Strategic significance lies in the flaming pile of wreckage cratered in the North Waziristan mountains. Long-term implications of insurgent drone capability tend to overshadow the short-term, unlikely scenario that insurgents will soon acquire functioning drones.
But an immediate threat is catching up.
“It is our big success against our enemy today,” an excited militant commander told The News International. “Now they will shoot down more such planes.”
We have no way of knowing for certain whether TTP militants shot down an MQ-1 Predator and recovered the remains. They’ve made this claim once before after a drone crashed in South Waziristan in 2008, but the Pakistani army and intelligence officials quarantined the area.
So is this time different? The crash occurred around 6 p.m. in the Hamdhoni area of North Waziristan, 2.5 miles northwest of Miran Shah. With the Pakistani army hung up in South Waziristan, the TTP has mostly had to contend with US drones, putting them in position to secure a crash.
"I saw that the aircraft was coming down and finally crashed in an open area a distance from me," said Saudur Rehman, a local. "Tribesmen are celebrating and congratulating each other for shooting it down."
A unlikely outcome, statistically speaking. Over 70 Predators have been lost since 1997, over 15 in the last 18 months. According to the US military, only rarely are drones shot down by enemy fire; mechanical failure and weather is often the cause. One just went down a week ago in Afghanistan, a semi-routine occurrence. Usually the crash site is blanketed by US or allied forces.
Consequently most analysts doubt insurgents are capable of shooting down Predators and their offspring, the MQ-9 Reaper. If anything they get lucky.
Yet several drones have been downed by confirmed fire, proving it can be done. The TTP is also stocked with Man-portable air-defense systems (MPADS) - RPGs and allegedly FIM-92 Stingers, so it has the means. But we must look past military hardware.
Despite doubts over insurgent tactics and equipment, the strategic battlefield has inevitably shifted since 2000. Though the principle of drones isn’t hard to grasp, they also take time to adapt to, affording America a decade of advantage. Now any intelligent insurgent has wised up, alert that while the sky may appear empty, a Predator could be lurking in any inch of Earth’s atmosphere.
Even as big fish keep landing in the net, the whales continue swimming freely through adroit movement, stationary command, and national or local political protection. At the lower levels, terrified militants have take to concealed paths and forego foreign cars, slowing their movements. Their element of surprise has been chiseled away with the skies manned day and night.
It becomes evident that the massive “success” of drones in Pakistan, measured solely by kill rate, also conceals an evolutionary process to overcome them.
Defense has dominated this struggle as insurgents are primarily concerned with evading drones and staying alive. But it’s only a matter of time before the mind of a soldier and commander tires of defense and craves offense. A defensive position cannot be maintained indefinitely even for a guerilla - eventually an offensive strategy must be developed.
The TTP is feeling the urge to shoot back after a five-year intimate relationship with drones, and since the CIA is increasing drone operations as fast as possible, the TTP will have many chances.
Strategy and tactics will determine the success of its weapons. Cruising at altitudes of 20,000 feet and propelled by ever-quieting motors, Predators and Reapers have no chance at being shot down while on patrol. SAM’s are designed for helicopters and low-flying aircraft, meaning the time to attack a plane or drone is at take off and landing.
Flying out of Afghanistan and the Pakistan wilderness, the TTP doesn’t enjoy that opportunity.
Thus the method of targeting drones will attempt to bring them down to the surface. As Predators usually drop their altitude during firing situations, the TTP is likely to develop its plan to lure them into range of heavy-weapons - machine guns and MPADS. Using themselves as bait, insurgents could attempt to lead drones near valleys with rocket teams positioned and concealed on the mountain heights. Or they could utilize more obscured, covered paths in attempt to draw the drones lower.
Waziristan's topography could be reanalyzed and crafted to manipulate Predator flight paths, attempting to turn them into prey.
The game will change from not being seen to being intentionally hard to see, from defending to attacking. Though the TTP isn’t in the best position to concentrate on an elaborate drone offensive while having to deal with the Pakistani army, neither can the possibility be ruled out in the coming years.
The military value of shooting down a drone is relatively low until the system to operate them is created. At most it can begin stockpiling drone parts and search for weaknesses to target, as long-term understanding slowly progresses in the background. But the TTP also knows the propaganda and morale value is sky-high.
As the CIA buffs up its robotic flying army, shooting a few Predators down would go a long way towards combating the impression of defeat. The CIA shouldn't doubt the potential of a counterattack in the near-distant future.