- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 20, 2011

U.S. military forces will still be able to target al Qaeda terrorists in mountainous Southwest Asia with remotely piloted drones based in Afghanistan should Pakistan’s government deny the use of its territory to launch attacks.

Col. Dean Bushey, deputy director of the Army’s Joint Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center of Excellence, told an international-relations conference Wednesday that U.S. Reaper and Predator aircraft could still reach the “mountainous regions” of Pakistan without being based in that country.

“Our assets from Afghanistan have a long enough flight time to do it,” he told the conference, sponsored by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

In a subsequent interview with The Washington Times, he elaborated that “mountainous regions” referred to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, effectively a no man’s land and the place terrorism scholars think Osama bin Laden is likeliest to be.

Pakistan’s leadership last week demanded that the CIA provide more information on covert operations in their country and demanded that all military contractors leave, according to Pakistani and U.S. news reports.

The drone strikes have been controversial in Pakistan because some raids have inadvertently killed civilians. Al Qaeda, other terrorist groups and their political allies have used the casualties to put pressure on the Pakistani government to halt the attacks.

“We would like to put an end to drone missions in Pakistan in general,” a Pakistani military official told The Times. “If there is a compelling reason for a drone strike, Pakistan should be asked to do it themselves. We have the same enemy we are fighting.”

A senior U.S. official said in response Wednesday that “despite Pakistani rhetoric to the contrary, there are no significant changes to how either side does business.”

American officials said Pakistan’s leadership has not denied the U.S. the right to use the country’s airspace, though if airspace is denied, Col. Bushey said, the U.S. has other means of surveillance.

“If we were politically unable to fly over their airspace, then we would have to come up with other means of surveillance. Obviously, aircraft is not the only means of surveillance,” he said at the conference.

The prospect of reducing the U.S. intelligence footprint in Pakistan is nonetheless worrying to some U.S. officials.

Two U.S. intelligence officials told the Times on Wednesday that contractors would still be needed on the ground to help acquire targeting information for the Predator and Reaper drones.

Drones are a key part of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’ strategy of focusing on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, rather than large, conventional conflicts between uniformed armies.

The Pentagon’s four-year defense strategy review made public last year called for increasing from 50 in 2010 to 65 by 2015 the number of Predators and Reapers deployed for sustained airborne operations, called “orbits,” used for spying and for precision attacks.

As a result, the budget for drones this year is $4.8 billion, a slight increase over last year.

Douglas Barrie, a senior fellow for military aerospace at the IISS, said in an interview, that “If the question is ‘Would losing basing in Pakistan cripple operations against al Qaeda?’ the answer is ‘no.’ It would, however, increase the demand on unmanned vehicles. You would likely need more unmanned aerial vehicles to sustain the same number of orbits because of having to transit further distances.”

The two main aircraft deployed in Pakistan, the 250-knot Reaper and the 100-knot Predator, can fly for up to 20 straight hours.

Drones are used for reconnaissance and surveillance, as well as electronic intelligence-gathering. Some models carry precision-guided missiles or bombs that are used in strikes against ground targets, normally terrorist groups or their leaders in hard-to-access areas.

Last week, the New America Foundation released a report, based on Western newspaper reports, that said there have been 234 drone strikes in northwest Pakistan since 2004, which have “killed approximately between 1,439 and 2,290 individuals, of whom around 1,149 to 1,829 were described as militants in reliable press accounts.”

The report also noted that civilian fatalities have decreased over the years.

Since 2004, the report found, “the true non-militant fatality rate … was approximately 20 percent,” but “in 2010, it was more like six percent.”