Pentagon Confirms U.S. Drone Presence Over Gaza

They're not armed, DOD says. But drone footage, especially cumulatively, provides Biden a substantial look at the realities Israel is creating on the ground.

Pentagon Confirms U.S. Drone Presence Over Gaza
A General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper flying a combat mission over Afghanistan (Wikimedia Commons)

Edited by Sam Thielman

AIR FORCE BRIG. GEN. PAT RYDER, the chief Pentagon spokesman, confirmed on Friday that the U.S. has sent one of the signature tools of the War on Terror to the skies above Gaza. 

"In support of hostage recovery efforts," Ryder said in a statement the Pentagon blast-emailed to reporters just now, "the U.S. is conducting unarmed UAV flights over Gaza, as well as providing advice and assistance to support our Israeli partner as they work on their hostage recovery efforts. These UAV flights began after the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israel." The military calls drones UAVs, for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle.

Israel has its own surveillance assets, including its own drone fleet. Hostage recovery efforts in this circumstance may have more to do with what FOREVER WARS reported yesterday concerning the "contingency" of U.S. special-operations forces potentially performing U.S. hostage rescue. The New York Times, which apparently the Pentagon was reacting to, reports that the drones in question are (apparently unarmed, per DOD) MQ-9 Reapers, familiar from the War on Terror.

As well, note Ryder's phrasing: the flights began at an unspecified time after the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas. We don't know when that began, and I've emailed the Pentagon for clarification, including for an estimate of how many hours of video footage the drones have recorded. I wouldn't bet on receiving an answer, but I've lodged the question. Sure enough, as I was writing the next paragraph, a Pentagon spokesman replied, "What’s included in the statement is all the information we have to provide for today."

More broadly, sending drone flights above Gaza for hostage rescue—perhaps for other purposes, but they say hostage rescue—means the U.S. has substantial visibility into what the reality is on the ground that Israel has brought to Gaza. 

It's definitely true, as Brett Friedman observed when he pushed back on Bluesky after I was too categorical in reacting to this statement minutes after I got it, that the drones don't reveal everything. Drones are a soda straw. Their operators will be narrowly focused on their mission sets, rather than any larger question of the war. 

But the drones' footage cumulatively will give a broader perspective. Especially if part of hostage-recovery reconnaissance involves observing pattern-of-life analysis around given suspected locations. Surveillance drones are built to loiter over swaths of territory and observe. The footage won't tell you everything about Gaza. But it will tell some story about the area of Gaza being recorded over time.

With this statement from the Pentagon, it will be difficult for the Biden administration to argue it doesn't know what Israel is doing in Gaza. Again, it won't know everything. But it has a substantial independent surveillance asset providing visibility into the realities its Israeli client is creating on the ground. The content of that drone footage is going to be important to any subsequent inquiry into the war. 

Perhaps as well the Pentagon announcement gives me something to FOIA. Not that I have my hopes up for disclosure, but still.