Could falcons be the latest innovation in drone warfare?

Last time we checked in with Pakistan's falcon population, we reported on the surprising, feel-good story of how the Taliban have saved the fearsome birds in the tribal areas by fueling violence that has scared off poachers. Now there's a new wrinkle when it comes to the status of falcons in this troubled region.

On Monday, Indian security forces recovered a dead falcon that had been outfitted with a camera and an antenna (see photo above) near the fort city of Jaisalmer. According to Agence France-Presse, the wired bird has spooked Indian military officials, who say that while it may just be the work of hunters, "the possibility of it being an espionage attempt from Pakistan cannot be ruled out at this stage."

So, is Pakistan turning its great falcon glut into a low-tech drone fleet as part of its ongoing confrontation with India? Fueling suspicions in this case is the fact that the bird was recovered in an area used by the Indian military for war games. As recently as April 2012, India massed 50,000 troops in the area for joint exercises between its army and air force. A falcon would seem like the perfect countermeasure, no?

As it happens, this isn't the first time Indian authorities have insinuated that Pakistan is enlisting avian henchmen to spy on its nemesis to the south. In 2010, Indian authorities placed under armed guard a pigeon suspected of delivering messages across the border. The pigeon, police said, may have been on a "special mission of spying."

Could this also be part of a regional trend of using feathered friends to outwit high-tech aerial defenses? In 2011, Saudi authorities detained a vulture on charges that it was spying on behalf of Israel after learning that it bore a tag reading, "Tel Aviv University." And while officials eventually cleared the bird -- named R65, for its identification code --  on charges of espionage, is it too much to hope that, somewhere in the Pakistani hinterlands, an army of falcons-turned-surveillance drones is gathering strength?

Stay safe out there, feathered friends.

STR/AFP/Getty Images


Actually, John Kerry doesn't have a Chinese counterpart

From April 12 to April 15, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry toured Asia -- discussing North Korea's provocations and meeting with a series of top officials including his Japanese and South Korean counterparts, the foreign ministers of those two countries. In China, he met with the two top Communist Party officials as well as the state councilor in charge of foreign policy, Yang Jiechi, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who is sometimes called Kerry's counterpart. But it's worth noting that Wang is much, much lower down on Beijing's official totem pole than Kerry is on Washington's.

In the United States, the secretary of state is unquestionably important, as the line of succession makes clear. If the president dies, Kerry is fourth in line, behind the vice president, the speaker of the House, and the president pro tempore of the Senate. China has no public line of succession, but it does rank its top officials: the 25 members of China's top governing body, the Politburo, are nominally the most powerful officials in China (with the exceptions of influential former officials like Jiang Zemin, who no longer hold official positions, and with the regular caveats about Chinese political opacity, this ranking is considered accurate). Within that group is the even more elite seven-member Standing Committee, chaired by Xi Jinping, who's ranked number one and widely seen as the most powerful man in China.  

Where does State Councilor Yang fit in to all of this? Not only is he outside both the Standing Committee and the Politburo, but he's also probably less powerful than several -- if not dozens -- of high-ranking officials who are also not Politburo members, as well as the retired officials from the last Standing Committee, including Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, who are also no longer Politburo members. Call Yang the 40th most-powerful official in China -- roughly equivalent to Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Bob Menendez.

And Yang easily outranks the foreign minister. China's premier Li Keqiang, ranked second in the official hierarchy, oversees the State Council. And Yang, as one of five state councilors, plays a role in managing China's ministries, of which the Foreign Ministry is but one -- and one seen as relatively weak.

Foreign Minister Wang, in other words, has the kind of power Chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs Ed Royce wields on a bad day.

So where is foreign policy made in China? "By the Chinese Communist Party's Central Leading Group on Foreign Affairs, which General Secretary Xi Jinping heads," Willy Lam, senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, wrote in March in these pages. "Members of this top-level interdepartmental organ include representatives from the Foreign Ministry, the army, and the Ministry of State Security, as well as departments handling energy and foreign trade." 

So keep in mind: When Kerry sits down with Yang and Wang -- as he did on this trip and will likely do again during the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, a meeting between high-level U.S. and Chinese officials -- he's not meeting with the real decision-makers.