Confirming statements made by Leon Panetta earlier this year while he was still the Secretary of Defense about the need for an open-ended drone war, the U.S. military command confirmed today that armed drones operated by the U.S. will fly over Afghanistan long after 2014.
“I come back to the remotely piloted aircraft,” Air force Major General H.D. Polumbo, commander of U.S./NATO air operations over Afghanistan told reporters at the Pentagon earlier today. “They can collect intelligence, but they also are armed.”
“And they’re armed to be able to provide force protection to our coalition forces and then when our coalition ground force commanders, when they deem it appropriate, they can control that air-delivered munition capability from the RPAs [Remotely Piloted Aircraft] to be put in support of the Afghans,” Polumbo said.
“You’ll have that hybrid ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] as I call it, that armed ISR, remotely piloted aircraft capability all the way through ’14,” Polumbo said, according to Danger Room.
“And then once [the follow-on Operation] Resolute Support mission and operations is fully understood and agreed upon by our coalition partners and our leadership, you will likely see it into 2015 to provide force protection,” he added.
Interestingly, Danger Room leaves out that Polumbo said that the Afghan air force will be able to stand on its own by early 2016 “at best,” according to the Washington Times. In other words, drones will likely continue to be used long after that time.
Stars and Stripes, on the other hand, reports, “The Afghan air force will not be fully operational until the end of 2016 at the absolute earliest, the top U.S. air commander in Afghanistan told reporters Tuesday.”
“Some air assets are expected to remain in Afghanistan, and others will provide an ‘over-the-horizon capability’ as they fly in from bases and Navy aircraft carriers in the region,” the American Forces Press Service reports.
“In addition, Polumbo said, unmanned aerial vehicles are expected to continue providing support to the Afghans,” the official outlet adds, without giving a date.
In addition to drones, “some fixed wing” manned fighters and bombers will remain on the battlefield and will provide support for the Afghan army after 2014, according to Polumbo.
Jets will come from the Navy’s nearby aircraft carriers and Air Force planes will come from Gulf airbases.
Unsurprisingly, Polumbo did not say if armed drones will continue to be flown from Afghanistan into Pakistan to conduct strikes there after 2014.
Currently, the drones conducting strikes in Pakistan are controlled by the CIA and that is not likely to change since there isn’t a declared war in Pakistan and the government of Pakistan isn’t a fan of the program.
Danger Room points out that the U.S. drone campaign is most active in Afghanistan, though the military recently simply removed the drone strike data from their public websites, further increasing the already massive veil of secrecy that shrouds the program.
According to Polumbo, drones will continue to fly over Afghanistan for now because the Afghan military does not have the aircraft required to provide close air support during firefights with the Taliban.
The Afghan army also does not have their own fleet of spy drones, but in January of this year, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said that the U.S. would give his country its own fleet of spy drones.
In addition, in February the U.S. Defense Department announced that the Afghan military will receive 20 of the A-29 Super Tucano planes.
Currently, Polumbo said that only a “small percentage” of air assault missions in Afghanistan are conducted by Afghan forces without any U.S. support.
Polumbo also said that as of now the U.S. only provides fixed-wing air support to Afghans in “the most significant or dire of circumstances.”
After 2014, the U.S. presence in Afghanistan will “rely significantly on flying, lethal robots,” according to Danger Room and the post-2014 drones will not be operated by the Afghans. Instead, the drones will remain under U.S. military control.
It remains to be seen just how quickly that drone presence will wane or if it will really decrease at all after the 2015 or 2016 dates mentioned above.
Given the fact that drone strikes in Pakistan rely largely on the ability to fly out of Afghanistan and the U.S. seems to have no interest in decreasing the program in Pakistan, one must be skeptical about claims surrounding the future of drones in the region.
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