A fully armed MQ-9 Reaper taxis down a runway in Afghanistan. (Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson / Air Force)
As scrutiny and debate over the use of remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) by the American military increased last month, the Air Force reversed a policy of sharing the number of airstrikes launched from RPAs in Afghanistan and quietly scrubbed those statistics from previous releases kept on their website.
Last October, Air Force Central Command started tallying weapons releases from RPAs, broken down into monthly updates. At the time, AFCENT spokeswoman Capt. Kim Bender said the numbers would be put out every month as part of a service effort to "provide more detailed information on RPA ops in Afghanistan."
The Air Force maintained that policy for the statistics reports for November, December and January. But the February numbers, released March 7, contained empty space where the box of RPA statistics had previously been.
Additionally, monthly reports hosted on the Air Force website have had the RPA data removed — and recently.
Those files still contained the RPA data as of Feb. 16, according to archived web pages accessed via Archive.org. Metadata included in the new, RPA-less versions of the reports show the files were all created Feb. 22.
Defense Department spokesman Cmdr. Bill Speaks said the department was not involved in the decision to remove the statistics. AFCENT did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
On Sunday, U.S. Central Command said in a statement that the decision was made to remove the statistics because the data disproportionately places emphasis on the airstrikes. The majority of the RPA missions are for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, with a small percent involving airstrikes.
"A determination found the data disproportionately focused on RPA kinetic events," CENTCOM said in the statement. "A variety of multi-role platforms provide ground commanders in Afghanistan with close air support capabilities, and it was determined that presenting the weapons release data as a whole better reflects the airpower provided in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Kinetic events involving RPAs are the exception, with only about 3 percent of all RPA sorties over Afghanistan involving kinetic events."
The data removal coincided with increased scrutiny on RPA policy caused by President Obama's nomination of John Brennan to head the CIA. Brennan faced opposition in the Senate over the use of RPAs and his defense of their legality in his role as Obama's deputy national security adviser.
On Feb. 20, two days before the metadata indicates the scrubbed files were created, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., sent a letter to Brennan saying that he would filibuster the nomination over concerns about using RPA strikes inside the U.S., a threat he carried out for over 12 hours on March 6 (Brennan was confirmed the next day).
That same day, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told a crowd in South Carolina that strikes by American RPAs have killed 4,700 people.
"Sometimes you hit innocent people, and I hate that, but we're at war, and we've taken out some very senior members of al-Qaida," Graham was quoted by the Patch website as saying.