The Plan - Armed Predator
One element of the strategy that emerged in 2000 and 2001 was the use of the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle to monitor the activity of Bin Ladin and his camp network in Afghanistan. Between September and December 2000, with the support of Air Force crews and an interagency operations and analysis team, CIA flew an unarmed Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle on 15 reconnaissance missions over Afghanistan. Although the Taliban detected and launched interceptors against it, the Predator was able to operate over a denied hostile area and returned imagery useful to the foreign intelligence collection program.
During two missions the Predator may have observed Usama bin Ladin. In one case this was an after-the-fact judgment. In the other, sources indicated that Bin Ladin would likely be at his Tarnak Farms facility, and, so cued, the Predator flew over the facility the next day. It imaged a tall man dressed in white robes with a physical and operational signature fitting Bin Ladin. A group of 10 people gathered around him were apparently paying their respects for a minute or two.
With the onset of bad weather in December 2000, the Predator operations ceased for the winter and the aircraft were returned to the United States. Almost immediately, however, planning began for a second deployment. In 2000, Air Force and CIA officers began to discuss the possibility of capitalizing on an Air Force program to arm the Predator by adapting it to carry and fire Hellfire missiles. These officers, and later the leadership of CIA, reasoned that if they could develop the capability to reliably hit a target with a Hellfire missile and could develop the enabling policy and legal framework, they would have a capability to accurately and promptly respond to future sightings of high value targets.
CIA recognized that significant issues would need to be resolved to enable this program. These included the successful completion of weapons testing-technical issues delayed deployment even while they were solving others-approval by the nation hosting the deployed operation, arrangements with the Department of Defense for personnel and equipment, and working through legal issues.
It was also clear that one of the most difficult issues would be developing a command and control arrangement that could respond to fleeting opportunities while ensuring the right level of leadership control over the operation. CIA leadership from the beginning felt it important that there was a full understanding by the President and the National Security Council of the capabilities of the armed Predator and the implications of its use.
Weapons tests occurred between May 22 and June 7, 2001, with mixed results. While missile accuracy was excellent, there were some problems with missile fusing that raised questions about its suitability against some targets. These problems were not resolved in the short term, and remained questions on 11 September 2001.
One issue that occupied much discussion was whether to try to deploy the Predator early in the summer of 2001 in a purely reconnaissance mode to take advantage of good weather, or to wait until the armed capability was ready and the policy and legal questions were resolved. The Counterterrorist Center argued for the latter option for several reasons. The 2000 experience had demonstrated that even if they again sighted Bin Ladin, they did not have a timely response option. Targets in Afghanistan were hours away from conventional attack, even if the policy decision had been made and weapons were positioned and ready.
Some CIA officers believed that continued reconnaissance operations would undercut later armed operations. The Taliban would almost certainly detect the flights (as it did the previous year), and would alert al-Qa'ida to our presence. Reconnaissance operations would also expose the Predator to the risk of interception or anti-aircraft fire. Additionally, indications were that the host country would be unlikely to tolerate extensive operations, especially after the Taliban became aware, as it surely would, of that country's assistance to the United States.
During the summer, CIA led an interagency effort to fully develop the capabilities of the armed Predator and to explore the questions inherent in its use. One question that arose was who would bear responsibility for Predators that might be lost - DOD or CIA. While CIA finally agreed to split the cost evenly, the question was still in negotiation on 11 September 2001. This issue, while contentious, did not slow down the program. CIA continued to work all the preparations for armed deployment, with the knowledge that the funding question would eventually be resolved. After September 11 it became a non-issue.
As part of this interagency effort, two exercises were conducted in May and June 2001 to walk through the spectrum of operational and policy questions. These questions included: What are the capabilities of the system? How would CIA set up the communications architecture? What are the command and control arrangements? What criteria would CIA use to shoot? Who authorizes weapons firing? What are the implications of a successful firing and of an unsuccessful firing?
In early September 2001, CIA was authorized to deploy the system with weapons-capable aircraft, but for reconnaissance missions only. The DCI did not authorize the shipment of missiles at that time because the host nation had not agreed to allow flights by weapons-carrying aircraft. Moreover, the technical problems that had bedeviled earlier tests remained questions.
Subsequent to 9/11, approval was quickly granted to ship the missiles, and the Predator aircraft and missiles reached their overseas location on September 16, 2001. The first mission was flown over Kabul and Qandahar on September 18 without carrying weapons. Subsequent host nation approval was granted on October 7 and the first armed mission was flown the same day.
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