Episode VII – The Drone Wars
remote adj far removed in space, time, or relation; separated in spirit, feeling, sympathy, or interest. syn distant, aloof.
Imagine a not too distant future: a young military officer sits in a bunker somewhere in Nevada. He’s called an operator. On the computer screen before him is an image of people caught by the camera on a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) 3000 feet above, silent and unseen. The operator is controlling the UAV from some 12,000 miles away; the people are in some Middle Eastern desert. They have no idea they’re under surveillance. He’s in radio contact with a field intelligence agent who confirms that the targets — they are no longer human beings — are enemies, and he’s cleared to fire. He presses a couple buttons, or maybe a joystick, and a missle from the UAV vaporizes the targets into red mist and bone chips. At the end of his shift, he goes home and has dinner with his wife and children. Just another day at the office.
There’s just one thing — this is not the future, it is now. Drones are the weapon of choice for modern warfare. There’s no need to put troops in harm’s way, and the only risks are political. The operators have no way of knowing how reliable the intel is, whether he just killed Taliban, a wedding party, or some villagers looking for firewood. They just press buttons and watch the targets disappear in quiet puffs of smoke. They might as well be playing a video game. It gives new meaning to the concept of remote control.
Drone technology was in its infancy before 9/11 kicked it into overdrive. They were used for surveillance before then; afterward they began to be armed. Today the U.S. has about 750 drones, nearly all used by the CIA or the military. They have been deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen, that we know of. A few are in use to patrol the U.S. border with Mexico. Linguistically, the names have a certain ominous sound. The two main drone types are the Predator and the Reaper, and their main payload is the Hellfire missle. The first instance of targeted killing by a drone was on February 4, 2002, in Afghanistan. The CIA thought it had located Osama bin Laden with two other men, and took them out. It later turned out that they were innocent villagers, scavenging for metal scraps from previous airstrikes, which could be sold for around 50 cents per camel load.
For a weapon touted for its precision, there are an awful lot of civilian casualties. Further, the relationship between CIA and the military seems nebulous, at best, with little or no oversight or accountability. John Sifton, in “Drones: A Troubling History” (“The Nation,” February 27, 2012), writes: “Drones cross into a new frontier, an area of risk-free, remote and potentially automated killing detached from human behavioral clues.” He mentions some drone operators suffering from PTSD, but as the distance between killer and killed expands, war is becoming more acceptable. Consider this in comparison to a quote attributed to Robert E. Lee, after the Battle of Fredericksburg: “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we would grow too fond of it.” Sifton goes on to an even scarier prospect raised by military analyst Peter Singer — what if drones acquire the capacity to engage the enemy autonomously? He postulates the scenario of a drone “acting solely on its own senses, without recourse to higher, human authority.”
The “Terminator” aspect aside, there’s something I find even more disturbing about drone technology — its potential for surveillance on a scale never before imagined. The annual FAA Reauthorization Act is a routine budgetary appropriation for the agency. But neatly tucked into the most recent one passed early this past February, there is a provision to develop new regulations for the testing and licensing of drones for domestic use, to be completed by 2015. In an article by Talking Points Memo (TPM Muckraker) the FAA projects as many as 30,000 by 2020! That’s unsettling, to say the least.
Wait a minute. How much do these things cost? I thought America was broke. The Predator drone retails for a mere $4.5 million; the heavier Reaper for about twice that. Let’s see, $4.5 million times 30,000 — that’s $135 billion. Where’s the money going to come from? Well, we’re just going to have to cut deeper into Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, public education, police & fire departments. It can be done, and it looks like they’re planning to do it. Oh, they might use the smaller, cheaper Parrot AR, or a host of others. The defense contractors must be rubbing their scaly talons together with glee. Besides, if your police department has a drone, you don’t need as many cops on the street, right? Relax; most of them won’t be armed — at least not yet. It will depend on how big the Occupy movement gets. And not all of these drones will be used by police, FBI, and Homeland Security; doubtless they’ll find a place with the big corporations, too. You know, to keep an “eye” on the competition. There have been breakthroughs in miniaturization, too. That dragonfly hovering near you may not be a dragonfly at all. Big Brother never dreamed of anything like this.
As if all this weren’t bad enough, Northrup-Grumman and Sandia Labs are working on plans for powering them with mini nuclear reactors. More time aloft, with less ground maintenance. The problem with this is that drones, like other machines, can have periodic mechanical failures. They occasionally crash, but this time the crash would also be a dirty bomb, spreading deadly radiation far and wide.
So, the future is a bright one — keep looking up. Don’t worry, you can’t see them, but they’ll be there alright; watching, watching.
One nation — under surveillance