Weapons of Precise Destruction

How snipers in the sky might help revive the practice of assassination.


by Richard A. Muller

Technology for Presidents

from Technology Review Online

May 10, 2002


Saddam Hussein has not been seen publicly for the past year. He did not attend his recent 65th birthday celebration, despite the fact that young girls were dressed as suicide bombers -- a sight that he must have hated to miss. But he has good reason to fear the outdoors. A Predator may be lurking there, patiently waiting for its intended prey -- him.


The Predator, with a capital P, is a new weapon in the United States arsenal, although it is based on nearly a century of development. It is revolutionary, not because it is new, but because of a combination of technologies that has suddenly transformed a supplementary system, previously used for target practice and spying, into what may be the U.S. weapon of choice for the 21st century. In fact, such "weapons of precise destruction," as I call them, could fundamentally change the nature of war -- along with many of our assumptions about homeland security.


Unmanned air vehicles (UAVs), also called drones, have a long history. During World War I, the celebrated inventor Charles F. Kettering developed an unmanned biplane that flew at 88 kilometers per hour for 64 kilometers. He called it an "aerial torpedo." After a prescribed time, the wings fell off, and 80 kilograms of high explosives crashed to the ground. It was the predecessor of the German V-1 buzz bomb used in World War II and of today's cruise missile.


UAVs are more highly developed than most people realize. As far back as November 1969, the U.S. launched a supersonic "Tagboard" drone to spy on the Chinese Lop Nor nuclear test site. Its credentials are impressive even by today's standards: it flew above 24,000 meters at faster than Mach 3.3. But it didn't return safely; it probably crashed. Drones used to be unreliable. Hence their limited use.


UAVs have made steady progress ever since. In the last week of the Gulf War, five Iraqi soldiers waved white flags at a U.S. Pioneer UAV. Some called this the first time in history that someone tried to surrender to a robot. But, strictly speaking, the Pioneer was not a robot. It had a pilot, even though he was several hundred miles away -- and on the ground.


The salient event occurred over Afghanistan early this year. A Predator UAV, remotely operated by the CIA, carried technology that is virtually a table of contents of the high-tech world. It imaged with both side-scanning radar and cameras. In the infrared it could see human thermal emission even in total darkness. Snow on the ground didn't hurt; it only made warm people stand out better. The Predator communicated with its pilot by broadcasting over a wide range of frequencies simultaneously.


This method, called spread spectrum, is impossible to read and almost impossible to detect unless you know the encryption key that determines the spreading pattern. A satellite was used as a relay, so the Predator could fly low and use high frequencies (and high bandwidth) to send back real-time video--critical for the remote pilot. The Predator always knew where it was, by passive analysis of signals from GPS satellites. If it ever lost communications, tiny onboard computers would guide the vehicle back home to a fully automatic landing. The Predator was small and quiet. It flew at 135 kilometers per hour for a range of 640 kilometers, with a ceiling of 7,600 meters and a loiter time of up to 40 hours, and it carried two Hellfire-C missiles under its wings.


On February 8, it was following something very interesting. Several sport utility vehicles, not the sort of auto that even well-to-do Afghans could afford, were driving in the remote Zawar Khili region, near caves where Osama bin Laden was suspected to be hiding. The convoy stopped, and (according to news accounts) three men dressed in robes got out of the most heavily guarded vehicle. One was considerably taller than the others. Osama bin Laden? They stopped (to relieve themselves, presumably). The Predator pilot maneuvered to within eight kilometers, aimed a guide laser, and fired along its beam a missile powerful enough to blow up a tank.


The missile obliterated the men and the tree under which they stood. Bad weather hampered a U.S. effort to get to the site and collect DNA samples, and the eventual results, if any, have not been disclosed. But anticipation was high. Had Osama bin Laden been destroyed?


Probably not. I think it unlikely that the tall person was bin Laden -- but only because I believe that he was already dead, prior to February 8. The most compelling evidence was the absence of new video tapes. With al Qaeda in disarray and many of bin Laden's men in custody, those still at large must be in desperate need of instructions and encouragement from their charismatic leader. Yet he has not resurfaced -- perhaps because he was killed in the Tora Bora bombings, or perhaps because, as is suspected, he was suffering from kidney disease and the attacks damaged his dialysis equipment. Al Qaeda did recently did release a new tape, but bin Laden was silent, and the footage was probably old. It emphasized other leaders -- just as you would expect, if a replacement were necessary.


So who were the three who died? Maybe it was his associate Ayman al-Zawahri, who is also tall. Maybe, as some local villagers claimed, it was just local farmers who were gathering scrap metal from the recent battle. But the Predator has made a good impression on General Tommy Franks, commander of the military operations in Afghanistan, who called it "my No. 1 sensor for tracking down al Qaeda." U.S. production will triple this year, adding 25 new Predators to the arsenal of 75. Predators are already being sold to our allies. Use of the Predator (and other UAVs) has just begun.


Saddam is smart enough to be impressed too. Can he be sure that a Predator, perhaps with added stealth, isn't already flying over Baghdad? Already the U.S. public is forgetting bin Laden; already Saddam is returning to his position in U.S. government rhetoric as the personification of evil. Saddam would like us to believe that if he is killed, someone just as bad will replace him. But he must be worried.


The Bush administration is publicly advocating a change in government in Iraq. But how do we force that, short of war? We attempted to kill bin Laden, Mullah Omar and Muammar Khadafi. The U.S. may have played a role in the assassination of the drug lord Pablo Escobar. I sense that there is movement toward making assassination of "evil" leaders into an acceptable part of U.S. foreign policy. That prospect is horrifying. Yet -- if the alternative is war?


If the U.S. does turn to the Predator and other weapons of precise destruction as the perfect assassination machines -- perhaps using them to force changes in Iraq -- then we had better be prepared to defend ourselves against the same kind of attack. Advances in technology may one day bring Predator-like weapons into the arsenals of rogue nations and terrorists, endangering in yet a new way our vulnerable homeland. Are we, to paraphrase Macbeth, teaching bloody instructions, which, being taught, will return to plague the inventor?