A New Weapon in the War on Terror
Barry, John, Newsweek
Byline: John Barry
The land battle in Afghanistan grinds on, but the drone war is accelerating. So far this year there have been 62 reported strikes against Afghan Taliban and affiliated insurgent groups in Pakistan. This compares with 53 strikes in 2009 and 35 in 2008, according to local media and the Pakistani military.
Yet the civilian toll appears to be dropping. Two independent tallies, drawing on the same sources, differ on the toll (mainly because of varying definitions of "civilian"). But both agree it has fallen dramatically. Bill Roggio, editor of LongWarJournal.org, reckons civilian deaths have fallen from 43 in 2009 to 10 this year. Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation thinks as many as 300 civilians may have been killed in 2009, but only 55 this year. (A government estimate puts the number much lower--about 30 total since 2008.) Why the drop? Five Defense Department, counterterror, and industry sources, talking on background because of the sensitivity of the issue, point to better intelligence about targets, more cautious controls on strikes, and what one Pentagon official calls "a new generation of weapons." Instead of being equipped with only one rocket, the Predator drones used in the strikes can now be outfitted with smaller, specialized munitions, the sources say.
The Predator's standard rocket, the Hellfire, has a 20-pound warhead designed to destroy tanks. The problem, the sources say, is the Hellfire can be too powerful. It demolishes buildings, killing everyone in them--the enemies the U.S. wants to hit, and their families, too. The Hellfire can also carry a "thermobaric" warhead, which generates a lethal pressure wave against fighters in caves. …