For Taliban commanders along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, death often arrives without warning from the skies, on missiles fired by U.S. Predator and Reaper drones that lurk out of sight, unheard by their targets on the ground. As such strikes become more commonplace, the militants are forced to seek countermeasures. And it's not as if they have a research-and-development budget to draw on. According to a top Air Force intelligence officer, some Taliban commanders on the ground have come up with a low-tech shield every bit as effective as the protective hardware on which the Pentagon has spent over $100 billion.
"Unfortunately, their countertactic against our air power in some cases seems to be to use noncombatants as human shields," said Air Force Colonel Eric Holdaway. "Not all their commanders are doing this, but we have evidence of at least some that are." Holdaway, the top Air Force intel officer assigned to Central Command, which is waging the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, suggested that the Taliban have few options on the ground if they want to stay alive. "You'd almost call it Taliban air defense," he said. "They have not been able to prevent us from using [the drones], even though they've tried by rocketing our airfields and trying to shoot at our aircraft." (See pictures of Taliban gains in Pakistan.)
The use of human shields to deter an enemy from attacking transgresses the law of war, but it isn't new. Saddam Hussein used them fleetingly during both Gulf wars, but to protect military and industrial targets rather than people. U.S. officials say they do not fire at targets near innocent civilians, but they note that it's sometimes difficult to separate the bad guys from the good guys or to know who is inside a building with a target.
But Holdaway suggested that the drones have put time on the side of the U.S. military. For decades, pilots and bombardiers got only brief chances to strike their targets, limited by the targets' movements and leery of hanging over enemy territory too long. But drones don't put pilots at risk, and their small engines and relatively large gas tanks allow them to loiter for hours. "They stay on station for a very long time," Holdaway told defense bloggers on April 23. They patiently circle in lazy orbits far overhead, their belly-mounted sensors combing the ground for targets. "If we're the ones taking the initiative, then typically we can afford to be patient," Holdaway added. "If we lose an opportunity, we can be patient, keep working on the problem and keep working on the target and eventually get another opportunity. We see that fairly often."
One more bit of good news for the drone corps. While the mujahedin downed Soviet aircraft using U.S.-supplied Stinger missiles in the 1980s, there doesn't seem to be any similar hotshot weapon being used against U.S. drones in the current campaigns. Machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades are fired usually without effect at suspected drone sightings. "For some reason, we just have not seen the more sophisticated weapons showing up," Holdaway said. "Knock on wood, so far."