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Since there’s a chance you woke up this morning feeling more or less all right, and have since gone about your day without being utterly horrified about anything – and I can’t have that – let me fill you in on a new development in America’s ongoing drone campaign. You remember the drone campaign, right? It started under George W. Bush and reached something close to a fever pitch during the Obama era, as remotely-piloted aircraft became the preferred means of doing away with jihadists in far-away locales like Yemen, Sudan, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, all over the place really. For years now, the use of drones to hunt and kill America’s enemies has been ruthless and relentless. It’s brutal, and let’s face it terrifying, but boy has it been effective.

As Presidents have come and gone, and jihadists have stubbornly refused to simply stop being jihadists, the Americans have honed their intelligence-gathering and targeting skills to an astonishing level, and there’ve also been a few upgrades to the kit. Perhaps you’ve heard of a machine named the MQ-9 Reaper? For a few years now it’s been the unmanned aerial vehicle of choice as America has hunted terrorists all over the world – it’s the larger and more advanced cousin to the older Predator Drone, which it has largely replaced, and if they hadn’t settled on its current name it could just as well have been called the MQ-9 Wrath of Almighty Vengeful God. Reapers are quite large, with a wingspan of 66 feet, and they can undertake missions for as long as 24 hours, remotely piloted by satellite uplink from air conditioned trailers half a world away. Loitering at anything up to 50,000 feet, and spying the ground with the incredible optics in its chin-mounted turret, a Reaper can launch guided bombs and a very frightening guided missile designated AGM-114 Hellfire, which was originally developed to take out Soviet tanks. The Hellfire is the Reaper’s silver bullet.


Reapers are big, but they’re quiet, painted white, and pretty much impossible to see or hear from the ground. You never know when they’re up there, orbiting in big lazy figure-eights, looking for the next shot. If you’re an important person in Al Qaeda or ISIS, odds are thus excellent that someday quite soon you’re going to get blasted right out of your Converse by one of these things and never know what hit you. Sadly, if you happen to be an innocent bystander, or maybe you’ve been mistaken for somebody else, you’re also all too likely to disappear in a horrifying ball of flame and shrapnel. Last time I looked it up a couple of years ago, drone strikes had killed more than 2,400 people, including we’re not sure how many civilians, who are categorized in military circles as “collateral damage”. As careful as they are in their targeting, and they are careful, a worryingly high number of innocent deaths is inevitable, and probably totals something like 250-300 to date. One in ten.

Militarily, the drone program has been a huge success, and I’m not about to sing mournful dirges at a teary-eyed wake for any of these ISIS and Al Qaeda bastards who get theirs, but the innocent deaths have always been a grave concern, both inside and outside the military and policy communities. No matter who gets hit, people in foreign lands probably don’t react to the constant surprise attacks any better than we would if apparently random Toyotas were getting blasted off the 401 at all hours of the day and night (did I mention the night vision optics?). When it’s mere bystanders, though – and leaving aside how appalling it is that one out of 10 fatalities will just be poor civilians going about their lawful business – you run the risk that in the long run, the campaign could breed the sort of hatred that spawns a supply of new terrorists just as fast as you can incinerate the current ones.

Be careful what you wish for though, as it’s actually an effective effort to mitigate this risk that brought on my current case of the shakes. It has to do with a change in lethal payload. The Hellfire missile, powerful enough to turn a T-72 inside out, is prized for its laser-guided accuracy, but it’s also a bit more weapon than’s often needed for the job. The standard model has a 20 pound warhead, and if that doesn’t sound like a lot, my guess is you’ve never seen what 20 pounds of modern high explosive will do – have a look (advance to the 1:18 mark):

Drone operators, many of them going quietly insane as they stalk and, for all practical and emotional purposes, assassinate their quarry with cold precision from a safe remove, often just before going home for dinner with the wife and kids, have always striven mightily to make sure that when buddy gets the Big Kaboom nobody else dies who shouldn’t. Part (and only part) of why the mission literally drives people around the bend is how often this proves impossible, but they try. I’ve read stories of them loitering over a guy’s abode for hours until he needs to go to the outhouse, where he can be dispatched all by himself with his trousers down around his ankles. Maddeningly, though, a lot of these guys tend to be most vulnerable when they’re riding around in cars on public thoroughfares, where attacking them creates a minimum, irreducible risk of something truly awful and counter-productive.

Or it used to. Some boffin at Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, or Northrop Grumman – or maybe it was one of the whiz kids at DARPA – came up with just the thing: the AGM-114R9X. The designer started with one of those brilliantly obvious questions: why use an explosive warhead at all? A Hellfire missile travels at about a thousand miles an hour. You could put 20 pounds of concrete in the nose – who cares? If it hits you, it will surely do you in, right?

Right. But then he had an even better idea. Why settle for a passive, inert payload when you can rig it so that six razor-sharp sword blades pop out just before impact and slice the hapless bastard in the cross-hairs into a loose pile of gory ribbons? That way the jihadist gets diced like he’s been attacked with multiple oversized supersonic Ginsu knives – which, actually, is just exactly what will have happened – and there’s no collateral damage at all. None! Just like a good, professional mob hit, yes? Nobody gets killed who isn’t supposed to. Genius! Somebody just earned his Christmas bonus, that’s for sure!

It works, too. Oh yes. It really, really does the job. They’ve used it a few times now, and almost as awesome as the ferocity with which it eviscerates its targets is the accuracy of the attacks, implying that some form of improved guidance system has been developed. The latest strike went right through the roof of a car and didn’t even shatter the whole windshield, while taking out some undoubtedly bad actors in Northern Syria, and like I said, why cry for them, and why is it any better to blow them to bits than chop them into bite-sized cubes, especially when giving them the blades right where it hurts doesn’t risk killing any nearby widows and orphans? Logically, we should all be delighted that if the drone wars are to continue – and I’m not even saying they shouldn’t – the Americans prosecute them with increasing precision and radically reduced risk to innocent life.

Yessir, that’s logical all right.

Anyway, excuse me for a sec., I have to go puke my guts out.

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