Over-burdened in its requests for continuous surveillance of an expanding battlefield, the US military is increasingly turning to private contractors to fill key roles in its drone operations.
In March this year, US Air Force Secretary Deborah James appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee, looking for a $10 billion funding hike. “I can tell you the number one thing that the combatant commanders say they want from our Air Force is more ISR, ISR, ISR,” she told the committee. “That is the number one priority.”
ISR is Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance, and encompasses a complex array of functions. It includes spyplanes and drones with special sensors and cameras, the satellites which control them, and the analysts who turn this information into “products”. It also includes the “distributed common ground system”, an unwieldy term for the network of devices which allows personnel to access this information and the “products” derived from it.
The volumes of data being passed back from surveillance flights is now so vast that the military can no longer deal with it in-house. So, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (‘The Bureau’) found in a six-month investigation, the Pentagon has turned to the private sector to plug the gaps, employing contractors as imagery analysts or “screeners”.
The screener’s task is not a simple one. Like much of military life, it involves long spells of tedium – twelve hour shifts in front of a screen – interspersed with occasional spikes of activity. But it demands high and continuous levels of concentration. As one screener told us: “A misidentification of an enemy combatant with a weapon and a female carrying a broom can have dire consequences.”
Screeners can have an important safety function in reducing collateral damage – the proverbial “busload of nuns” which appears out of nowhere into the field of fire. But their interpretations of video imagery – “calls”, in military parlance – can also influence drone pilots to take shots. As one screener commented, once you’ve influenced the mentality of the pilot by indicating the presence of something hostile, it’s hard to retract it.
In one notorious incident, the crew of a MQ-1 Predator drone flying over Afghanistan’s Uruzgan province in February 2010 ignored ambiguities in their screeners’ assessments as to whether the trucks they were tracking contained combatants. As a result, at least 15 civilians were killed.
“When you mess up,” The Bureau was told, “people die.”
The companies being paid to undertake this work range from industry leviathans like BAE to specialist tech firms like Zel Technologies and Advanced Concepts Enterprises.
Finding out who was performing this work was itself an arduous task. The Department of Defense records thousands of procurement transactions most days every year. From 2009 to the end of 2014 there have been over 8 million transactions between the Pentagon and the private sector. The Bureau analysed these transactions through its own specially constructed database, which allowed it to identify activities relating to ISR and then build up profiles of the contracts and companies carrying out those activities.
Table: US Military Imagery Analysis Contracts since 2010 (click to enlarge)
The Bureau identified over $260 million of screening transactions. But this is a niche market compared to the wider outsourced ISR effort. The private sector has been operating smaller surveillance drones over Afghanistan and other countries, managing communications between drones and their bases in the US and elsewhere, maintaining data collection systems and servicing sensors, to name just some functions. Procurement costs for these services run into billions of dollars.
Questions of accountability come to the fore in this type of outsourced warfare. Following considerable pressure, the military now publishes figures of contractors on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. But this transparency does not extend to ISR missions conducted in those countries – or elsewhere – from behind computer screens in Florida and Nevada.
From Screening to Targeting?
Although contractors are so far not supposed to have their fingers on the drones’ triggers, fears have been expressed that this distinction might be harder to maintain in practice. One military outsourcing specialist, Laura Dickinson, told us that if the ratio of contractors to government personnel swells, “oversight could easily break down, and the current prohibition on contractors making targeting decisions could become meaningless.”
Shortly after The Bureau published its investigation in The Guardian, the Pentagon announced that it would ramp up the number of ISR missions with ten new contractor-operated MQ-9 Reaper Combat Air Patrols. This puts contractors into the driving seat of large, combat-capable drones for the first time, although the Pentagon says these will be “ISR only”. The private sector’s involvement in drone warfare, it seems, is just taking off.
Crofton Black is a researcher, journalist and writer with extensive experience of complex investigations in the field of human rights abuses and counter-terrorism. He is a leading expert on the CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation programme and a specialist in military and intelligence corporate contracting. He has a PhD in the history of philosophy from the University of London.
Crofton completed a report for the Remote Control Project last year on the use of contractors in US special forces operations.