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Filling the Skies with Assassins

Unmanned aerial vehicles, pilotless surveillance, and assassination drones will be patrolling our expanding global battlefields, hunting down human beings.

| Tue Apr. 7, 2009 4:17 PM EDT

[Note for Readers: To catch an audio interview in which Tom Engelhardt discusses assassination from the air, click here

Terminator Planet

Launching the Drone Wars
By Tom Engelhardt

In 1984, Skynet, the supercomputer that rules a future Earth, sent a cyborg assassin, a "terminator," back to our time. His job was to liquidate the woman who would give birth to John Connor, the leader of the underground human resistance of Skynet's time. You with me so far? That, of course, was the plot of the first Terminator movie and for the multi-millions who saw it, the images of future machine war—of hunter-killer drones flying above a wasted landscape—are unforgettable.

Since then, as Hollywood's special effects took off, there were two sequels during which the original terminator somehow morphed into a friendlier figure on screen, and even more miraculously, off-screen, into the humanoid governor of California. Now, the fourth film in the series, Terminator Salvation, is about to descend on us. It will hit our multiplexes this May.

Oh, sorry, I don't mean hit hit. I mean, arrive in.

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Meanwhile, hunter-killer drones haven't waited for Hollywood. As you sit in that movie theater in May, actual unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), pilotless surveillance and assassination drones armed with Hellfire missiles, will be patrolling our expanding global battlefields, hunting down human beings. And in the Pentagon and the labs of defense contractors, UAV supporters are already talking about and working on next-generation machines. Post-2020, according to these dreamers, drones will be able to fly and fight, discern enemies and incinerate them without human decision-making. They're even wondering about just how to program human ethics, maybe even American ethics, into them.

Okay, it may never happen, but it should still make you blink that out there in America are people eager to bring the fifth iteration of Terminator not to local multiplexes, but to the skies of our perfectly real world—and that the Pentagon is already funding them to do so.

An Arms Race of One

Now, keep our present drones, those MQ-1 Predators and more advanced MQ-9 Reapers, in mind for a moment. Remember that, as you read, they're cruising Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani skies looking for potential "targets," and in Pakistan's tribal borderlands, are employing what Centcom commander General David Petraeus calls "the right of last resort" to take out "threats" (as well as tribespeople who just happen to be in the vicinity). And bear with me while I offer you a little potted history of the modern arms race.

Think of it as starting in the early years of the twentieth century when Imperial Britain, industrial juggernaut and colonial upstart Germany, and Imperial Japan all began to plan and build new generations of massive battleships or dreadnoughts (followed by "super-dreadnoughts") and so joined in a fierce naval arms race. That race took a leap onto land and into the skies in World War I when scientists and war planners began churning out techno-marvels of death and destruction meant to break the stalemate of trench warfare on the Western front.

Each year, starting in 1915, new or improved weaponry—poison gas, upgrades of the airplane, the tank and then the improved tank—appeared on or above the battlefield. Even as those marvels arrived, the next generation of weapons was already on the drawing boards. (In a sense, American auto makers took up the same battle plan in peacetime, unveiling new, ramped up car models each year.) As a result, when World War I ended in 1918, the war machinery of 1919 and 1920 was already being mapped out and developed. The next war, that is, and the weapons that would go with it were already in the mind's eye of war planners.

From the first years of the twentieth century on, an obvious prerequisite for what would prove a never-ending arms race was two to four great powers in potential collision, each of which had the ability to mobilize scientists, engineers, universities, and manufacturing power on a massive scale. World War II was, in these terms, a bonanza for invention as well as destruction. It ended, of course, with the Manhattan Project, that ne plus ultra of industrial-sized invention for destruction, which produced the first atomic bomb, and so the Cold War nuclear arms race that followed.

In that 45-year-long brush with extinction, the United States and the Soviet Union each mobilized a military-industrial complex to build ever newer generations of ever more devastating nuclear weaponry and delivery systems for a MAD (mutually assured destruction) world. At the peak of that two-superpower arms race, the resulting arsenals had the mad capacity to destroy eight or ten planets our size.

In 1991, after 73 years, the Soviet Union, that Evil Empire, simply evaporated, leaving but a single superpower without rivals astride planet Earth. And then came the unexpected thing: the arms race, which had been almost a century in the making, did not end. Instead, the unimaginable occurred and it simply morphed into a "race" of one with a finish line so distant—the bomber of 2018, Earth-spanning weapons systems, a vast anti-ballistic missile system, and weaponry for the heavens of perhaps 2050—as to imply eternity.

The Pentagon and the military-industrial complex surrounding it—including mega-arms manufacturers, advanced weapons labs, university science centers, and the official or semi-official think tanks that churned out strategies for future military domination—went right on. After a brief, post-Cold War blip of time in which "peace dividends" were discussed but not implemented, the "race" actually began to amp up again, and after September 11, 2001, went into overdrive against "Islamo-fascism" (aka the Global War on Terror, or the Long War).

In those years, our Evil Empire of the moment, except in the minds of a clutch of influential neocons, was a ragtag terrorist outfit made up of perhaps a few thousand adherents and scattered global wannabes, capable of mounting spectacular-looking but infrequent and surprisingly low-tech attacks on symbolic American (and other) targets. Against this enemy, the Pentagon budget became, for a while, an excuse for anything.

This brings us to our present unbalanced world of military might in which the U.S. accounts for nearly half of all global military spending and the total Pentagon budget is almost six times that of the next contender, China. Recently, the Chinese have announced relatively modest plans to build up their military and create a genuinely offshore navy. Similarly, the Russians have moved to downsize and refinance their tattered armed forces and the industrial complex that goes with them, while upgrading their weapons systems. This could potentially make the country more competitive when it comes to global arms dealing, a market more than half of which has been cornered by the U.S. They are also threatening to upgrade their "strategic nuclear forces," even as Presidents Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama have agreed to push forward a new round of negotiations for nuclear reductions.

Meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has just announced cutbacks in some of the more outré and futuristic military R&D programs inherited from the Cold War era. The Navy's staggering 11 aircraft-carrier battle groups will over time also be reduced by one. Minor as that may seem, it does signal an imperial downsizing, given that the Navy refers to each of those carriers, essentially floating military bases, as "four and a half acres of sovereign U.S. territory." Nonetheless, the Pentagon budget will grow modestly and the U.S. will remain in a futuristic arms race of one, a significant part of which involves reserving the skies as well as the heavens for American power.

Assassination by Air

Speaking of controlling those skies, let's get back to UAVs. As futuristic weapons planning went, they started out pretty low-tech in the 1990s. Even today, the most commonplace of the two American armed drones, the Predator, costs only $4.5 million a pop, while the most advanced model, that Reaper—both are produced by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems of San Diego—comes in at $15 million. (Compare that to $350 million for a single F-22 Raptor, which has proved essentially useless in America's most recent counterinsurgency wars.) It's lucky UAVs are cheap, since they are also prone to crashing. Think of them as snowmobiles with wings that have received ever more sophisticated optics and powerful weaponry.

They came to life as surveillance tools during the wars over the former Yugoslavia, were armed by February 2001, were hastily pressed into operation in Afghanistan after 9/11, and like many weapons systems, began to evolve generationally. As they did, they developed from surveillance eyes in the sky into something far more sinister and previously restricted to terra firma: assassins. One of the earliest armed acts of a CIA-piloted Predator, back in November 2002, was an assassination mission over Yemen in which a jeep, reputedly transporting six suspected al-Qaeda operatives, was incinerated.

Today, the most advanced UAV, the Reaper, housing up to four Hellfire missiles and two 500-pound bombs, packs the sort of punch once reserved for a jet fighter. Dispatched to the skies over the farthest reaches of the American empire, powered by a 1,000-horsepower turbo prop engine at its rear, the Reaper can fly at up to 21,000 feet for up to 22 hours (until fuel runs short), streaming back live footage from three cameras (or sending it to troops on the ground) --- 16,000 hours of video a month.

No need to worry about a pilot dozing off during those 22 hours. The human crews "piloting" the drones, often from thousands of miles away, just change shifts when tired. So the planes are left to endlessly cruise Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani skies relentlessly seeking out, like so many terminators, specific enemies whose identities can, under certain circumstances—or so the claims go—be determined even through the walls of houses. When a "target" is found and agreed upon—in Pakistan, the permission of Pakistani officials to fire is no longer considered necessary—and a missile or bomb is unleashed, the cameras are so powerful that "pilots" can watch the facial expressions of those being liquidated on their computer monitors "as the bomb hits."

Approximately 5,500 UAVs, mostly unarmed—less than 250 of them are Predators and Reapers—now operate over Iraq and the Af-Pak (as in the Afghanistan-Pakistan) theater of operations. Part of the more-than-century-long development of war in the air, drones have become favorites of American military planners. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in particular has demanded increases in their production (and in the training of their "pilots") and urged that they be rushed in quantity into America's battle zones even before being fully perfected.

And yet, keep in mind that the UAV still remains in its (frightening) infancy. Such machines are not, of course, advanced cyborgs. They are in some ways not even all that advanced. Because someone now wants publicity for the drone-war program, reporters from the U.S. and elsewhere have recently been given "rare behind-the-scenes" looks at how it works. As a result, and also because the "covert war" in the skies over Pakistan makes Washington's secret warriors proud enough to regularly leak news of its "successes," we know something more about how our drone wars work.

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