Yo! Don’t Touch My Drone

Reaper over Iraq
Reaper over Iraq

Not far behind many of our arguments about the legal use of drones in warfare is the hope that we’ll wake up tomorrow and they’ll just go away. No more wedding parties mistaken for an al Qaeda rendezvous. No more homes obliterated, no more after-action justifications for why a child, or two, was among the rubble.

Despite the protesters’ dogged attempts to disrupt John Brennan’s nomination hearings on Thursday, the would-be CIA director, now chief White House counterterrrorism advisor, made it plain that the U.S government is institutionalizing, rather than rethinking its use of drone strikes in the wake of some 424 CIA attacks and upwards of 4,750 people killed in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia since 2002..

This of course is no surprise, as it was reported just last month that the administration, of which Brennan has been the chief facilitator of the gruesomely referred to "kill list," has developed a "playbook" or "manual" that is "designed to establish clear rules for targeted-killing operations but leaves open a major exemption for the CIA’s campaign of drone strikes in Pakistan," according to a Washington Post report Jan. 19.

In other words, consider drones a permanent addition to the arsenal, and don’t expect a lot of serious oversight by congress, which seems to be left in the dark more often than not.

When Michael Hastings wrote about the "Rise of the Killer Drones" for Rolling Stone in April 2012, he said, "the remote-control nature of unmanned missions enables politicians to wage war while claiming we’re not at war." Furthermore:

… the Pentagon and the CIA can now launch military strikes or order assassinations without putting a single boot on the ground – and without worrying about a public backlash over U.S. soldiers coming home in body bags. The immediacy and secrecy of drones make it easier than ever for leaders to unleash America’s military might – and harder than ever to evaluate the consequences of such clandestine attacks.

More recently, in a piece on the Brennan hearings, Hastings called it the administration’s "drone romance … part of an evolution to find a foreign-policy balance that hits ‘the sweet spot.’"

But as we are finding out quite quickly, the "sweet spot" is much more than the government’s search for guilt-free killing in an age of perpetual global war. The courtship of the drones, begun in the Bush Administration and superseded by a full-blown love affair under President Obama, has given birth to a belching baby drone industry that is very demanding, very hungry and growing off the charts.

A recent story for Investor Place invited speculators to "Cash in on the Coming Drone Wars," pointing to burgeoning Wall Street investment opportunities with companies specializing in UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) systems and technology. Many of these companies are familiar studs in the stable: Northrop Grumman, which builds the Global Hawk RQ-4 drone; Lockheed Martin, maker of the RQ-170 Sentinel; Raytheon produces the Cobra; Boeing is now perfecting the hydrogen-powered Phantom Eye; and U.K-based BAE Systems is currently testing the Mantis and Taranis drones. The spunky kid on the block is General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc., daddy of the drone most familiar to us for its menacing size and killer apps: the Predator.

These companies are at the spearhead of a multibillion dollar drone industry that is just chomping at the bit to get more UAVs and more technology to a.) domestic markets, and b.) foreign governments. According to a 2012 study by the Virginia-based Teal Group, the world is spending $6.6 billion a year on UAVs and technology. That is expected to increase to $11.4 billion a year over the next decade, bringing total global spending on UAVs to some $89 billion overall. The U.S government, Teal estimates, will account for 62 percent of the total RDT&E (research, development, test & evaluation) spending, and 55 percent of the procurement of UAVs and technology.

That’s a lot of coin, which would explain a number of things that have been going on in Congress and on K Street for the last few years. As demand overseas rises, industry lobbyists and their friends on Capitol Hill have been pressuring the federal government to relax export rules in order to sell more drones to foreign governments. Meanwhile, here at home, they’re leaning on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), to speed up its integration of drones into its national airspace regulations by 2015, which would put drones on near-equal footing with planes and provide uniform guidelines for their usage. The process was begun Valentine’s Day a year ago upon the signing of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act.

According to a November report by the Center for Responsive Politics and Hearst Papers, some 30,000 domestic drones are expected to be in the air by 2032, "sharing space with commercial, military and general aviation." What a thought (check out an updated list of drone authorizations already in your area by the Electronic Frontier Foundation here).

Uses include mapping, assessing disaster recovery and rescue efforts, monitoring pipelines and powerlines – the more innocuous stuff. Where it gets controversial is the accelerated clamor for drones for domestic law enforcement and surveillance, beginning with federal agencies. For example, the Department of Homeland Security via the U.S Customs and Border Protection, locked in a $443 million contract in November with General Automics to add to their fleet of 10 surveillance drones. The sole-source contract, according to California Watch, would buy up to 14 more unarmed Predator B drones and equipment. Each drone costs the government about $18.5 million.

"Customs and Border Protection," according to California Watch, "said the agency could not fly enough drones operations – which would put national security and Border Patrol agents at risk – if it didn’t award [this] sole-source contract."

The agency tries to justify these huge expenses by underscoring its work in drug interdiction: flying about 5,500 hours, netting more than 58,000 pounds of drugs, contributing to 130 arrests and 1,408 apprehensions of suspects in 2012 (though critics point out it’s still a fraction of the drug busts carried out without drones each year — another story entirely).

All of this is considered positive, at least to the industry, which sees investment opportunities around every corner. As the November Investor Place report announced, "the commercial market potential for drones could be the next blockbuster." Indeed.

Congress lends a hand

Drones – building them, using them domestically and in our wars, as well as selling them overseas, has their detractors in congress, for sure, but they’re quickly being drowned out by other members willing to stand up strong for drone freedom (and take all the lucrative industry contributions that come with it). Nowhere is this more baldly displayed than in the House and Senate UAV Caucuses, which are heavily supported by the drone lobby, like the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI).

Consider this: the House caucus, which is three-years old, has been pretty much up front about its support for expanding the drone industry and their willingness to facilitate regulatory acceleration where the industry is concerned (i.e. export controls, new FAA guidelines), of course with obligatory noises made over the issue of safety and privacy. There is no mention from either caucus in public comments or mission statements so far about the use of drones against targeted suspects in war. It’s simply not not on the radar.

No, this is an industry-focused enterprise, and so not surprisingly, these caucuses are led in part by two of the biggest defense hawks on Capitol Hill – Rep. Buck "my job is defense" McKeon, R-CA (home of the great drone builders), and Sen. James Inhofe, R-OK., who spent a great deal of his time during the recent Chuck Hagel confirmation hearings worried that Hagel wasn’t sufficiently gassed for war. Both lead their parties in the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. In fact, many of the caucus members on the House side hail from the Armed Services and Appropriations Committees, and are well placed to green light programs, fund them, and get through red tape.

The caucus membership rolls are also peppered with members who live on the southern border, where agencies are most jazzed about using drones. The lobbying dollars and political contributions from defense companies that make UAVs are naturally flowing in this direction, as the numbers bear out.

First, according to Center for Responsive Politics, some $8 million in drone-related funds were funneled into caucus members’ coffers over the last four years. House caucus members from Virginia, Texas, California and New York, where the industry is concentrated, drew the most money from sources affiliated with AUVSI. For example, 11 drone caucus members from California received more than $2.4 million from industry PACs and employees during the 2010 and 2012 cycles. McKeon, the top recipient of all defense-related funds, got $833,650 in that period.

Meanwhile, AUVSI – whose "diamond" level members include the usual suspects — Northrop Grumman, General Automics and Raytheon – spends a lot of time on the Hill schmoozing with members and hosting Beltway confabs for the industry. Last May, the organization announced it would be embarking on a massive PR blitz to promote the use of drones, here and overseas.

"You have to keep repeating the good words," AUVSI President Michael Toscano told Salon in a piece at the time. "People who don’t know what they’re talking about say these are spy planes or killer drones. They’re not." Writer Jefferson Morely said Toscano proceeded to criticize Salon and other news organizations "for using the term ‘drones,’ saying ‘remotely piloted vehicles’ is more accurate."

It doesn’t matter if you call them Rainbow Fairy Flying Machines piloted by Susie Snowflake and Unicorn Andy, these things do assassinate abroad, they do impinge on privacy, and no one can say with any certainty that they won’t be crashing into homes and into other things once so many of them are in the air.

And who knows if, or better yet when, these domestic UAVs will be armed, particularly those on the border. It doesn’t take a tin foil hat and a taste for Alex Jones to start thinking this way. No one could have imagined that the same Reaper drones that dropped bombs over Iraq would be patrolling the Arizona desert, but they are. And don’t forget, there is an entire constituency in Congress that now calls that progress.

Booming Foreign Market

Meanwhile, the armed drone and technology sales are ramping up overseas, thanks to some heavy lobbying here in Washington. Big defense companies are looking to make up budget shortfalls in other areas and are putting the pressure on the Pentagon and State Department to loosen export controls (both are concerned about the possible flow of our drone technology to unfriendly governments and groups) so that the U.S can compete in the global market. That market is now dominated by American companies, but has top sellers like Israel right at their heels, according to this Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, issued in July.

The report finds that there was $240 million worth of UAV licensing given to foreign governments for the transfer of drones and technology between 2005 and 2011. Most were for smaller UAVs for surveillance purposes (which the GAO says will benefit the U.S in the long run), but a limited number of Predators and Reapers have also been transferred to Italy, Reapers to the United Kingdom, and Global Hawk airframes to Germany as part of joint development programs for NATO.

But the industry wants to expand much further and apparently has the backing of the White House, which announced last year that it would double the number of commercial and military UAV sales to foreign buyers. The Pentagon has reportedly softened its stand, and is greasing the wheels for more drone sales, so the thrust of the effort is now concentrated on the State Department and congress to convince hold outs that such drone sales are not only good for the economy and for our allies, it’s a matter of national security.

The first test will be completing a pending sale of four Northrop Grumman Global Hawks to South Korea to the tune of $1.2 billion. While the transfer is supposed to be for surveillance purposes, everyone knows those machines can be modified for bombs later.

Just one more deal for U.S foreign military sales, which topped $65 billion for all transfers (not just UAVs) by the end of 2012. Sales were increasing so fast last year, wrote Sydney J. Freedberg, that "the Pentagon can’t keep its PowerPoint slides updated."

When so much money is involved, the moral and legal arguments against foreign UAV uses and sales tend to get lost or marginalized, especially when they are being touted as the "sweet spot" for next-gen warfare, and all the real Beltway interests that matter want them to succeed. As for domestic drone use, it’s just a matter of time. In this case, the market does decide, and right now it’s decided it likes drones a whole lot.

Follow Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for FoxNews.com and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.