U.S. Air Force Drones Spend Weeks ‘Man-Hunting’

Aerial commandos track terrorists for days to understand their everyday lives

U.S. Air Force Drones Spend Weeks ‘Man-Hunting’ U.S. Air Force Drones Spend Weeks ‘Man-Hunting’
Before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, American military intelligence focused heavily on locating tank formations, large bases and other major targets—things small militant groups rarely... U.S. Air Force Drones Spend Weeks ‘Man-Hunting’

Before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, American military intelligence focused heavily on locating tank formations, large bases and other major targets—things small militant groups rarely have in their possession.

Now, the Air Force Special Operations Command regularly hunts for smaller prey, including specific individuals. U.S. Air Force spy planes and drones are scooping up hundreds of hours of video footage every day and analysts are using that information to help kill enemy combatants around the globe.

In 2010, AFSOC specialists “frequently deployed in man-hunting [missions],” according to a heavily redacted copy of the command’s official history for that year, which War Is Boring obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

Members of the 11th and 56th Intelligence Squadrons spent “hours, days and weeks providing an unblinking eye over compounds [and] following vehicles of suspected terrorists/insurgents,” the narrative explains.

With this constant spying, commandos gained an “understanding of a specific target’s pattern of life.”

In fact, the Air Force specifically created the 56th to help handle the dramatic increase in imagery flowing across the Distributed Common Ground System intelligence network from all this new spying. The DCGS rapidly transmits information and analysis worldwide.

AFSOC’s drones are a key part of the equation. For almost a decade, the aerial commandos have been building up the unmanned force specifically for these missions.

Above and at top—U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reapers. Air Force photos

The flying branch’s elite forces received their first Predators in 2005 and acquired the more advanced Reapers four years later. By 2010, AFSOC had plans for 10 “combat air patrols,” or CAPs—six with MQ-1s and four with MQ-9s.

With these four-aircraft groupings, the drone forces can circle one aircraft above a single target for extended periods of time without any interruptions.

Before one pilotless spy runs out of fuel, another aircraft from the CAP arrives to take over the surveillance mission. The remaining two aircraft are effectively a backup team in case of breakdowns or crashes.

Today, the command’s 3rd and 33rd Special Operations Squadrons fly MQ-1 and MQ-9 drones over Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen. The squadrons provide at least 10 CAPs to commanders across those regions.

Since these unmanned spies can also carry weapons, the pilots strike militants directly—or not—after intelligence personnel pour over the available details.

The whole arrangement helps commandos “gain understanding of the enemy, while maintaining the ability to find, fix and finish a target” if necessary, Lt. Gen. Donald Wurster writes in the January 2010 edition of Joint Forces Quarterly.

AFSOC historians republished these comments in the annual historical review.

The Pentagon announced it had launched an airstrike against a member of the Somali insurgent group Al Shabab on Dec. 29. Two days later, American officials declared that Tahlil Abdishakur, the head of the group’s intelligence arm, died in the attack.

The aerial commandos likely used their Reaper drones in Djibouti to help find Abdishakur in the first place. MQ-9s toting missiles and bombs hit at “time-sensitive targets” in the Horn of Africa region, according to a 2013 audit of some of the 33rd’s gear.

U.S. Air Force MQ-1 Predators. Air Force photo

“Man-hunting” is also no doubt an element of controversial “signature strikes” in central and southwest Asia. In these instances, American forces try to figure out if individuals are enemy combatants by applying arbitrary criteria.

In theory, the various criteria offsets a lack of intelligence on the ground. But the practice has led to serious mistakes. In December 2013, a dozen innocent civilians died in Yemen when an American drone attacked a wedding caravan.

Still, the hunts don’t always involve killing anyone. The Pentagon takes advantage of this “unblinking eye” to aid in the capture of wanted terrorists.

Two years ago, special operators descended on suspected Al Qaeda member Abu Anas Al Libi outside his home in the Libyan capital Tripoli and snatched him. Drones and other spy planes could easily have figured out Al Libi’s “pattern of life” to help map out the operation.

Al Libi died in a New York hospital on Jan. 2 due to complications from liver surgery.

Washington could use this perpetual spying to help find hostages and captured soldiers, too. But while similar, a captive “fundamentally differs from targets of manhunting operations,” George Crawford writes in Manhunting: Counter-Network Organization for Irregular Warfare.

The targets in the latter missions are trying to hide, while prisoners—or people trying to avoid capture—seek every opportunity to alert friendly forces, according to Crawford.

Of course, none of this is particularly new. “American manhunting operations have historically been ad-hoc affairs,” Crawford notes in his monograph.

But American commanders need to have more confidence they’re hunting the right people because of the constant snooping used in current man-hunting operations.

Intelligence has to “fill in an additional dimension: context and meaning,” Wurster wrote. “Often, killing and destroying are not the right ways to do business.”