Podcast: The Risks of Conducting Over the Horizon Strikes

With its exit from Afghanistan, the U.S. is beginning a new phase of drone warfare, conducting strikes there without forces on the ground. But is the current technology enough to safely execute the mission?

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Rush Transcipt:

Jennifer Dimascio:

Hi and welcome to the Check Six podcast. I'm Jen Dimascio, the executive editor for defense in space and here with Pentagon editor Brian Evanston, defense analyst Brandon Patrick, and Graham Warwick aviation mix executive editor for technology. We're here today to discuss what the US is calling its counter terrorism over the horizon capability to strike targets in places where it does not have ground forces. Brian, you wrote recently about this in the context of the exit of US forces from Afghanistan. What is the over the horizon capability and what's really the strategic value of using it.

Brian Everstine:

So in the lead up to the withdrawal from Afghanistan, we heard repeatedly from senior Pentagon officials that there will be a remaining over the horizon capability of aircraft to watch target and strike Al Qaeda and ISIS targets inside Afghanistan after the withdrawal. And we saw that play out within the final couple of days, starting with an August 27th, MQ9 strike in the far Eastern austere province of Nangahar. And then two days later, we saw a strike within the city of Kabul in retribution where the Pentagon said of that terrible suicide bombing attack at the airport. And now there's no longer a US presence on the ground. There's no intelligence, there's no ally partners to help with the targeting. So US forces can only rely on air and space assets to both track and eventually target any lingering ISK or building Al Qaeda presence within the country. There's been discussion and skepticism as to how effective this continued over the horizon strike capability can be.

Jennifer Dimascio:

Well yeah, you wrote a lot about what I think is the main challenge and that is the lack of on the ground intelligence. Brandon, what do you see from some of your experiences on what that might mean?

Brandon Patrick:

Yeah, so the situation right now in Afghanistan is different from others in the past that involved over the horizon strike capability or a heavier reliance on over the horizon capability. In a if you key ways, if you think back on Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, those situations all had similarities in the sense that we had intelligence networks in place, human intelligence networks on the ground we had in all of those cases, soft troops in place. We were typically situated with some kind of additional air capability. And we also were not in essentially week one or month one of a totally new situation, trying to monitor a surveillance strike within a country that we don't have any sure diplomatic footing with. So in addition to not having those, the integration of the over the strike capability with a more robust strategy, and that's a key thing, is this a strategy without those other things, we also don't know exactly where we stand with future relations with the Taliban.

Brandon Patrick:

It's, hard to imagine that there's going to be a perfect alignment between their goals and ours. And if we look at the last 20 years and we think about, okay, it didn't go well. We changed our political objective many times. We were in a constant state of misaligning our means with our goals and constantly changing our goals were at risk already of starting out on a similar foot now where we are misaligning what means we have not supporting that capability with the ground assets that have always been necessary to do it.

Brandon Patrick:

And also we're in unsure territory, as well as to what exactly we're going to be trying to do. Are we targeting anyone that poses a threat within Afghanistan to the United States? Or is it just going to be ISIS K, which the Taliban would have no real problem with, or are we going to be targeting Al Qaeda also which the Taliban almost certainly would have a problem with? So it's very fraught politically and in terms of relationships and in terms of hardware and resources on the ground, working in concert with the over the horizon capability that integration isn't there. So there's going to be a few issues here. One thing that is kind of floating around the DC area here, where we are at the AVWIK offices is the term over the rainbow strategy exactly because of these problems and whether or not people agree that it's really a viable future for a robust counter terrorism campaign.

Graham Warwick:

So, Jen could I jump in here because I'm a technologist, not a military strategist, but when I look at this, I kind of I really doubt the US's ability to truly deliver on this capability. What they've developed in Afghanistan over the past 20 years was the ability to track patterns of life, to be able to monitor the movement of people, watch for sort of unusual movements in and out of certain locations and things like that, which fed them the targeting information they needed, so they had assets that were doing that. They had these wide area imaging systems and all these things that would allow them to sort of track patterns of life. They had all the human intelligence that there was feeding them the information, and that was allowing them to target things. Now we take away the human intelligence you take away.

Graham Warwick:

I mean, it doesn't matter how many unmanned aircraft we have. We can't monitor patterns of life with the detail that we did before. So how do we know what's going on, right? And so I think you've got to look at the entire, and I hate the word, but you've got to look at the entire kill chain from detecting a target to executing on that target to even more importantly, assessing what happened, because the instant that you attack, you will be accused of killing civilians, whether you have or not, you're going to be in the public domain, accused of killing civilians. You've got to know what you did when you carry out one of these over the horizon attacks, that requires an extraordinary level of command and control and intelligence, precision, and targeting.

Graham Warwick:

And I don't think it's there. It may be on its way. They may think they can get to it. I don't think it's there today. I'm going to be really interested as a technologist in what we see happen over the next few months and years, as they realize what they don't have and the gaps they need to fill to be able to carry out an over the horizon strategy that does not end up labeling the US as an indiscriminate killer of civilians, because those over the horizon capabilities are not precise enough.

Jennifer Dimascio:

Well I mean the US as you pointed out, Brandon has been carrying out strikes in many other countries over the last 10 years, they have a greater intelligence footprint on the ground. But Brian, I mean, the Pentagon also isn't necessarily pulling this out of thin air. What have they said that they have in place that makes them think that this is a viable strategy?

Brian Everstine:

Well, what we've seen so far has been long range, MQ9 flights from the Gulf, which they do have time on station. They have time to loiter and monitor, but not near as much as they would if they're taking off from Bob or Kandahar or any of the bases within the country. And it's very reliant on Pakistan, for example, that we need the Boulevard of airspace to come into Pakistan. And that can be rescinded on a whim if they want that. And there were during the withdrawal, there was a heavy ISR presence. There was a heavy strike presence. We had fighters over Kabul. We had B52s flying over the country and those [inaudible 00:07:52] screen assets returned home. So what we've really seen is a very heavy reliance on these MQ9s. The carrier strike group is still off the coast of Pakistan now, but we haven't heard if that the near FA pins are still flying in the country or not. So what I would have seen so far, and what I expect to see is just very long trips for MQ9s from the Gulf into Afghanistan.

Jennifer Dimascio:

And then politically Graham, you mentioned, that the US is going to be teed up as a killer of civilians. It has been the case for a decade that has been happening around the world.

Graham Warwick:

Yes, I kind of agree, and but all I'm saying it's your ability to know what you've actually done on the ground. I mean, when you have boots on the ground, when you have troops or you have intelligence sources, they not only help you target, but they also help you assess what happened, and I'm not convinced, that we'll yet have the accuracy of intelligence, to be able to counter those, to know exactly what we did and what, so it's more of that, it's the precision which we, if we're going to operate remotely and I'm looking way into the future, because I think this is a trend that's going to accelerate.

Graham Warwick:

When you just look generally at remote operations, remote combat operations, knowing what you actually achieved is probably almost as important as anything else. And that's the bit that I'm not sure that we have, I wanted to sort of go to my point, the UK is now talking about with it's getting its protector unmanned aircraft, which are the evolved versions of the Republic the UK is getting, they're already talking about being able to use those in a somewhat similar manner as a strike asset to protect at range. They're talking about being able to operate, to do a conductor strike at some range against a target. That could be anywhere in the world whether it's the US, the UK has something that's threatened you know what I mean? So I think you're going to see a lot of people operating these types of vehicles, sorry Reparent Protector and things like that.

Graham Warwick:

Start to think about this remote over horizon way of operating. And I think I'm just flagging up that technologically, that puts huge requirements on the entire chain, your ability to understand what's going on to locate the target within that situation, to strike that target and then know what you achieved when you did that. I think as we look more and more to this sort of remote operation, I think that puts tremendous technological strains on, can I just jump as nothing. I was a moderators panel yesterday and the head of DARPA's tactical technology office was speaking. And he was talking about a program called URSA, which is something like urban reconnaissance and strike or something. It's a program to enable automated drones, to monitor an urban area and to strike if necessary.

Graham Warwick:

And they are actually building into the very earliest stages of the program, what they call legal, moral, and ethical LME design rules. And they're calling it Dev-F ops, which is dev ops, which is fast development, but they're adding ethics to it. And I think this is really where we might be heading, where we have to really rethink our system architectures to build in this legal, moral, and ethical guidelines, which will drive us to this incredible level of precision and accuracy that we kind of need to know.

Jennifer Dimascio:

Is that an artificial intelligence system.

Graham Warwick:

It is and it ties into the whole thing about morals and ethics about AI, but it also is more about, it's the total system architecture, and I'm not trying to take this off in a different direction, but when you architect a system, it's just knowing every stage in the system that you're getting the information and it's acting in the appropriate way. I think when you look at remote ops, you have to look at your entire end to end operation and say to yourself, is it delivering to me the accuracy and predictability and reliability that I can act on it?

Jennifer Dimascio:

Well, I mean, I think that really brings the discussion back around to where we were in sorting out some of the challenges of remote warfare. Brandon, did you have something to add to that?

Brandon Patrick:

Well, I was just thinking, Brian had some good reporting in this last week about over the horizon capability and in it, he mentioned the August 29th strike, which was a follow-up to the August 27th strike. And in that one, the joint chiefs confirmed that civilians were killed. Apparently the target was a vehicle born IED. That was being loaded up to be driven over towards HKIA the airport over there. So maybe a sort of a repeat attack. And in that instance, as the JCOS explained it, the area had been determined to be isolated and relatively clear of civilians. But between the time that the strike order was issued and the impact of the missile, apparently some civilians had wandered into the area that weren't known to be there before. This is exactly the kind of limitation that Graham is talking about.

Brandon Patrick:

Human eyes on the ground and human sources would have potentially been able to say, although you don't see them from above, there are civilians. We need to hold on this until the vehicle moves to an isolated area, or until the civilians are cleared, but that wasn't in place. And they could only go by what they saw from above. So it's a perfect example. And of course, the over the horizon standalone capability is nascent. Surely they will, as Graham was saying that they'll develop mechanisms to improve it. It's also hard to believe that the US is going to work henceforth with no assets on the ground. They have a long now 20 year history on the ground in Afghanistan, plenty of people surely that they can return to for sources and things like that.

Brandon Patrick:

But as it's being described publicly right now, as a discrete capability operating on its own, I think the August 29th strike demonstrates the real limitations of it as it is right now. And then to add one thing, the organizations that are going to be targeted are no longer confined to mountainous frontier regions between Pakistan and Afghanistan. They now have much more freedom of movement in a country that is only barely being governed, even the ISIS K folks have quite a bit more freedom of movement to integrate themselves into neighborhoods and towns and cities, and that makes striking them without serious collateral damage. All the more challenging.

Jennifer Dimascio:

That's about all we have time for today. But Brian, I wanted to just kick it over to you for any final thoughts.

Brian Everstine:

I want to go back to one thing I thought was interesting and about a week ago, I asked general Brown, the air force chief of staff, who is also the former air force ecentral command boss about what he sees for the future of over the horizon. And I was kind of leading him to talk about which assets would be very key for that continued surveillance. And instead of focusing on MQ9s or RP4s that sort of thing, he talked about space. The space force has a role here for broader strategic indications and warnings coming out of Afghanistan, which is sort of a surreal thought to think that we went from on the ground intelligence to monitoring ISIS K from space. And I guess we'll see how effective that will be.

Jennifer Dimascio:

That's certainly an area to watch. Well, thank you everyone for this very interesting edition of Check Six, don't miss a single episode. You can subscribe to the Check Six podcast in Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, Stitcher and Spotify. Thanks for listening. Bye bye.

Jen DiMascio

Based in Washington, Jen manages Aviation Week’s worldwide defense, space and security coverage.

Brian Everstine

Brian Everstine is the Pentagon Editor for Aviation Week, based in Washington, D.C. Before joining Aviation Week in August 2021, he covered the Pentagon for Air Force Magazine. Brian began covering defense aviation in 2011 as a reporter for Military Times.

Brandon Patrick

Brandon is Aviation Week’s Defense Analyst for the Middle East and North African regions. Prior to joining Aviation Week, Brandon studied Arabic and the Middle East at the University of Arizona and served in the Air Force.

Graham Warwick

Graham leads Aviation Week's coverage of technology, focusing on engineering and technology across the aerospace industry, with a special focus on identifying technologies of strategic importance to aviation, aerospace and defense.