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Presators and Robots at War September 19, 2011

Posted by rogerhollander in Pakistan, Science and Technology, War.
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Roger’s note: read about your tax dollars at work to provide deadly war games for young marines on the PlayStation killing machines.  Since virtually every country in the world has terrorists within and since the US is at war with terrorism, it can “legally” in the name of self-defense bombard at will.  And unmanned predators may be coming soon to a police station near you!

// by Christian Caryl, http://www.opednews.com/Quicklink/Predators-and-Robots-at-Wa-in-General_News-110919-829.html

Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the
Twenty-first Century

by P.W. Singer
Penguin,
499 pp., $17.00 (paper)
Predator: The Remote-Control Air War over Iraq and Afghanistan: A
Pilot’s Story

by Lieutenant Colonel Matt J. Martin with Charles W.
Sasser
Zenith, 310 pp., $28.00

caryl_01-092911.jpgMax Becherer/Polaris

The US Air Force’s 62nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance
Squadron launching an unmanned Predator drone with laser-guided Hellfire
missiles mounted on its wings, Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan, November 2009

Drones are in the headlines. We read daily about strikes against terrorist
targets in the tribal areas of Pakistan using unmanned aerial vehicles
(UAVs)—remote-controlled aircraft equipped with elaborate sensors and sometimes
weapons as well. Earlier this summer the US sent
Predator drones into action against militants in Somalia, and plans are
reportedly afoot to put the CIA in charge of a drone
offensive against al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen. NATO has
dispatched UAVs to Libya. State-of-the-art stealth drones cased the house where
Osama bin Laden was living before US Navy seals staged
their now famous raid. And in a speech a few weeks ago, White House
counterterrorism chief John Brennan made it clear that drones will continue to
figure prominently in the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy. On
August 22, a CIA drone killed the number-two al-Qaeda
leader in the mountains of Pakistan.

Most of us have probably heard by now how extraordinary this technology is.
Many of the UAV strikes in South Asia are actually
orchestrated by operators sitting at consoles in the United States. US Air Force Colonel Matt Martin gives a unique first-person
account of the strange split consciousness of this new type of warfare in his
book Predator. Even as his body occupies a seat in a control room in
Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, his mind is far removed, following a suspicious
SUV down a desert road in Iraq or tailing Taliban
fighters along a mountain ridge in Afghanistan. “I was already starting to refer
to the Predator and myself as ‘I,’ even though the airplane was thousands of
miles away,” Martin notes ruefully.

Notifying Marines on the ground that he’s arriving on the scene in
Afghanistan, he has to remind himself that he’s not actually arriving
anywhere—he’s still in his seat on the base. “Although it was only shortly after
noon in Nevada,” he writes, “I got the yawns just looking at all that snow and
darkness” on the ground outside Kabul. He can hardly be blamed for the
confusion. The eerie acuity of vision afforded by the Predator’s multiple
high-powered video cameras enables him to watch as the objects of his interest
light up cigarettes, go to the bathroom, or engage in amorous adventures with
animals on the other side of the world, never suspecting that they are under
observation as they do.

Even though home and wife are just a few minutes’ drive down the road from
his battle station, the peculiar detachment of drone warfare does not
necessarily insulate Martin from his actions. Predator attacks are
extraordinarily precise, but the violence of war can never be fully tamed, and
the most gripping scenes in the book document Martin’s emotions on the occasions
when innocent civilians wander under his crosshairs in the seconds just before
his Hellfire missile arrives on target. Allied bomber pilots in World War II killed millions of civilians but rarely had occasion to
experience the results on the ground. Drone operators work with far greater
accuracy, but the irony of the technology is that its operators can see their
accidental victims—two little boys and their shattered bikes, in one especially
heartrending case Martin describes—in excruciating detail. Small wonder that
studies by the military have shown that UAV operators
sometimes end up suffering the same degree of combat stress as other
warfighters.1

And yet the US military does little to discourage the
notion that this peculiar brand of long-distance warfare has a great deal in
common with the video-gaming culture in which many young UAV operators have grown up. As one military robotics
researcher tells Peter Singer, the author of Wired for War, “We modeled
the controller after the PlayStation because that’s what these eighteen-,
nineteen-year-old Marines have been playing with pretty much all of their
lives.” And by now, of course, we also have video games that incorporate drones:
technology imitating life that imitates technology.

Drones are not remarkable because of their weaponry. There is
nothing especially unusual about the missiles they carry, and even the largest
models are relatively lightly armed. They are not fast or nimble. What makes
them powerful is their ability to see and think. Most of the bigger drones now
operated by the US military can take off, land, and fly
by themselves. The operators can program a destination or a desired patrol area
and then concentrate on the details of the mission while the aircraft takes care
of everything else. Packed with sensors and sophisticated video technology, UAVs
can see through clouds or in the dark. They can loiter for hours or even days
over a target—just the sort of thing that bores human pilots to tears. Of
course, the most significant fact about drones is precisely that they do not
have pilots. In the unlikely event that a UAV is shot
down, its operator can get up from his or her console and walk away.

So far, so good. But there are also quite a few things about drones that you
might not have heard yet. Most Americans are probably unaware, for example, that
the US Air Force now trains more UAV operators each year than traditional pilots. (Indeed, the
Air Force insists on referring to drones as “remotely piloted aircraft” in order
to dispel any suspicions that it is moving out of the business of putting humans
into the air.) As I write this, the US aerospace
industry has for all practical purposes ceased research and development work on
manned aircraft. All the projects now on the drawing board revolve around
pilotless vehicles. Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies around the country
eagerly await the moment when they can start operating their own UAVs. The
Federal Aviation Administration is considering rules that will allow police
departments to start using them within the next few years (perhaps as early as
2014). Soon, much sooner than you realize, your speeding tickets will be issued
electronically to your cell phone from a drone hovering somewhere over the
interstate. The US Customs Service has already used UAVs
to sneak up on drug-smuggling boats that easily evade noisier conventional
aircraft.

Robots that fly get most of the attention. In fact, though, UAVs represent
only one small part of the action in military robotics. As Singer recently told
me, there are already more robots operating on the ground (15,000) than in the
air (7,000). The US Army uses its mechanical warriors to
find and disarm roadside bombs, survey the battlefield, or shoot down incoming
artillery shells. Though these land-based robots may seem a bit more primitive
than their airborne cousins, they are catching up quickly. The models in
development include the bizarre BigDog, an eerily zoomorphic quadruped designed
to help soldiers carry heavy loads over difficult terrain, and BEAR, a vaguely humanoid machine on caterpillar tracks that
can lift loads of up to 500 pounds.

The US Navy is experimenting with machines of its
own. It recently unveiled a robot jet ski designed to sniff out attackers who
might try to sneak up on US ships underwater. The Navy
has developed harmless-looking (and environmentally friendly) sailboats packed
with high-tech surveillance gear that can pilot themselves around the world, if
need be. Robot submersibles, too, are in the works. Unconstrained by the
life-support requirements of manned submarines, these automated spies could
spend months on underwater patrol, parking themselves at the bottom of enemy
harbors and observing everything that goes in or out. So battery life becomes
the main constraint. Some scientists are trying to solve it by enabling the
underwater drone to feed off organic matter lying on the sea floor (known as a
“mud battery”).

So far none of these water-borne robots seem to be carrying torpedoes. The
army, however, is already experimenting with robots that can shoot. In his book,
Singer describes SWORDS, a tracked vehicle equipped with
a suite of cameras that see farther than the human eye even while covering
multiple angles. The machine can be armed with a 50-caliber machine gun or a
variety of other weapons. The SWORDS zoom camera and its
weapon can be perfectly synchronized, and the machine makes for a much more
stable platform than a soft, breathing, frightened human body lying prone in the
midst of a battlefield. Singer writes:

In an early test of its guns, the robot hit the bull’s-eye of a
target seventy out of seventy tries. In a test of its rockets, it hit the target
sixty-two out of sixty-two times. In a test of its antitank rockets, it hit the
target sixteen out of sixteen times. A former navy sniper summed up its
“pinpoint precision” as “nasty.” …Since it is a precisely timed machine pulling
the trigger, the “one shot” mode means that any weapon, even a machine gun, can
be turned into a sniper rifle.

Singer described this system two years ago. In the feverish world of military
robotics, 2009 already feels like a distant era, so we can only surmise how far
SWORDS has progressed since then. Researchers are now
testing UAVs that mimic hummingbirds or seagulls; one model under development
can fit on a pencil eraser. There is much speculation about linking small drones
or robots together into “swarms”—clouds or crowds of machines that would share
their intelligence, like a hive mind, and have the capability to converge
instantly on identified targets. This might seem like science fiction, but it is
probably not that far away. At ETH in Zurich,
Switzerland’s equivalent of MIT, engineers have linked
miniature quadrocopters (drones equipped with four sets of rotors for maximum
maneuverability) into small networks that can deftly toss balls back and forth
to each other without any human commands.

The technology transfixes. The capabilities are seductive; so,
too, is the lure of seeming invulnerability. The Taliban has no air force. Its
foot soldiers do not have night vision or the ability to see through overcast
skies, but they can sometimes hear the drones circling in the sky above. David
Rohde, the New York Times correspondent who was held captive by the
Taliban for seven months in 2009, described in his account of the experience
what it is like to be on the ground while Predators and Reapers are on the
prowl. “Two deafening explosions shook the walls of the compound where the
Taliban held us hostage,” he writes. “My guards and I dived to the floor as
chunks of dirt hurtled through the window.” A missile fired by a US drone has obliterated two cars a few hundred yards
away:

It was March 25, and for months the drones had been a terrifying
presence. Remotely piloted, propeller-driven airplanes, they could easily be
heard as they circled overhead for hours. To the naked eye, they were small dots
in the sky. But their missiles had a range of several miles. We knew we could be
immolated without warning….

Later, I learned that one guard called for me to be taken to the
site of the attack and ritually beheaded as a video camera captured the moment.
The chief guard overruled him.2

This particular strike, it turns out, has killed seven militants, zero
civilians. Most of the attacks are remarkably precise, as Rohde writes. Yet this
is almost beside the point: “The Taliban were able to garner recruits in their
aftermath,” he writes, “by exaggerating the number of civilian casualties.”

His point is borne out by a recent study conducted by Peter Bergen and
Katherine Tiedemann, two analysts at the New America Foundation in Washington
who have been tracking drone strikes in the tribal areas of Pakistan ever since
the US began conducting attacks there in June 2004.
Though reliable information from that part of the world is extremely hard to
come by—the story of Rohde’s kidnapping explains why foreign journalists tend to
steer clear of the area—Bergen and Tiedemann have carefully analyzed media
reports for the details of each attack. While acknowledging the difficulties of
obtaining reliable data (and the wildly divergent information issued by American
and Pakistani official sources), they conclude that the attacks have grown
steadily more accurate. According to Bergen and Tiedemann, “During the first two
years of the Obama administration, around 85 percent of those reported killed by
drone strikes were militants; under the Bush administration, it was closer to 60
percent.”3 At the same time the authors
note that the strikes have probably been far less successful than US officials claim at killing militant leaders. Most of the
dead, Bergen and Tiedemann conclude, are likely rank-and-file fighters. (A newer
study by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London arrives at a somewhat
higher overall civilian casualty rate.)

Though such statistics are remarkable when measured against the history of
warfare, they are, of course, little consolation to the families of those
innocent bystanders who have been killed along with the jihadis. And, as Bergen
and Tiedemann rightly note, the precision of the killing is only one small part
of the story. Polls show, just as Rohde suspected, that Pakistanis
overwhelmingly believe that most of those who die in the attacks are civilians—a
perception that is undoubtedly aggravated by the impunity with which the drones
stage their raids on Pakistani territory. Dennis Blair, director of national
intelligence from 2009 to 2010, recently made a similar observation in The
New York Times
: “Our reliance on high-tech strikes that pose no risk to our
soldiers is bitterly resented in a country that cannot duplicate such feats of
warfare without cost to its own troops.” (While the Pakistani government
publicly expresses its disapproval of the strikes, in private Pakistani leaders
have provided intelligence and logistical support for the campaign—a fact that
they are eager to conceal from the public.) The number of terrorist attacks in
Pakistan has risen sharply as the drone campaign has accelerated. Bergen and
Tiedemann conclude that the broader political effects of the UAV campaign may well cancel out some of its tactical
benefits.

One remedy they propose is to take control of the drone program away from the
CIA, which currently runs the campaign in the tribal
areas, and transfer it to the military.4
This offers several advantages. In contrast to the CIA,
which denies the very existence of the program and accordingly reveals nothing
about the criteria by which it chooses its targets, the US Department of Defense can at least be held publicly
accountable for its conduct and is much more likely to respond to pressure to
keep its use of UAVs within the bounds of international law. This cannot be said
of the CIA’s use of drones for the purposes of “targeted
killing”—particularly given that the strikes are being secretly conducted
against targets in Pakistan, a country with which the United States is not at
war, under ill-defined and murky circumstances.

The legal issues involved are complex. Philip Alston, an expert in
international law appointed by the United Nations to examine the question,
asserted in a report that, “Outside the context of armed conflict, the use of
drones for targeted killing is almost never likely to be legal.”5 The trick, of course, is how we define “armed conflict”
in an age of non-state-affiliated terrorist and insurgent groups operating from
places where the writ of a central government does not extend. International
law, some experts say, gives the US the right to protect
its forces in Afghanistan against attacks staged by al-Qaeda and its allies in
the tribal areas—while whether the drone strikes violate Pakistani sovereignty
depends largely on agreements we have with the Pakistani government, a point
that remains somewhat mysterious.

The Obama administration might help matters by providing an explanation of
the legal rationale for the program. But so far it has declined to do so, aside
from a brief statement by a leading State Department legal adviser that cited
the internationally recognized right to self-defense.6 In this respect it is only to be welcomed that scholars
around the world are engaged in an active debate about the legal implications of
the drone campaigns. Given that more than forty countries around the world are
now experimenting with military robots of their own, the United States cannot
rest on the assumption that it will retain a monopoly over this technology
forever. The day when US forces are attacked by a
drone—perhaps even one operated by a terrorist—is not far away.

Many of the recent books on UAVs predictably dwell on the
technical specs and astonishing capabilities of these new weapons systems.
Singer provides us with plenty of the same, but the great virtue of his book is
precisely that he also devotes space to the broader questions raised by the
breakneck expansion of military robotics. As he writes, the US government is using drones to conduct a military campaign
against the sovereign state of Pakistan. Yet no one in Congress has ever pressed
the President for any sort of legal declaration of hostilities—for the simple
reason that the lives of American military personnel are not at stake when the
Predators set off on their missions.

In fact, as Singer shows, the ethical and legal implications of the new
technology already go far beyond the relatively circumscribed issue of targeted
killing. Military robots are on their way to developing considerable autonomy.
As noted earlier, UAVs can already take off, land, and fly themselves without
human intervention. Targeting is still the exclusive preserve of the human
operator—but how long will this remain the case? As sensors become more powerful
and diverse, the amount of data gathered by the machines is increasing
exponentially, and soon the volume and velocity of information will far exceed
the controller’s capacity to process it all in real time, meaning that more and
more decision-making will be left to the robot.

A move is already underway toward systems that allow a single operator to
handle multiple drones simultaneously, and this, too, will tend to push the
technology toward greater autonomy. We are not far from the day when it will
become manifest that our mechanical warriors are better at protecting the lives
of our troops than any human soldier, and once that happens the pressure to let
robots take the shot will be very hard to resist. Pentagon officials who have
been interviewed on the subject predictably insist that the decision to kill
will never be ceded to a machine. That is reassuring. Still, this is an easy
thing to say at a point when robots are not yet in the position to take the
initiative against the enemy on a battlefield. Soon, much sooner than most of us
realize, they will be able to do just that.

We have only just begun to explore what this means. Singer quotes Marc
Garlasco, a recognized expert on the law of war at Human Rights Watch. “This new
technology creates pressure points for international law,” Garlasco says. “You
will be trying to apply international law written for the Second World War to
Star Trek technology.” Singer continues:

Another fundamental premise of the human rights group, and for
broader international law, is that soldiers in the field and the leaders who
direct them must be held accountable for any violations of the laws of war.
Unmanned systems, though, muddy the waters surrounding war crimes. “War crimes
need both a violation and intent,” says Garlasco. “A machine has no
capacity to want to kill civilians, it has no desires…. If they are incapable of
intent, are they incapable of war crimes?” And if the machine is not
responsible, who does the group seek to hold accountable, and where exactly do
they draw the line? “Who do we go after, the manufacturer, the software
engineer, the buyer, the user?”

Later Singer notes that the US has consistently
applied an expanded right of self-defense for its aircraft operating in
conflicts around the world. When an enemy radar “lights up” a US plane, the pilot has the right to fire first without
waiting to be attacked. All fine and good. But then imagine that the aircraft
involved is not a plane but a UAV:

If an unmanned plane flying near the border of another nation is
fired on, does it have the right to fire back at that nation’s missile sites and
the humans behind them, even in peacetime? What about the expanded
interpretation, the right to respond to hostile intent, where the drone is just
targeted by radar? Is the mere threat enough for the drone to fire first at the
humans below?

The answers depend on how wide the “self” in self-defense is
defined.

It turns out, Singer explains, that the US Air Force
currently operates according to the principle that a pilotless aircraft, as an
entity representing the people who sent it on its mission, “has the same rights
as if a person were inside it,” and that this “interpretation of robot rights is
official policy for unmanned reconnaissance flights over the Persian Gulf.” But
the situation is evolving rapidly. The next generation of military robots is
likely to have a high degree of operational independence without yet achieving
the kind of intelligent self-awareness that entails responsibility. Luckily
there is already something of a legal precedent for handling similar situations.
“As odd as it sounds,” Singer writes, “pet law might then be a useful resource
in figuring out how to assess the accountability of autonomous systems.”

This is a particularly thought-provoking conclusion given that the
researchers now working on military robots seem especially eager to ransack the
biological world for elegant solutions to the design problems that have to be
overcome. There is a snake-shaped robot that can rear itself up in the grass
when it wants to scan its surroundings. Tiny surveillance robots scuttle up
walls like bugs, and robot flyers flap their wings. The Navy is testing
submersibles that swim like fish. Researchers in the UK
have developed a robot whose sensors mimic rat whiskers—since so far no engineer
has managed to come up with a sensor system that is better at navigating in
total darkness.

Whether we like it or not, war has often been a powerful goad to
technological innovation. Now technology is on the verge of supplanting the
human soldier altogether—with consequences that can only be guessed. The
question in the case of military robotics, even at this relatively early stage,
is the extent to which we will manage to retain control over the process.
Whether we are ready or not, the answer will soon be clear.

—August 30, 2011

1 See Scott Lindlaw, “Remote-Control Warriors Suffer War Stress,” Associated
Press, August 7, 2008.

2 “A Drone Strike and Dwindling Hope,” Part Four of “Held by the Taliban,”
The New York Times , October 20, 2009.

3 Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann, “Washington’s Phantom War: The
Effects of the US Drone Program in Pakistan,” Foreign Affairs ,
July/August 2011.

4 The CIA operates its drones from control stations in or around its
headquarters in Langley, Virginia. It is likely that many of the operators are
actually civilian contractors.

5 Philip Alston, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary
or Arbitrary Executions,” United Nations, Human Rights Council, May 28, 2010.
See also David Kretzmer, “Targeted Killing of Suspected Terrorists:
Exra-Judicial Executions or Legitimate Means of Defence?” The European
Journal of International Law
, Vol. 16, No. 2 (2005).

6 Harold Koh, the legal adviser to the State Department, devoted a few brief
remarks to the subject in a speech last year, available at http://www.state.gov/s/l/
releases/remarks/139119.htm.

  1. 1See Scott Lindlaw, “Remote-Control Warriors Suffer War Stress,” Associated
    Press, August 7, 2008.
  2. 2″A Drone Strike and Dwindling Hope,” Part Four of “Held by the Taliban,”
    The New York Times , October 20, 2009.
  3. 3Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann, “Washington’s Phantom War: The Effects
    of the US Drone Program in Pakistan,” Foreign Affairs , July/August
    2011.
  4. 4The CIA operates its drones from control stations in or around its
    headquarters in Langley, Virginia. It is likely that many of the operators are
    actually civilian contractors.
  5. 5Philip Alston, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or
    Arbitrary Executions,” United Nations, Human Rights Council, May 28, 2010. See
    also David Kretzmer, “Targeted Killing of Suspected Terrorists: Exra-Judicial
    Executions or Legitimate Means of Defence?” The European Journal of
    International Law
    , Vol. 16, No. 2 (2005).
  6. 6Harold Koh, the legal adviser to the State Department, devoted a few brief
    remarks to the subject in a speech last year, available at http://www.state.gov/s/l/
    releases/remarks/139119.htm.

The Drone Surge: Today, Tomorrow, and 2047 January 25, 2010

Posted by rogerhollander in Iraq and Afghanistan, Pakistan, War.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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Published on Monday, January 25, 2010 by TomDispatch.comby Nick Turse

One moment there was the hum of a motor in the sky above.  The next, on a recent morning in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, a missile blasted a home, killing 13 people.  Days later, the same increasingly familiar mechanical whine preceded a two-missile salvo that slammed into a compound in Degan village in the tribal North Waziristan district of Pakistan, killing three.

What were once unacknowledged, relatively infrequent targeted killings of suspected militants or terrorists in the Bush years have become commonplace under the Obama administration.  And since a devastating December 30th suicide attack by a Jordanian double agent on a CIA forward operating base in Afghanistan, unmanned aerial drones have been hunting humans in the Af-Pak war zone at a record pace.  In Pakistan, an “unprecedented number” of strikes – which have killed armed guerrillas and civilians alike — have led to more fear, anger, and outrage in the tribal areas, as the CIA, with help from the U.S. Air Force, wages the most public “secret” war of modern times.

In neighboring Afghanistan, unmanned aircraft, for years in short supply and tasked primarily with surveillance missions, have increasingly been used to assassinate suspected militants as part of an aerial surge that has significantly outpaced the highly publicized “surge” of ground forces now underway.  And yet, unprecedented as it may be in size and scope, the present ramping up of the drone war is only the opening salvo in a planned 40-year Pentagon surge to create fleets of ultra-advanced, heavily-armed, increasingly autonomous, all-seeing, hypersonic unmanned aerial systems (UAS).

Today’s Surge

Drones are the hot weapons of the moment and the upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review — a soon-to-be-released four-year outline of Department of Defense strategies, capabilities, and priorities to fight current wars and counter future threats — is already known to reflect this focus.  As the Washington Post recently reported, “The pilotless drones used for surveillance and attack missions in Afghanistan and Pakistan are a priority, with the goals of speeding up the purchase of new Reaper drones and expanding Predator and Reaper drone flights through 2013.”

The MQ-1 Predator — first used in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s — and its newer, larger, and more deadly cousin, the MQ-9 Reaper, are now firing missiles and dropping bombs at an unprecedented pace.  In 2008, there were reportedly between 27 and 36 U.S. drone attacks as part of the CIA’s covert war in Pakistan.  In 2009, there were 45 to 53 such strikes.  In the first 18 days of January 2010, there had already been 11 of them.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the U.S. Air Force has instituted a much publicized decrease in piloted air strikes to cut down on civilian casualties as part of Afghan War commander General Stanley McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy.  At the same time, however, UAS attacks have increased to record levels.  

The Air Force has created an interconnected global command-and-control system to carry out its robot war in Afghanistan (and as Noah Shachtman of Wired’s Danger Room blog has reported, to assist the CIA in its drone strikes in Pakistan as well).  Evidence of this can be found at high-tech U.S. bases around the world where drone pilots and other personnel control the planes themselves and the data streaming back from them.  These sites include a converted medical warehouse at Al-Udeid Air Base, a billion-dollar facility in the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar where the Air Force secretly oversees its on-going drone wars; Kandahar and Jalalabad Air Fields in Afghanistan, where the drones are physically based; the global operations center at Nevada’s Creech Air Base, where the Air Force’s “pilots” fly drones by remote control from thousands of miles away; and — perhaps most importantly — at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, a 12-square-mile facility in Dayton, Ohio, named after the two local brothers who invented powered flight in 1903.  This is where the bills for the current drone surge — as well as limited numbers of strikes in Yemen and Somalia — come due and are, quite literally, paid.  

In the waning days of December 2009, in fact, the Pentagon cut two sizeable checks to ensure that unmanned operations involving the MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper will continue full-speed ahead in 2010.  The 703rd Aeronautical Systems Squadron based at Wright-Patterson signed a $38 million contract with defense giant Raytheon for logistics support for the targeting systems of both drones.  At the same time, the squadron inked a deal worth $266 million with mega-defense contractor General Atomics, which makes the Predator and Reaper drones, to provide management services, logistics support, repairs, software maintenance, and other functions for both drone programs.  Both deals essentially ensure that, in the years ahead, the stunning increase in drone operations will continue. 

These contracts, however, are only initial down payments on an enduring drone surge designed to carry U.S. unmanned aerial operations forward, ultimately for decades. 

Drone Surge:  The Longer View

Back in 2004, the Air Force could put a total of only five drone combat air patrols (CAPs) — each consisting of four air vehicles — in the skies over American war zones at any one time.  By 2009, that number was 38, a 660% increase according to the Air Force.  Similarly, between 2001 and 2008, hours of surveillance coverage for U.S. Central Command, encompassing both the Iraqi and Afghan war zones, as well as Pakistan and Yemen, showed a massive spike of 1,431%.

In the meantime, flight hours have gone through the roof.  In 2004, for example, Reapers, just beginning to soar, flew 71 hours in total, according to Air Force documents; in 2006, that number had risen to 3,123 hours; and last year, 25,391 hours.  This year, the Air Force projects that the combined flight hours of all its drones — Predators, Reapers, and unarmed RQ-4 Global Hawks — will exceed 250,000 hours, about the total number of hours flown by all Air Force drones from 1995-2007.  In 2011, the 300,000 hour-a-year barrier is expected to be crossed for the first time, and after that the sky’s the limit. 

More flight time will, undoubtedly, mean more killing.  According to Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann of the Washington-based think tank the New America Foundation, in the Bush years, from 2006 into 2009, there were 41 drone strikes in Pakistan which killed 454 militants and civilians.  Last year, under the Obama administration, there were 42 strikes that left 453 people dead.  A recent report by the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, an Islamabad-based independent research organization that tracks security issues, claimed an even larger number, 667 people — most of them civilians — killed by U.S. drone strikes last year. 

While assisting the CIA’s drone operations in the Pakistani tribal borderlands, the Air Force has been increasing its own unmanned aerial hunter-killer missions.  In 2007 and 2008, for example, Air Force Predators and Reapers fired missiles during 244 missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.  In fact, while all the U.S. armed services have pursued unmanned aerial warfare, the Air Force has outpaced each of them. 

From 2001, when armed drone operations began, until the spring of 2009, the Air Force fired 703 Hellfire missiles and dropped 132 GBU-12s (500-pound laser-guided bombs) in combat operations.  The Army, by comparison, launched just two Hellfire missiles and two smaller GBU-44 Viper Strike munitions in the same time period.  The disparity should only grow, since the Army’s drones remain predominantly small surveillance aircraft, while in 2009 the Air Force shifted all outstanding orders for the medium-sized Predator to the even more formidable Reaper, which is not only twice as fast but has 600% more payload capacity, meaning more space for bombs and missiles.

In addition, the more heavily-armed Reapers, which can now loiter over an area for 10 to 14 hours without refueling, will be able to spot and track ever more targets via an increasingly sophisticated video monitoring system.  According to Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance, the first three “Gorgon Stare pods” — new wide-area sensors that provide surveillance capabilities over large swathes of territory — will be installed on Reapers operating in Afghanistan this spring. 

A technology not available for the older Predator, Gorgon Stare will allow 10 operators to view 10 video feeds from a single drone at the same time.  Back at a distant base, a “pilot” will stare at a tiled screen with a composite picture of the streaming battlefield video, even as field commanders analyze a portion of the digital picture, panning, zooming, and tilting the image to meet their needs. 

A more advanced set of “pods,” scheduled to be deployed for the first time this fall, will allow 30 operators to view 30 video images simultaneously.  In other words, via video feeds from a single Reaper drone, operators could theoretically track 30 different people heading in 30 directions from a single Afghan compound.  The generation of sensors expected to come online in late 2011 promises 65 such feeds, according to Air Force documents, a more than 6,000% increase in effectiveness over the Predator’s video system.  The Air Force is, however, already overwhelmed just by drone video currently being sent back from the war zones and, in the years ahead, risks “drowning in data,” according to Deptula.

The 40-Year Plan

When it comes to the drone surge, the years 2011-2013 are just the near horizon.  While, like the Army, the Navy is working on its own future drone warfare capacity — in the air as well as on and even under the water — the Air Force is involved in striking levels of futuristic planning for robotic war.  It envisions a future previously imagined only in sci-fi movies like the Terminator series. 

As a start, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA, the Pentagon’s blue skies research outfit, is already looking into radically improving on Gorgon Stare with an “Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance-Infrared (ARGUS-IR) System.”  In the obtuse language of military research and development, it will, according to DARPA, provide a “real-time, high-resolution, wide area video persistent surveillance capability that allows joint forces to keep critical areas of interest under constant surveillance with a high degree of target location accuracy” via as many as “130 ‘Predator-like’ steerable video streams to enable real-time tracking and monitoring and enhanced situational awareness during evening hours.” 

In translation, that means the Air Force will quite literally be flooded with video information from future battlefields; and every “advance” of this sort means bulking up the global network of facilities, systems, and personnel capable of receiving, monitoring, and interpreting the data streaming in from distant digital eyes.  All of it, of course, is specifically geared toward “target location,” that is, pin-pointing people on one side of the world so that Americans on the other side can watch, track, and in many cases, kill them.

In addition to enhanced sensors and systems like ARGUS-IR, the Air Force has a long-term vision for drone warfare that is barely beginning to be realized.  Predators and Reapers have already been joined in Afghanistan by a newer, formerly secret drone, a “low observable unmanned aircraft system” first spotted in 2007 and dubbed the “Beast of Kandahar” before observers were sure what it actually was.  It is now known to be a Lockheed Martin-manufactured unmanned aerial vehicle, the RQ-170 — a drone which the Air Force blandly notes was designed to “directly support combatant commander needs for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to locate targets.”  According to military sources, the sleek, stealthy surveillance craft has been designated to replace the antique Lockheed U-2 spy plane, which has been in use since the 1950s.

In the coming years, the RQ-170 is slated to be joined in the skies of America’s “next wars” by a fleet of drones with ever newer, more sophisticated capabilities and destructive powers.  Looking into the post-2011 future, Deptula sees the most essential need, according to an Aviation Week report, as “long-range [reconnaissance and] precision strike” — that is, more eyes in far off skies and more lethality.  He added, “We cannot move into a future without a platform that allows [us] to project power long distances and to meet advanced threats in a fashion that gives us an advantage that no other nation has.” 

This means bigger, badder, faster drones — armed to the teeth — with sensor systems to monitor wide swathes of territory and the ability to loiter overhead for days on end waiting for human targets to appear and, in due course, be vaporized by high-powered munitions.  It’s a future built upon advanced technologies designed to make targeted killings — remote-controlled assassinations — ever more effortless.

Over the horizon and deep into what was, until recently, only a silver-screen fantasy, the Air Force envisions a wide array of unmanned aircraft, from tiny insect-like robots to enormous “tanker size” pilotless planes.  Each will be slated to take over specific war-making functions (or so Air Force dreamers imagine).  Those nano-sized drones, for instance, are set to specialize in indoor reconnaissance — they’re small enough to fly through windows or down ventilation shafts — and carry out lethal attacks, undertake computer-disabling cyber-attacks, and swarm, as would a group of angry bees, of their own volition.  Slightly larger micro-sized Small Tactical Unmanned Aircraft Systems (STUAS) are supposed to act as “transformers” — altering their form to allow for flying, crawling and non-visual sensing capabilities.  They might fill sentry, counter-drone, surveillance, and lethal attack roles.

Additionally, the Air Force envisions small and medium “fighter sized” drones with lethal combat capabilities that would put the current UAS air fleet to shame.  Today’s medium-sized Reapers are set to be replaced by next generation MQ-Ma drones that will be “networked, capable of partial autonomy, all-weather and modular with capabilities supporting electronic warfare (EW), CAS [close air support], strike and multi-INT [multiple intelligence] ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] missions’ platform.” 

The language may not be elegant, much less comprehensible, but if these future fighter aircraft actually come online they will not only send today’s remaining Top Gun pilots to the showers, but may even sideline tomorrow’s drone human operators, who, if all goes as planned, will have ever fewer duties.  Unlike today’s drones which must take off and land with human guidance, the MQ-Ma’s will be automated and drone operators will simply be there to monitor the aircraft.  

Next up will be the MQ-Mb, theoretically capable of taking over even more roles once assigned to traditional fighter-bombers and spy planes, including the suppression of enemy air defenses, bombing and strafing of ground targets, and surveillance missions.  These will also be designed to fly more autonomously and be better linked-in to other drone “platforms” for cooperative missions involving many aircraft under the command of a single “pilot.”  Imagine, for instance, one operator overseeing a single command drone that holds sway over a small squadron of autonomous drones carrying out a coordinated air attack on clusters of people in some far off land, incinerating them in small groups across a village, town or city.

Finally, perhaps 30 to 40 years from now, the MQ-Mc drone would incorporate all of the advances of the MQ-M line, while being capable of everything from dog-fighting to missile defenseWith such new technology will, of course, come new policies and new doctrines.  In the years ahead, the Air Force intends to make drone-related policy decisions on everything from treaty obligations to automatic target engagement — robotic killing without a human in the loop.  The latter extremely controversial development is already envisioned as a possible post-2025 reality. 

2047: What’s Old is New Again

The year 2047 is the target date for the Air Force’s Holy Grail, the capstone for its long-term plan to turn the skies over to war-fighting drones.  In 2047, the Air Force intends to rule the skies with MQ-Mc drones and “special” super-fast, hypersonic drones for which neither viable technology nor any enemies with any comparable programs or capabilities yet exist.  Despite this, the Air Force is intent on making these super-fast hunter-killer systems a reality by 2047.  “Propulsion technology and materials that can withstand the extreme heat will likely take 20 years to develop. This technology will be the next generation air game-changer. Therefore the prioritization of the funding for the specific technology development should not wait until the emergence of a critical COCOM [combatant command] need,” says the Air Force’s 2009-2047 UAS “Flight Plan.”

If anything close to the Air Force’s dreams comes to fruition, the “game” will indeed be radically changed.  By 2047, there’s no telling how many drones will be circling over how many heads in how many places across the planet.  There’s no telling how many millions or billions of flight hours will have been flown, or how many people, in how many countries will have been killed by remote-controlled, bomb-dropping, missile-firing, judge-jury-and-executioner drone systems. 

There’s only one given.  If the U.S. still exists in its present form, is still solvent, and still has a functioning Pentagon of the present sort, a new plan will already be well underway to create the war-making technologies of 2087.  By then, in ever more places, people will be living with the sort of drone war that now worries only those in places like Degan village.  Ever more people will know that unmanned aerial systems packed with missiles and bombs are loitering in their skies.  By then, there undoubtedly won’t even be that lawnmower-engine sound indicating that a missile may soon plow into your neighbor’s home. 

For the Air Force, such a prospect is the stuff of dreams, a bright future for unmanned, hypersonic lethality; for the rest of the planet, it’s a potential nightmare from which there may be no waking.

© 2010 Nick Turse

Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com. His work has appeared in many publications, including the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, In These Times, and regularly at TomDispatch. His first book, The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, an exploration of the new military-corporate complex in America, was recently published by Metropolitan Books. His website is Nick Turse.com.

Unembedded Poetry: A Review of David Smith-Ferri’s “Battlefield Without Borders” November 29, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture, Iraq and Afghanistan.
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baghdad-street

www.truthout.org

by: Ryan Croken, t r u t h o u t | Review

 On the eve of the invasion of Iraq, as our political figures and talking heads wrangled over the best way to babysit the cradle of civilization at the barrel of a gun, American poet and peace activist David Smith-Ferri had a different idea: he would go to Iraq and ask the people who lived there how they felt. “I wanted to interview Iraqis,” he writes, “about the threat of war. Surely, I reasoned, it should matter to us what people in Iraq think.”

    This presumption, startling in its seeming innocence and radical common sense, underpins the poetic and humanitarian mission of his book, “Battlefield Without Borders: Iraq Poems.” Culled from Smith-Ferri’s experiences as a writer and importer of contraband medical supplies on three separate trips to the Middle East between 1999 and 2007, “Battlefield” is a staggeringly eloquent portal into the forgotten human dimension of our engagement with Iraq, and an exercise in the project of person-to-person diplomacy. As an unembedded storyteller, Smith-Ferri reinserts Iraqi civilians back into the generally depersonalized conversation we are having about them and without them. Through the uniquely equipped medium of poetry, Smith-Ferri delivers hard-earned insights and reflections that broaden our emotional framework for understanding Iraq, and lend heart-wrenching individuality to an otherwise undifferentiated mass of “irrational people / masked terrorist tribes, hands around throat s.” It is in this spirit of reporting not just what is happening, but also who it is happening to that we lift off with the poet on his first visit to Iraq.

    It’s 1999, and after nearly a decade of military and economic warfare, the nation is in bad shape. Sanctions have decimated Iraq’s ability to provide clean water and a functioning medical system. Children are dying by the tens or hundreds of thousands from diarrhea and easily curable diseases. Smith-Ferri and his co-workers drift through pediatric wards that seem more like preludes to morgues than centers of healing. As the same contaminated waters that gurgle in the rivers outside pour from the faucets of hospital sinks, Smith-Ferri pauses to take stock of the situation in meditations that blur the genre lines between field notes and elegy:

Daily, like a sorcerer, the sun warms Iraq’s sewage-laden rivers,
conjuring cholera and typhoid and E. coli
that are killing children in this hospital ward,
slowly draining juice from their tiny bodies.
Here lies the desiccated fruit of a generation.

    Smith-Ferri and his delegation wander through a malignant landscape where bombings more routine than rain have stolen countless limbs, and fields of depleted uranium have created “nuclear children … slowly roasting, / leukemia a fire in their bones and blood.” Leaning over the deathbeds of these victims, Smith-Ferri and his fellow activists ask an Iraqi doctor – “a grim, tour-weary guide” – what he does to try to provide hope for the patients’ parents. The doctor, helplessly flanked by his empty medicine cabinets, responds plainly, “like a metronome,” as if bolstered by the authority of his incapacity, “There is no hope. This child will die … That child will die … They’re all going to die.”

    Amid this assault of visceral information and a sense of powerlessness that is omnipresent and “pathologic,” Smith-Ferri has to struggle to maintain his balance. His encounters with the Iraqis leave him breathless, speechless and existentially “immaterial.” He struggles to preserve a sense of identity amid the vast expanses of the desert and the surreal “timelessness of war.” Smith-Ferri stands, spectral, beside an innocent young victim in the aftermath of a capricious US missile attack. What words of condolence could he offer to a child whose arm has just been severed by shrapnel, without warning or purpose? The poet has nothing to say.

A one-armed, seven-year-old boy looks right through you.
His black-robed mother,
standing behind his bed,
won’t even look your way.

    Smith-Ferri’s verse is characterized by a tremulous poise that reflects his search for composure, order, justice and an alleviation of suffering. We can almost imagine him taking a break at the end of each line, gathering himself together before proceeding down the page. But his linguistic command of these narratives is as refined as it is raw; these are chiseled, elegant stanzas: cutting, measured, smooth and confident in their authenticity. With empathy and precision, Smith-Ferri fluently translates a foreign trauma into language that is both accessible and unfathomable. Like the blank space that follows a bomb, these words point to the wordless, hinting at the incomparable kind of experience that can only be lived in, and expressed by silence.

    But “Battlefield” is full of voices, and not just the author’s. With titles such as “Walid’s Story,” “Amal Speaks,” “Ahmed Speaks” and “Suad’s Words,” many of the poems in this book are either dedicated to, or written in, the voice of the people Smith-Ferri meets. At hospitals and bombing sites, inside a record store, at a dinner party, while kicking a deflated soccer ball with a child on the brink of invasion, Smith-Ferri works tirelessly as a poetic journalist, documenting the mood of the nation, asking Iraqis to share their thoughts, fears, ideas and aspirations. Their responses are seamlessly woven into the text, and are often nestled into a narrative context that endows them with enormous weight and emotive punch. Their voices ring in your ears long after you’ve turned the page. “If you can heal my child, please take him with you.” “What is the mood in the United States? Will they attack?” “Your president is a coward, / fighting a coward’s war, / attacking unarmed people .” “You like it here? Why not buy a home in Baghdad? / Prices have never been better!” “I want to show you something. / My left ear does not work, thanks to a car bomb.” “The US will find a pretext to attack. / It will either be weapons of mass destruction / or support for terrorism. / No proof will be given.” “Five hundred varieties of dates … One huge one is called donkey’s balls.”

    While these characters express a range of sentiments – anger, valor, resilience, desperation, uncanny hospitality – they share one thing in common: they are all undeniably human. In working towards, as Kathy Kelly, author of the book’s foreword, puts it, dispelling “the dangerous notion that only one person live(s) in Iraq, the notorious dictator Saddam Hussein,” Smith-Ferri transforms a hazy crowd of very foreign foreigners into a collection of individuals who are extremely relatable and very much “like us.” In the world of “Battlefield,” people have been turned back into people, and, consequentially, the doors to empathy and communication are swung open. Suddenly re-humanized through the thoughtful deftness of Smith-Ferri’s art, the crisis flares in our hands. Iraq is no theoretical quandary. It becomes personal, intimate, active. As the poet continues to bring Iraqi voices to American ears, we realize that these are not conversations to be overheard, but to be absorbed dir ectly. “Tell the American people we are not their enemies. / Tell the American people we love them, / but we must have our lives back!” The message is clear: if you are an American person, these people are speaking directly to you.

    “Tell my story … tell my story … tell my story … ” After hearing “these same three words” over and over again while traveling around Iraq and through neighborhoods in Jordan where uprooted Iraqis struggle to survive in exile, Smith-Ferri becomes explicit in his intention to relay the insights, appeals and agonies of a deeply misunderstood country.

Here on this page I spill Suad’s words,
jagged obsidian chips that lacerate this paper,
its blood marking the hands of everyone who reads this book.

    All of this storytelling begs the question: how do we listen? Thusly marked by Suad’s bloodied words, how do we respond? “Battlefield” does not answer these questions for us. It is a window, not an instruction manual. It invites us to contemplate our interconnectedness with another people in a world where borders – cultural, linguistic, geopolitical – have been erected to prevent the recognition of a shared humanity. Literally and literarily, Smith-Ferri crosses these borders and bears witness to previously inaccessible realities. After visiting a bomb shelter that became a tomb for over 400 Iraqis after two “very smart” American missiles slipped into the ventilation shaft and incinerated everyone inside, Smith-Ferri is slammed with an inter-culture shock of such bare-faced enormity that it kindles a sudden dark enlightenment:

My eyes were never meant to see this,
to flare like torch, sudden with knowledge,
like windows, to open on this illuminative dawn,
but like tinder in its box (named American, middle class)
to remain cold, untouched,
and far from flintstone truth.

    Smith-Ferri’s “flintstone truth” burns at the heart of his stories, whose ultimate lesson is perhaps that we ourselves are a part of them. This realization of suddenly being a part of the plot destabilizes the cozy illusion that there are vaguely bad things happening somewhere way over there in a strange land that many of us can’t locate on a map. The battlefield has come home. The wounded are laid bare before us. “Fighting them over there so we don’t have to think about them over here” loses its absurd currency. Distance is capsized, walls are torn down, and we find ourselves fighting this war not only on our shores, but in our own hearts and minds. What is our obligation to Suad? Where do complicity and culpability lie? “These poems strip us of our innocence,” Kathy Kelly observes. “David prods us to be uncomfortable”; he prods us to become sensitized actors in a drama that is already difficult to observe from the air-conditioned mezzanine.

    “Battlefield Without Borders” offers brutal, vivid and tender portraits of the fallout of the modern American-Iraqi engagement. Its lessons should be at the forefront of our minds as we try our best to figure out how to respectfully assist in the reconstruction of a country whose history and future have become inextricably linked to our own. More information about the book can be found at its Web site, www.battlefieldwithoutborders.org. All proceeds from the sale of the book are donated to Direct Aid Iraq, a grassroots humanitarian relief organization aimed at providing urgently needed medical care to Iraqis displaced by the sanctions, the invasion and the ensuing occupation. Information about Direct Aid Iraq is available at http://www.directaidiraq.org/.

    Ryan Croken is a freelance writer and editor based in Chicago. He can be reached at ryan.croken@gmail.com.

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