About one-third of the Air Force fleet of Reapers and Predators is controlled by the CIA. (Air Force)
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The Obama administration has floated the idea of putting the CIA’s controversial targeted killing operations under the control of the armed services. But sources familiar with the still-classified program, which uses unmanned aircraft to kill suspected terrorists in Pakistan and Yemen, say the shift would be difficult to implement and would make little difference.
All of the specially outfitted Reaper and Predator UAVs used in the CIA’s program actually belong to the Air Force.
In all, the CIA controls more than 80 remotely piloted vehicles, or about one-third of the Air Force’s fleet of Reapers and Predators, according to an official familiar with the program. That figure has not previously been disclosed. The Predators, known as MQ-1s, and the Reapers, known as MQ-9s, are manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems.
The Air Force counts its unmanned aerial force in combat air patrols, or CAPs. Each patrol is made up of about four UAVs, so that one of the drones can always be flying over a target while the other three are being repaired, refueled, or in transit. The Air Force has almost 260 UAVs, which yields 60 patrols; it says it wants to increase that to 65.
The 80 Air Force UAVs assigned to the CIA give the intelligence agency enough airpower to stalk 20 targets persistently, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for months on end.
Both the CIA and Air Force declined to comment for this story. Air Force Maj. Mary Danner-Jones, a service spokeswoman, said in an email that “The Air Force isn’t going to comment on or discuss the missions of other government agencies.”
“What I can tell you,” she emailed in a separate message, “is that the Air Force is currently flying 60 CAPs.”
The CIA has outfitted its Air Force UAVs with special features, sources say. They say the agency has a more “agile” contracting process than the Air Force.
The refits include a four-bladed propeller, which enable the CIA UAVs to take off from shorter runways and may give them a higher operating ceiling as well. The original propeller on the Predator is two-bladed and on the Reaper three-bladed.
The UAVs assigned to the CIA also carry more advanced sensors. For example, they shoot high-definition, 1080p full-motion video, while the Air Force UAV sensors offer just standard definition. Air Force drones may be used as much to gather intelligence as for airstrikes, where CIA UAVs are configured so they can watch, gather intelligence, and eventually kill.
The CIA’s Predators and Reapers deployed overseas are maintained by contractors, to reduce the military footprint. But during missions, they are controlled by uniformed Air Force officers at Creech Air Force Base, Nev. That’s according to sources and as reported in in “The Way of the Knife”, a new book by Mark Mazzetti. Mark Ambinder, of The Week, has also reported that the CIA drones are flown by Air Force pilots.
People familiar with the UAV program say that when it comes time to pull the trigger on a weapon aimed at a suspected terrorist, no matter whether the mission is run by the CIA or the Air Force, the action is always conducted by military officers. It is U.S. government policy that only uniformed personnel can be the “trigger pullers,” the sources said.
First, the sensor operator, sitting on the right side of the control station at Creech, pinpoints the target, his house or his vehicle, with a laser designator. Then the pilot, sitting on the left side of the controls, presses the trigger to fire the missile.
One former intelligence officer points out that the most important part of the entire program isn’t the UAVs at all. It’s the intelligence that officials use to pick their targets. And that’s the part the Air Force would have the most difficult time getting, if it were not for the CIA.
“Where is the intelligence going to come from in the first place?” he asked rhetorically. “The targeting? It’s the CTC,” the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center.
In a May speech, Harold Koh, the legal adviser to the State Department during President Obama’s first term in office, called for more transparency in the targeted killing program. “To be candid, this administration has not done enough to be transparent about legal standards and the decisionmaking process that it has been applying,” he said at the Oxford Political Union in the UK. “It had not been sufficiently transparent to the media, to Congress, and to our allies.”