For those living in these drone-infested regions, the reality they experience on a daily basis is horrifying. In the dark future envisaged in the science fiction Terminator movies, human decisions are removed from strategic operations once an artificial intelligence (AI) called 'Skynet' takes control. In real life we have the conscienceless Military-Industrial Complex - run by humanoids in the CIA, Pentagon, British Ministry of Defence, US and UK Government administrations and weapons manufacturers - working together to develop a war machine that has removed all semblance of humanity from combat operations. In the movies we're invited to excuse Skynet's creators because it is no longer under their control. In real life, terminator drones are programmed to 'double-tap' their targets, a euphemism for deliberately targeting rescuers attempting to drag victims from rubble in the aftermath of the initial drone strike. The predictable result, is that for every "terrorist" killed in Pakistan 49 civilians are murdered also .
10,000 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) aka drones are said to be currently in service around the globe, "protecting Western civilization from terrorists". A thousand of these are armed and most of them are American-operated. It is reported they have killed more non-combatant civilians than died in 9/11 (and that's just the 'official estimates'). While military personnel cuts have shrunk the sizes of standing armies, 'theaters of operations' have expanded. In the US, the 'FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012', has seen the Federal Aviation Administration, NASA and other agencies work towards the total integration of commercial drones into US airspace. Ethical and privacy concerns are simply swept aside while the proliferation of drone technology is driven by the greed of powerful defense contractors.
Obama Loves Death-Dealing Drones
writes that Obama abandoned his pledge to restore respect for the rule of law following the Bush administration. What we have now instead is a commander-in-chief with a secret kill list who thinks it's OK to just terminate anyone he suspects 'might be a terrorist'.
He said Obama "has been just as ruthless and indifferent to the rule of law as his predecessor... while President Bush issued a call to arms to defend 'civilisation' against the threat of terrorism, President Obama has waged his war on terror in the shadows, using drone strikes, special operations and sophisticated surveillance to fight a brutal covert war against al-Qaida and other Islamist networks."
While Obama jokes that people "never see 'em coming", the list of children murdered by his drones grows daily.
Drones have enabled the Obama administration to continue Bush's war on terror more cheaply and in a more publicly palatable manner. By changing the rhetoric and strategy, and assisted by a silent and obedient media, Obama's drone war gets little public attention. Earlier this year the White House won a court case to keep its reasons for drone killings of Americans secret. The case referred to the 2011 drone assassinations of Anwar al-Awlaki, Samir Khan and al-Awlaki's teenage son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki - all US nationals.
Economist John Aziz said Obama's lack of transparency regarding drones makes him a member of 'Drone Club'; the first rule of Drone Club being that you don't talk about it. Obama claims that the drone strikes are conducted on a very rigorous basis:
1. "It has to be a target that is authorized by our laws."And yet, as Wired notes:
2. "It has to be a threat that is serious and not speculative."
3. "It has to be a situation in which we can't capture the individual before they move forward on some sort of operational plot against the United States."
4. "We've got to make sure that in whatever operations we conduct, we are very careful about avoiding civilian casualties.
5. "That while there is a legal justification for us to try and stop [American citizens] from carrying out plots ... they are subject to the protections of the Constitution and due process."
At least two of those five points appear to be half-truths at best. In both Yemen and Pakistan, the CIA is allowed to launch a strike based on the target's "signature" - that is, whether he appears to look and act like a terrorist. As senior U.S. officials have repeatedly confirmed, intelligence analysts don't even have to know the target's name, let alone whether he's planning to attack the U.S. In some cases, merely being a military-aged male at the wrong place at the wrong time is enough to justify your death.When asked by journalist Ben Swann whether his sanctioning of extra-judicial killing (killing without trial or due process) is legal, Obama brushed his question aside by deferring to 'national security':
Rise of the Domestic Drones
added to that list. Drones have already been approved by courts for assisting in arrests of citizens on US soil. The FAA has received at least 60 applications for drone deployment in the US and this month alone approved 348 drones for domestic use, mostly for monitoring illegal immigration along the Mexican border, but drones will soon be used to monitor cities nationwide.
Commercial drones are being developed for a wide-range of applications. They can be fitted with a number of remote sensors such as electromagnetic spectrum, biological, gamma ray and chemical sensors. Applications include telecommunications, weather forecasting, maritime monitoring and construction. Using GPS, drones can be used for the transportation of food, medicines and equipment. Aerial surveillance is a major area for use in policing, journalism, security, photography and movie-making. Other applications include search and rescue, oil and mineral exploration, researching inaccessible areas and environmental support. (See this infographic for more details).
Congress has mandated that US airspace be fully opened to drones by September 2015. The FAA said its "chief mission is to ensure the safety and efficiency of the [national air space], as well as people and property on the ground." The agency "recognizes that there are privacy concerns", but acknowledged that it does not require drone operators to follow any privacy guidelines.
In the UK, defense firms, police forces and fire services have permission to fly small drones. Organisations seeking approval include the BBC, the National Grid, universities and video golf marketing that provides fly-over videos of golf courses. UAVs are also being considered to monitor crowded events in Britain, such as concerts and festivals, as soon as the aerial units become cost-effective. In addition, the European Commission has allocated 260 million pounds ($412 million) for the 'Eurosur' project, which also includes a surveillance plan to patrol the Mediterranean coast with UAVs.
Killer Drone Technology
Since the first killer-drone strike in Afghanistan in 2002, there has been a rapid increase in drone technology developments and the number of drones in operation. The most popular is the Predator MQ-1 equipped with Hellfire missiles. With a cruising speed of 85 miles per hour, the 360 Predators currently deployed have a range of 770 miles each and can stay airbourne for 24 hours at altitudes of 25,000 feet. Each drone costs $4 million to build, millions more to operate and in total the Predator program has cost at least $2.38 billion. Drone operations are conducted from an estimated sixty bases around the world.
has developed a 'superdrone' named Taranis for the British MoD. Equipped with a customized Rolls-Royce jet engine rather than a propeller, Taranis can deliver deadly payloads, missiles that can be launched with or without human intervention, and will be able to fly from British bases at high speed to attack targets in theaters worldwide, beginning in Mali next month.
The Pentagon also wants more autonomous drones powered by jet-engines with longer ranges that can be run without human intervention. Defense contractor Northrop Grumman is reportedly developing nuclear-powered drones capable of carrying more missiles or surveillance equipment and flying over more remote regions of the world for months at a time.
The U.S. Army, together with Boeing, is deploying three new unmanned "Hummingbird" in Afghanistan. With "vertical take-off and landing unmanned aerial system" (VTOL-UAS), they spy from an altitude of 20,000 feet and are able to scan 25 square miles of ground surface at a time.
The 'upward falling payload' (UFP) program is a DARPA project to construct deep sea bases in 'contested' areas, from which UAVs would be launched to the surface when needed for "strategic humanitarian intervention."
The following video 'shows off' DARPA's newly developed imaging system called 'ARGUS-IS', the highest resolution surveillance platform in the world that can create extremely large, 1.8GP high-resolution mosaic images and video. It sends a live stream to ground and stores on board one million terabytes of footage per day.
Dollar Drone Caucus Club
China is rapidly expanding its nascent drone program and Japan has begun preparations to purchase an advanced model from the US. Both sides claim the drones will be used for surveillance, but drone-confrontation is possible over disputed islands in the East China Sea. South Korea recently announced that it is on target for a possible $1.2 billion purchase from Northrop Grumman Corp of four RQ-4 'Global Hawk' remotely-piloted aircraft with enhanced surveillance capabilities.
Emails gleaned from the servers of defense contractor Vanguard by Anonymous hacktivist offshoot LulzSec revealed that their ShadowHawk drones, which cost $640,000 and are equipped with grenade launchers and shotguns, were sold to countries in the Horn of Africa, Panama and Columbia.
While an estimated 6 million children go hungry in the US, about $11.8 billion has been spent on the development of the Reaper drone alone. The Department of Homeland Security has spent over $250 million (also of taxpayers' money) since 2006 building a fleet of Predator drones. In addition, the agency recently signed a $443 million deal with defense contractor General Atomics to purchase an additional 14 Predator drones, bringing their fleet to 24 in total.
With some 30,000 drones expected to be hovering over US airspace within two years, and costing on average $4 million a pop, defense contractors are looking at a bonanza of $120 billion worth of drone hardware. With such a lucrative market opening up for domestic drones, it's no surprise to see just how aggressively the arms manufacturers have been lobbying Congress, with Raytheon topping the list by spending nearly $7.4 million on lobbying. Next is Honeywell, spending nearly $7 million on the politics of persuasion. Bell Helicopter Textron and L-3 come next, spending $4.6 million and $3.8 million respectively. Predator-maker General Atomics also wants domestic drone-flight permission, and spent $2.3 million to meet this target.
Known officially as the Unmanned Systems Caucus, unofficially as the 'Drone Caucus', the usual cast of high-paid, well-connected Washington lobbyists practically wrote the groundbreaking drone-unleashing legislation word for word. The FAA is currently drafting regulations for domestic drone flights, stipulating where and for what purposes drones can operate. The federal rules also will feature provisions mandating that each unmanned aircraft meet certain safety specifications - and the safer aircraft have to be, the more expensive they are to build.
Concerning the power wielded by the secretive 'Drone Caucus', Alex Bronstein-Moffly, an analyst with First Street Research Group, explains:
"It's probably up there in the more powerful caucuses that sort of is not talked about." And, he says, caucus members are well placed to influence government spending and regulations.laying off soldiers. The US Marine Corps is set to shed more than 20,000 active duty positions in the next few years. The U.K's MoD is in the process of making 5,300 troops redundant over the next year, the majority of the cuts being infantry battalions. The Pentagon is now training more drone operators than fighter pilots because drones are cheaper to maintain, more reliable and tend not to commit suicide at the record rate that soldiers do. Perhaps the deeper question military personnel need to be asking themselves is this: are we being pushed out of the military because the corrupt leaders in our government no longer feel they can rely on us to side with them in a stand-off with the ordinary people?
The caucus includes eight members who also sit on the House Committee on Appropriations, which largely controls the government's purse strings.
Many of the drone caucus members are well supported by the industry they endorse. According to Bronstein-Moffly's data, the 58 drone caucus members received a total of $2.3 million in contributions from political action committees affiliated with drone manufacturers since 2011.
Investigating the War Crimes of the Obama Administration
The UN is launching an investigation into drone strikes by examining reports of civilian deaths and the legality of the U.S.'s extrajudicial killings, but it remains to be seen what impact (if any) that will have on the use of President Obama's weapon of choice. UN special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism Ben Emmerson has said:
[It is] alleged that since President Obama took office at least 50 civilians were killed in follow-up strikes when they had gone to help victims and more than 20 civilians have also been attacked in deliberate strikes on funerals and mourners. [U.N. consultant, professor of human rights] Christof Heyns ... has described such attacks, if they prove to have happened, as war crimes. I would endorse that view.Emmerson is resigned to the fact that the technology is here to stay but believes it is "imperative that appropriate legal and operational structures are urgently put in place to regulate its use in a manner that complies with the requirement of international law."
According to the U.K.-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, not only will the U.N. team examine drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, but also "drone strikes by U.S. and U.K. forces in Afghanistan, and by Israel in the Occupied Territories. In total some 25 strikes are expected to be examined in detail."
manual on guidelines for targeted killings, further cementing the concept of 'kill lists' into the U.S. national security regime while paying lip service to questions about its morality. The CIA's campaign in Pakistan, which has suffered the heaviest drone casualties, has been conveniently exempted for a year or more from any guidelines the 'manual' may enforce.
A report by researchers at the Stanford and NYU schools of law agreed that "A significant rethinking of current US targeted killing and drone strike policies is long overdue. US policy-makers, and the American public, cannot continue to ignore evidence of the civilian harm and counter-productive impacts of US targeted killings and drone strikes in Pakistan."
Regardless of privacy and other ethical concerns, drones will soon become a permanent feature in our skies. It's wishful thinking to believe the US's Terminator-President will 'learn the value of human life', but one thing we can all do is help raise awareness of the suffering that drone strikes are inflicting on innocent civilians like 4-year-old Shakira, who was nearly incinerated by a US drone strike in 2009:
John Connor: [from trailer] We've been fighting a long time. We are out numbered by machines. Working around the clock, without quitting. Humans have a strength that cannot be measured. This is John Connor. If you are listening to this, you are the resistance.Notes
- Terminator Salvation (2009)
1. For photos and names of some Pakistani victims of drone strikes, see here.
2. From the important study by Stanford University and NYU. The complete Stanford/NYU Report can be downloaded and further details are available at livingunderdrones.org