Intel agency controls half of the Air Force’s flying robots
by DAVID AXE
After 20 years of steady expansion, the U.S. Air Force’s drone squadrons can keep no fewer than 60 Predators and Reapers airborne all over the world at any given time, scanning with their cameras and radars, poised to strike with missiles and bombs.
The Air Force refers to each airborne drone as a “combat air patrol,” or CAP.
Sixty CAPs might seem like a lot. But according to a heavily-redacted official Air Force history that War Is Boring obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, fewer than a third of those drones fly overhead of U.S. ground troops or spot targets for the Pentagon’s manned warplanes bombing the Taliban or Islamic State.
A force of 50 to 59 CAPs makes “18 conventional CAPs available,” the history states. Our emphasis.
Of the balance, 13 drones only fly training missions, according to the history. And the rest, to use the Air Force’s own euphemism, support an “other government agency.” Reading between the lines, that means as many as 29 Predators and Reapers at a time — nearly half the CAPs— work for the CIA.
And that makes the Agency the world’s biggest employer of armed UAVs.
It should come as no surprise that the Agency monopolizes such a huge proportion of the Air Force’s drones. The CIA was the driving force in American UAV development.
The Predator — of which the Reaper is just a bigger, more powerful version — was originally a CIA project. In the mid-1990s, while the Pentagon dragged its feet on developing UAVs, the Agency rushed to deploy robotic eyes in the sky.
The CIA phoned Linden and Neal Blue, industrialists who had bought tech firm General Atomics, including the company’s rights to “Amber,” a rudimentary drone — a sort of proto-Predator— that Israeli inventor Abraham Karem had built in his garage in California.
With the go-ahead from the director of national intelligence, “a CIA and General Atomics team were called on to rapidly implement, test and secretly deploy the concept of using unmanned and manned aircraft to collect and relay imagery,” according to an official Agency history. The CIA called its first drone the Gnat.
The first Gnats deployed to Europe in 1995 and kept watch over the Bosnia war. The Pentagon got interested.
“The [Defense Department] UAV program office, having previously proposed a lengthy and costly demonstration, suddenly was positioned to move quickly on the Gnat’s success,” the Agency history recalls. “In just six months, the Gnat’s fuselage and wings were extended, and a new engine was installed.”
Voila — the Predator.
Twenty-one years later, the Air Force possesses around 300 Predators and Reapers. Organized into 60 CAPs, they’ve flown millions of hours in combat … and, since getting missiles in 2001, have killed at least 4,700 people in air strikes.
But now we know the CIA controls half of the Air Force’s drones in addition to owning some 80 Predators of its own — adequate for perhaps a dozen CAPs. Add it all up, and the CIA is by far the world’s biggest user of armed drones.
And what does the Agency do with all those drones? Why, spy on suspected terrorists, of course … and sometimes kill them.