Expert Warns Drones Could Be Missing Hundreds of Potential Benghazi-Like Attacks

The military is having trouble keeping up with all the new data being gleaned by drones.

Armed Predator drone

The military is currently working on upgrading drones so that they can fly in "hostile environments" like the Middle East and Africa, says Lt. Gen. Larry James.

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The United States military has an intelligence problem--it has too much of it.

As drones get better at taking video, the Air Force has an increasingly hard time analyzing it for potential threats, leading one expert to warn that the military might be missing potential attacks.

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"We have hundreds of Benghazis we might need to protect against, and we don't have the computing power or the manpower to watch it as it's happening," says James Keagle, director of the Emerging Challenges Program at National Defense University.

It's a problem the military is increasingly turning to automated systems to solve--analysts can use NFL-like telestrators to circle a door, for instance. If a drone detects unexpected movement near that door, it can automatically alert people on the ground. But that raises new issues: Human rights organizations object to giving drones even further levels of automation. But even with automation, the military is falling behind, some experts say.

"In the past two years, the Air Force has experienced thousand-fold increases in the amount of footage coming in," the Brookings Institution's Peter W. Singer says. "You go from a point of not having enough people in the Air Force to analyze footage to not having enough American citizens to analyze it."

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According to a Rand Corporation study released earlier this year, new surveillance systems called ARGUS are able to monitor up to 100 square kilometers at a time, and more than 30 analysts are required at any given time to watch footage from a single Predator or Reaper drone. According to the report, "the demand for Predator and Reaper motion imagery has grown quickly over the past several years, and the appetite of ground commanders in this regard shows no signs of subsiding," which "threatens to overwhelm Air Force intelligence analysts."

Though all the details haven't come out about the Benghazi attacks yet, experts spoke at National Defense University last week about how the presence of drones has changed the public's perception of the military.

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"There's a certain constituency that thinks that if there was a UAV that could watch what was happening in Benghazi, the president should immediately be held accountable," says Josh Jones, of the Center for Complex Operations. "People think the president was watching this happen on his screen and should have known."

Despite the plethora of new information being gleaned from UAVs, Singer says there's still a human element to predicting an attack.

"The amount of data we're gathering is growing every day, but the challenge is, is it the right kind of data? And with the data points we do have, can I proverbially connect the dots," he says. "That's always been the problem in intelligence gathering. After an attack it looks obvious, but that's the hindsight."

By all accounts, the military is taking steps to become more efficient at downloading and analyzing data received from drones in real time. They have met with ESPN technicians to develop better ways to quickly call up video histories and identify threats, but the technology might be advancing faster than its analysis capabilities.

"There's no turning back--no one says 'I want to go back to the days when I couldn't see what the enemy was doing," Singer says. "The demand for this data is insatiable. It's like seeing something on color TV for the first time. You don't want to go back to black and white."

Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at