The Air Force’s Role in Pakistan Drone Strikes

December 10, 2009 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

Another aspect of the Obama administration’s Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy that went unacknowledged over the past three days’ worth of congressional hearings is the role of unmanned missile-equipped drones used ostensibly on militants in Pakistan. Those drones, a highly sensitive intelligence program, never had any hope of being discussed in open session. But Wired’s Noah Shachtman is nevertheless able to report that the U.S. military is more deeply entrenched in the drone strikes in Pakistan than is typically acknowledged:

But while the CIA’s drone flights are kept largely compartmentalized from the U.S. military’s efforts in Afghanistan, there is overlap between the two. The Air Force has a total of 39 “orbits,” or air patrols, currently operating in Central Asia and the Middle East. The CIA draws its Predators and Reapers from this pool of military drones. “There are 39 orbits, that’s it. No wink, wink,” a military officer says.

No matter who controls the mission, some airmen at the undisclosed base’s warehouse-turned-war-room are aware of every flight, at least in general terms. The officers there at the Combined Air & Space Operations Center, or CAOC, need to have a basic idea of where every aircraft is, to keep them from crashing into one another in mid-air. That’s simple air traffic control, just like in the civilian world. But since the drones can fire missiles and bombs from miles away, there needs to be an added layer of monitoring. “You have to know where every bomb went, and where every bomb is supposed to go,” a former senior military official says. “No one is just gonna allowed the expenditure of ordnance out of the wild blue yonder.” It’s one of the many ways in which the air wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan are linked.