by DAVID AXE
Potentially hundreds of bystanders nearly perished when a suspected U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone fired a missile over North Waziristan in Pakistan’s restive northwest near the border with Afghanistan last week.
The drone’s target? Another suspected U.S. robotic warplane that had crashed.
As many as 400 people, including government officials and soldiers, had gathered to inspect the crashed aircraft. “We were looking for the wreckage of the drone in Machikhel village, Mir Ali, and were almost close to the debris of the destroyed aircraft when one of the drones flying over the area fired a missile and hit two missiles lying on the ground,” a senior official told The International News.
The missile narrowly missed the crowd. “It would have caused heavy losses to security forces and others engaged in the search operation. They were lucky to survive,” the official said.
It’s clear why the drones’ operator — possibly the U.S. Air Force or the Central Intelligence Agency — were determined to destroy the wreckage. As drone operations escalate in Afghanistan, Pakistan, East Africa, Yemen, Iran and possibly Syria, there is a growing risk that downed aircraft might betray U.S. military secrets. Surveillance drones carry sophisticated, often top-secret, sensors, communications systems and weapons.
An RQ-170 Sentinel, one of the Air Force’s most secretive unmanned aircraft, crashed under mysterious circumstances near the Iran-Afghanistan border in December. Iranian forces captured the wreckage and vowed to reverse-engineer its technology. China reportedly also inspected the debris.
More and more drones are going down, an inevitable consequence of their heavier use. The Iranians claimed they jammed and forced down the RQ-170, but it’s more likely the ‘bot suffered a mechanical or other systems failure. The U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan admitted one of its EQ-4 Global Hawk communications drones crashed over the eastern city of Jalalabad in 2011 after a malfunction.
The EQ-4 carries electronic “gateways” meant to help different aircraft swap encrypted data — in particular, stealth aircraft that must limit the types of radios they carry in order to avoid giving up their location.
This style of drone had not previously been known to operate over Jalalabad, which hosts a major Reaper base and could support CIA drone flights over Pakistan.
The EQ-4′s presence is possible evidence of secretive drones, such as the Sentinel, is in continued use over Pakistan. The RQ-170 is known to have supported the U.S. raid that killed Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in May.
It’s not clear what kind of drone crashed last week. Whatever it was, the U.S. was eager to keep it out of the hands of potential enemies.