KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The U.S. military often portrays its drone aircraft as high-tech marvels that can be operated seamlessly from thousands of miles away. But Pentagon accident reports reveal that the pilotless aircraft suffer from frequent system failures, computer glitches and human error.
Design and system problems were never fully addressed in the haste to push the fragile plane into combat over Afghanistan shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Air Force investigators continue to cite pilot mistakes, coordination problems, software failures, outdated technology and inadequate flight manuals.
Thirty-eight Predator and Reaper drones have crashed during combat missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and nine more during training on bases in the U.S. —with each crash costing between $3.7 million and $5 million. Altogether, the Air Force says there have been 79 drone accidents costing at least $1 million each.
Accident rates are dropping, but the raw numbers of mishaps are increasing as use of the aircraft skyrockets, according to Air Force safety experts.
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But no lives are lost, and for some experts that's the most important point: For them, drones are the vanguard of a new type of remote warfare that minimizes the risk to U.S. personnel. The number of crashes, however, illustrates how quickly the unmanned aircraft have become an essential part of U.S. combat operations. At least 38 drones are in flight over Afghanistan and Iraq at any given time.
Flight hours over Afghanistan and Iraq more than tripled between 2006 and 2009. However, ground commanders in Afghanistan say only about a third of their requests for drone missions are met because of shortages of aircraft and pilots. The loss of aircraft to crashes and other accidents can hamper combat operations — and risk the lives of troops who depend on them for reconnaissance and air cover.
The Air Force acknowledges that armed drones were not ready when first deployed as the U.S. military geared up for the campaign to oust the Taliban and al-Qaida from Afghanistan. Most weapons systems are tested and refined for years. Unarmed drones had been in use since the mid-1990s, but the first armed version went to war just nine months after it was retrofitted.
"It was never designed to go to war when it did," said Lt. Col. Travis Burdine, a manager for the Air Force Unmanned Aircraft Systems Task Force. "We didn't have the luxury of ironing out some of the problems."