McClatchy reports: After a U.S. airstrike mistakenly killed at least 15 Afghans in 2010, the Army officer investigating the accident was surprised to discover that an American civilian had played a central role: analyzing video feeds from a Predator drone keeping watch from above.
The contractor had overseen other analysts at Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field in Florida as the drone tracked suspected insurgents near a small unit of U.S. soldiers in rugged hills in central Afghanistan. Based partly on her analysis, an Army captain ordered an airstrike on a convoy that turned out to be carrying innocent men, women and children.
“What company do you work for?” Maj. Gen. Timothy McHale demanded of the contractor after he learned that she was not in the military, according to a transcript obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
“SAIC,” she answered. Her employer, SAIC Inc., is a publicly traded Virginia-based corporation with a multiyear $49 million contract to help the Air Force analyze drone video and other intelligence from Afghanistan.
America’s growing drone operations rely on hundreds of civilian contractors, including some, such as the SAIC employee, who work in the so-called kill chain before Hellfire missiles are launched, according to current and former military officers, company employees and internal government documents.
Relying on private contractors has brought corporations that operate for profit into some of America’s most sensitive military and intelligence operations. And using civilians makes some in the military uneasy.
At least a dozen defense contractors that supply personnel to help the Air Force, special operations units and the CIA fly their drones are filling a void. It takes more people to operate unmanned aircraft than it does to fly traditional warplanes that have a pilot and crew.