$174 Million Afghan Drone Program Is Riddled With Problems, U.S. Report Says

The ScanEagle is a small drone with a 10-foot wingspan, less capable than the larger, higher-flying armed drones such as the Reaper. Used by the American military in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the ScanEagle is launched by a catapult, lands by flying into a net and sounds like a lawn mower. The drone’s camera beams video to an operator on a nearby base.

Original training requirements for the ScanEagles aimed to teach 12 to 20 Afghan students in 11 weeks on how to operate the small drone, but that was later changed to about 28 students in roughly a year, according to the report. This change centered on the addition of a six-month English-language course and an education in basic computer skills to the curriculum. In 2018, the attrition rate for the program was 31 percent, the report said.

The Afghan military was unable to account for 27 of the 87 soldiers certified to operate the ScanEagle drones, according to the report. And of the 60 soldiers assigned to operate the ScanEagles at sites around the country, an average of 17 were absent “because of sickness, annual leave or unknown reasons,” the report said.

ScanEagle equipment has become an issue, too. American officials in Afghanistan told the inspector general’s office that they were concerned that the Afghan National Army “does not know where the equipment it owns is or whether it is being used appropriately.” Afghan law enforcement agencies also “seized a stolen ScanEagle vehicle that a criminal intended to sell to a suspected terrorist organization for $400,000,” the report said.

American officials expressed concerns that the ScanEagle could be weaponized, a common tactic for insurgent groups that outfit small, unarmed drones with homemade devices to drop grenades or other munitions.

The report comes shortly after the Pentagon announced that it had reduced its forces in Afghanistan to roughly 8,600 troops and that the U.S. military had left five bases, transferring them to Afghan forces, all as part of the peace agreement with the Taliban.

“The United States honors its obligations,” the top Pentagon spokesman, Jonathan Hoffman, said in a statement on Tuesday. “All sides should reduce violence and embark on intra-Afghan negotiations capable of achieving a negotiated and lasting peace for Afghanistan.”