"Although it is hard to predict where the drone infrastructure will grow, if other defense contracting projects are a reliable guide, the drone-ification of America will probably continue until there is a drone aerodrome in every state and a drone degree program to go with it."--Richard Wheeler, Wired (Feb. 28, 2011)
The U.S. government has a history of commandeering military technology for use against Americans. We saw this happen with tear gas, tasers and sound cannons, all of which were first used on the battlefield before being deployed against civilians at home. Now the drones -- pilotless, remote controlled aircraft that have been used extensively in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan (at least 600 civilians have been killed in drone attacks in Pakistan since the United States started targeting insurgents in that country) and were most recently approved by President Obama for use in Libya -- are coming home to roost (and fly) in domestic airspace.
As USA Today reports:
Police agencies around the USA soon could have a new tool in their crime-fighting arsenal: unmanned aircraft inspired by the success of such drones on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. Local governments have been pressing the Federal Aviation Administration for wider use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs -- a demand driven largely by returning veterans who observed the crafts' effectiveness in war, according to experts at New Mexico State University and Auburn University. Police could use the smaller planes to find lost children, hunt illegal marijuana crops and ease traffic jams in evacuations of cities before hurricanes or other natural disasters.
Attached as an amendment to the "Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Act" (S.223), the legislation allowing drones to fly in general American airspace has already cleared Congress, thanks to support from military contractors and a lack of opposition from those who should know better -- including an American populace preoccupied with rising gas prices, a dismal economy and endless wars abroad. The only thing lacking is Obama's final stamp of approval, which is expected at any moment.
Of course, there's been a lot of predictable political chatter about how the introduction of drones equipped with weapons and surveillance devices into general airspace will help with national security and in the domestic fight against terrorism. But the real motivator, as is usually the case in Washington, is money -- to be exact, money in the form of job creation (which ultimately translates into electoral votes) and campaign contributions from military contractors. In total, Boeing spent $2.57 million and Lockheed Martin spent $2.4 million in campaign contributions to those running for Congress in 2009-2010.
Indeed, elected representatives on both sides of the aisle benefit equally from the push for more widespread use of drones. For example, Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), a sponsor of the amendment who, by the way, received $10,000 from Lockheed Martin (a manufacturer of drones and missiles used by drones) during his 2010 re-election campaign, is looking to preserve 1,215 jobs at a base in Mattydale, N.Y., while also potentially creating "millions of dollars in radar research contracts for local defense companies." In other words, Schumer is hoping he can get enough donations and win over enough voters to maintain his seat in Congress.
On the House of Representatives side, Reps. John Mica (R-Fla.) and Candice Miller (R-Mich.), the driving forces behind the drone amendments that ended up in the House bill, didn't hesitate to talk up the advantages drones would bring to national security and the economy. They also didn't hesitate to take campaign contributions from companies involved in the production of drone technology. In his 2010 re-election campaign, Mica received contributions from Boeing, Honeywell, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon amounting to $10,000 each, while Miller received $10,000 each from Honeywell and Ford, and $8,500 from General Dynamics. Maurice Hinchey (D - NY), a member of the 43-person drone caucus, received $10,000 each from Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Honeywell, as well as $9,500 from L-3 Communications in 2010.
Unfortunately, there are few in Congress who are not complicit in helping to advance the agenda of the military industrial complex. Even President Obama, ironically enough the winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize who received $870,165 from defense contractors during his 2008 campaign and yet was expected by many anti-war protesters to rein in George Bush's run-away war machine, has marched in lockstep with the war hawks, essentially maintaining the status quo in the war in Iraq, ramping up the war in Afghanistan, and interjecting America into the conflict in Libya. And in fact, Obama's 2012 military budget provides strong funding for drones with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, with $4.8 billion set aside just "to develop and procure additional Global Hawk Class (RQ-4), Predator Class (MQ 1/9) and other less expensive, low-altitude systems."
The practical impact of these drones, which can range in size from 15 ounces to 34,000 pounds with a wing span bigger than a Boeing 737, will be felt by all members of society, regardless of how law-abiding one might be. Certainly these unmanned vehicles could be used for legitimate purposes, such as search-and-rescue missions, etc., but living as we do already in a semi-surveillance state with our constitutional rights in peril at every turn, these drones, which can be armed with surveillance devices, as well as weapons, are yet another building block in a total control society.
Drones have already been used in a limited capacity domestically to patrol the border between the U.S. and Mexico and at peaceful political rallies to intimidate and track protesters. However, researchers at Auburn University, charged with studying the risks associated with unmanned aircraft, predict that drones will be used by police departments in 5-10 years.
Unfortunately, drones are not foolproof gadgets. In fact, they have a history of malfunctioning in mid-air. As David Zucchino reported in the Los Angeles Times, "The U.S. military often portrays its drone aircraft as high-tech marvels that can be operated seamlessly from thousands of miles away. But Pentagon accident reports reveal that the pilotless aircraft suffer from frequent system failures, computer glitches and human error." For example, the first drone sent to the Texas-Mexico border in the summer of 2010 experienced a communications failure which led to "pilot deviation." UAVs had to be temporarily grounded while technicians received more training. Fortunately, no one was hurt.
The U.S. military was on the verge of launching fighter jets and even entertained ideas about a possible shoot-down when an errant Navy drone veered into restricted airspace near Washington, DC, in August 2010. The incident only served to reinforce concerns about drones let loose in American skies. "Do you let it fly over the national capital region? Let it run out of gas and hopefully crash in a farmer's field? Or do you take action and shoot it down?" said Navy Adm. James Winnefeld Jr., head of Northern Command. "You don't want to shoot it down over a populated area if you can avoid it." Even so, Winnefeld is pushing to get more drones into the air, citing the need for a slower and lighter aircraft that could be used to monitor events such as outdoor sports games, political conventions or inaugural activities.
Apart from the safety concerns, of which there are many, the widespread use of drones domestically also poses certain security and privacy risks. As one blogger notes, "One has to wonder if the cost of these high tech machines would be balanced by their potentially limited uses or if departments would be forced to expand the uses in order to even employ the drones. Like SWAT battering rams and armored vehicles, would departments feel compelled to use the drones more often than necessary simply to justify their cost?"
There's also the problem of drones being hacked into and potentially hijacked. After all, it's happened before. In 2009, it was discovered that Shiite insurgents had hacked into Predator drones with a software program that cost only $26 and gained access to video footage shot by the spy planes. One can only imagine what a technically proficient hacker in America might be able to do with the wealth of information he could potentially take from these drones, not to mention what a terrorist could do with a fully-armed, remote-controlled airplane. If there's one thing you can be sure of, it's that these drones will be equipped with weapons. In fact, the Pentagon actually wants some drones to be able to carry nuclear weapons. The destruction brought about by a mid-air collision or sudden communications failure with a drone carrying weapons would be devastating.
This is not a problem that's going to go away quickly or quietly. Indeed, the government is making sure that drones will be around for some time to come. As Wired magazine points out:
Federal education and stimulus money is being used to create nonmilitary drone education programs. The Department of Aviation at the University of North Dakota, located in Grand Forks and the operator of the test and training site at Grand Forks AFB, now offers the first Bachelors of Science program in Unmanned Aircraft Systems Operations. The Aviation Maintenance Technology program at Northland Community and Technical College, located in Thief River Falls, Minnesota just 40 miles east of Grand Forks, will soon offer courses in the repair of UAVs.
Added to that, an amendment to the House version of the bill legalizing drone testing in American airspace set September 30, 2015 as a deadline by which to have general use of drones. The University of North Dakota is also offering a 4-year degree in piloting drones in what is soon expected to be a $20 billion industry.
Clearly, Congress, the Defense Department, the Obama administration and the military contractors who drive the wars all have strong financial interests in having drones crisscrossing the skies of America. They know that this spy technology will be the next big money-making scheme for those who profit from war and the machinery of war. But you can rest assured that the introduction of drones into American airspace will not only further fuse the American government, the American economy and the military industry, perpetuating needless foreign interventions at the expense of civilians abroad and Americans at home but it will serve as yet another nail in the coffin for American civil liberties.
Follow John W. Whitehead on Twitter: www.twitter.com/rutherford_inst