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CIA drones to use smaller missiles

world Updated: Apr 27, 2010 00:59 IST

The CIA is using new, smaller missiles and advanced surveillance techniques to minimise civilian casualties in its targeted killings of suspected insurgents in Pakistan’s tribal areas, according to current and former officials in the United States and Pakistan.

The technological improvements have resulted in more accurate operations that have provoked relatively little public outrage.

Pakistan’s government has tolerated the airstrikes, which have killed hundreds of suspected insurgents since early 2009, but that support has always been fragile and could quickly evaporate, US and Pakistani officials said.

Two counterterrorism officials said in interviews that evolving technology and tactics have kept the number of civilian deaths extremely low.

Today, several small missiles are available to the agency, including the 21-inch Small Smart Weapon, created by Lockheed Martin.

Weighing 35 pounds and having roughly the diametre of a coffee cup, the Scorpion, as it is now called, was designed to be launched from the Predator. It causes far less destruction than a Hellfire, and it can be fitted with four different guidance systems that allow it to home in on targets as small as a single person, in complete darkness.

The agency is also using a variety of warheads for the Hellfire. Among them is a small thermobaric warhead, which detonates a cocktail of explosive powders on impact to create a pressure wave that kills humans but leaves structures intact. The wave reaches around corners and can penetrate the inner recesses of bunkers and caves.

The CIA’s expanded arsenal also includes surveillance drones that carry no weapons. These “micro-UAVs” — unmanned aerial vehicles — can be roughly the size of a pizza platter and are capable of monitoring potential targets at close range, for hours or days at a stretch. At night, they can be nearly impossible to detect, said one former official who has worked with such aircraft.

“It can be outside your window and you won’t hear a whisper,” the official said.

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