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U.S. Military Wants More Drones In Latin America

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The U.S. Military is looking to relocate some of their predator drones, sending some to South and Central America, according to a new article in Wired Magazine.

As US forces come home from Afghanistan, the US military seems to have a surplus of predator drones -- remotely operated unmanned aircraft vehicles often used to carry out attacks and intelligence gathering missions. Drones previously used in Afghanistan will be given to "operational missions by previously undeserved" commands, including those in the Pacific and in Southern America, according to Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Norton Schwartz. While the exact number of drones, which will be sent to Latin America remains unknown, the implications of their presence remain hotly contested.

Some question whether their presence in the region is even necessary or whether they will be effective in thwarting drug traffickers. Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations told Wired Magazine that while the drones could help with spy missions in South America, there is no good reason to use their attack capabilities.

“There is no strategic rationale for the United States to be responding to the flow of drugs from Latin America with the tactical use of kinetic force against drug planes or boats you happen to be able to find, ” he said. Furthermore, Zenko noted that the drones might be better used for United Nations peacekeeping operations in regions like Southern Sudan. “3,800 troops deployed right now for an [area] of 2,100 kilometers, with poor roads that wash out in the rainy season,” Zenko told Wired Magazine. “The deployment of these [spy] capabilities, and associated logistics and training infrastructure, would make a huge difference.”

Just days after the announcement that drone presence will be increased in Latin America, the Pew Research Center released a study suggesting that the Obama administration’s use of unmanned drone strikes to kill terror suspects is widely opposed around the world. On Wednesday, Pew reported that in 17 out of 21 countries surveyed, "more than half of the people disapproved of U.S. drone attacks targeting extremist leaders and groups in nations such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia," according to The Associated Press. But a majority of Americans, 62 percent, approve the increased drone strikes.

Despite international disapproval of the tactic, the Obama administration insists that the drone campaigns have been effective and have saved American lives. Drone strikes have killed numerous "high-value leaders", "arguably more than any other method including more than a decade of special operations raids inside Afghanistan," according to The Associated Press. Earlier this month, a drone strike killed al-Qaeda's second in command, Abu Yahya al-Libi.

"In order to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States and to save American lives, the United States government conducts targeted strikes against specific al-Qaida terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircrafts, often referred to publicly as drones,” White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan said earlier this year, according to The Associated Press.

Predator drones are not just being used abroad, however. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency have increased the use of the aircraft to patrol the Southern borderlands and interior for drug raids. Last month, the agency announced that two new unmanned drones would fly in Washington states' airspace. The drones deployed in Washington will be 10,000-pound Predator-B unmanned aircraft with 950-mile coverage ranges that can stay in the air for up to 20 hours at a time, border patrol spokesperson Gina Gray told The Associated Press. The announcement came as part of the Department of Homeland Security's six year effort to build the nation's "largest fleet of domestic surveillance drones."

Critics of the use of unmanned aircraft on U.S. soil (and airspace) say Predator drones are not as effective as less pricey aircraft in drug-smuggling cases, and could be an invasion of privacy for American citizens. "The border drones require an hour of maintenance for every hour they fly," they cost about $3,000 an hour to operate, and the amount of drugs seized in raids initiated by drone-supplied information was described as "not impressive" by the man who supervises the initiative, according the LA Times. The ACLU called drones "a large step closer to a surveillance society in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded, and scrutinized by the authorities.”

Some believe the use of predator drones in Latin America is not really about making narcotic raids more successful, but more about opening this region of the world to the use of the new technology. Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution told Wired Magazine that he suspects the U.S. military wants to use the technology in Latin America to "make sure the system doesn’t get pigeonholed as being just for Afghanistan or Iraq.”

“You want to build up familiarity with the systems and its uses, and even foibles, in other commands, so that when you use it more operationally in the future you have a base to build on.” Singer added, “And finally, as you introduce a system into a new area and to new people, they will innovate and find new uses for it.”


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