the laws that it created itself, then how do we expect anyone else to abide by those international laws when it comes to drones?


ABDELFATAH: There is no doubt that drones are much more precise than, say, carpet bombing. Have drones actually decreased civilian casualties? There's no definitive way to know. And ultimately, what does that answer do for someone who lost their family to a mistaken drone strike? What does it do for the U.S.'s reputation around the world? And what does it mean for the way we as citizens view wars because the reality is, drones play into a larger narrative that many politicians on all sides sell to us, that somehow technology can make war less ugly, less costly and more distant? This is what James Rogers calls...

ROGERS: War by remote control. And that remoteness isn't just in the technology, but it's also in our minds as well because no one's going to write a letter to the family of a drone if it gets shot down. It is a robot in the sky. That is the point. It has zero risk of taking a drone out to American military lives. Now, of course, it has lots of risk to civilians within that theater of conflict, but it means that you have that public disconnect and that democratic disconnect to the conflict of which you're involved in and what you're waging.

During the Obama administration, you started to have the use of the drone in areas around the world where if you asked the average person on the street - if you asked me at points, I wouldn't know where the U.S. is deploying its military force, and I wouldn't know why it's deploying its military force. And that is taxpayers' money, and so we should know why we're going to war. We should know why we're deploying force within distant countries around the world, and we should know why we're killing people.

And that's why we need to understand drones because you look at where money is being invested. You start to see that not just the United States, but also key allies are investing heavily in drone systems and next-generation drone systems. And so when we look to future war, we need to see that any future conflict is going to have a drone element. And so if you want to know what your country is doing in your name, then you need to understand drone warfare.


ABDELFATAH: That's it for this week's show. I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei, and you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: This episode was produced by me...

ARABLOUEI: ...And me, and...


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Laine Kaplan-Levenson.





ARABLOUEI: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl.

ABDELFATAH: Thank you to Courtney Theophin, Casey Herman, Victor Yvellez, Lawrence Wu and Farai Msika for their voiceover work.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks also to Anya Grundmann, Tamar Charney, Greg Myre, Adriana Tapia and Miranda Mazariegos.

ABDELFATAH: Our music was composed by Ramtin and his band Drop Electric, which includes...

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.

SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara.

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

ARABLOUEI: Special thanks to Gilly Moon for mixing this episode.

ABDELFATAH: And finally, if you have an idea or like something you heard on the show, please write us at throughline@npr.org or hit us up on Twitter at @throughlineNPR.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks for listening.


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