[Note for Readers: To catch an audio interview in which Tom Engelhardt discusses assassination from the air, click here]
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.
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.
We know, for instance, that at least part of the Air Force’s Afghan UAV program runs out of Kandahar Air Base in southern Afghanistan. It turns out that, pilotless as the planes may be, a pilot does have to be nearby to guide them into the air and handle landings. As soon as the drone is up, a two-man team, a pilot and a “sensor monitor,” backed by intelligence experts and meteorologists, takes over the controls either at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona, or at Creech Air Force Base northwest of Las Vegas, some 7,000-odd miles away. (Other U.S. bases may be involved as well.)
According to Christopher Drew of the New York Times, who visited Davis-Monthan where Air National Guard members handle the controls, the pilots sit unglamorously “at 1990s-style computer banks filled with screens, inside dimly lit trailers.” Depending on the needs of the moment, they can find themselves “over” either Afghanistan or Iraq, or even both on the same work shift. All of this is remarkably mundane—pilot complaints generally run to problems “transitioning” back to wife and children after a day at the joystick over battle zones—and at the same time, right out of Ali Baba’s One Thousand and One Nights.
In those dimly lit trailers, the UAV teams have taken on an almost godlike power. Their job is to survey a place thousands of miles distant (and completely alien to their lives and experiences), assess what they see, and spot “targets” to eliminate—even if on their somewhat antiquated computer systems it “takes up to 17 steps—including entering data into pull-down windows—to fire a missile” and incinerate those below. They only face danger, other than carpal tunnel syndrome, when they leave the job. A sign at Creech warns a pilot to “drive carefully”; “this, it says, is ‘the most dangerous part of your day.'” Those involved claim that the fear and thrill of battle do not completely escape them, but the descriptions we now have of their world sound discomfortingly like a cross between the far frontiers of sci-fi and a call center in India.
The most intense of our various drone wars, the one on the other side of the Afghan border in Pakistan, is also the most mysterious. We know that some or all of the drones engaged in it take off from Pakistani airfields; that this “covert war” (which regularly makes front-page news) is run by the CIA out of its headquarters in Langley, Virginia; that its pilots are also located somewhere in the U.S.; and that at least some of them are hired private contractors.
William Saletan of Slate has described our drones as engaged in “a bloodless, all-seeing airborne hunting party.” Of course, what was once an elite activity performed in person has been transformed into a 24/7 industrial activity fit for human drones.
Our drone wars also represent a new chapter in the history of assassination. Once upon a time, to be an assassin for a government was a furtive, shameful thing. In those days, of course, an assassin, if successful, took down a single person, not the targeted individual and anyone in the vicinity (or simply, if targeting intelligence proves wrong, anyone in the vicinity). No more poison-dart-tipped umbrellas, as in past KGB operations, or toxic cigars as in CIA ones—not now that assassination has taken to the skies as an every day, all-year-round activity.
Today, we increasingly display our assassination wares with pride. To us, at least, it seems perfectly normal for assassination aerial operations to be a part of an open discussion in Washington and in the media. Consider this a new definition of “progress” in our world.
Proliferation and Sovereignty
This brings us back to arms races. They may be things of the past, but don’t for a minute imagine that those hunter-killer skies won’t someday fill with the drones of other nations. After all, one of the truths of our time is that no weapons system, no matter where first created, can be kept for long as private property. Today, we talk not of arms races, but of “proliferation,” which is what you have once a global arms race of one takes hold.
In drone-world, the Chinese, the Russians, the Israelis, the Pakistanis, the Georgians, and the Iranians, among others, already have drones. In the Lebanon War of 2006, Hezbollah flew drones over Israel. In fact, if you have the skills, you can create your own drone, more or less in your living room (as your basic DIY drone website indicates). Undoubtedly, the future holds unnerving possibilities for small groups intent on assassination from the air.
Already the skies are growing more crowded. Three weeks ago, President Obama issued what Reuters termed “an unprecedented videotaped appeal to Iran… offering a ‘new beginning’ of diplomatic engagement to turn the page on decades of U.S. policy toward America’s longtime foe.” It was in the form of a Persian New Year’s greeting. As the New York Times also reported, the U.S. military beat the president to the punch. They sent their own “greetings” to the Iranians a couple of days earlier.
After considering what Times reporters Rod Nordland and Alissa J. Rubin term “the delicacy of the incident at a time when the United States is seeking a thaw in its relations with Iran,” the U.S. military sent out Col. James Hutton to meet the press and “confirm” that “allied aircraft” had shot down an “Iranian unmanned aerial vehicle” over Iraq on February 25th, more than three weeks earlier. Between that day and mid-March, the relevant Iraqi military and civilian officials were, the Times tells us, not informed. The reason? That drone was intruding on our (borrowed) airspace, not theirs. You probably didn’t know it, but according to an Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman, “protection of Iraqi airspace remains an American responsibility for the next three years.”
And naturally enough, we don’t want other countries’ drones in “our” airspace, though that’s hardly likely to stop them. The Iranians, for instance, have already announced the development of “a new generation of ‘spy drones’ that provide real-time surveillance over enemy terrain.”
Of course, when you openly control squads of assassination drones patrolling airspace over other countries, you’ve already made a mockery of whatever national sovereignty might once have meant. It’s a precedent that may someday even make us distinctly uncomfortable. But not right now.
If you doubt this, check out the stream of self-congratulatory comments being leaked by Washington officials about our drone assassins. These often lead off news pieces about America’s “covert war” over Pakistan (“An intense, six-month campaign of Predator strikes in Pakistan has taken such a toll on Al Qaeda that militants have begun turning violently on one another out of confusion and distrust, U.S. intelligence and counter-terrorism officials say…”); but be sure to read to the end of such pieces. Somewhere in them, after the successes have been touted and toted up, you get the bad news: “In fact, the stepped-up strikes have coincided with a deterioration in the security situation in Pakistan.”
In Pakistan, a war of machine assassins is visibly provoking terror (and terrorism), as well as anger and hatred among people who are by no means fundamentalists. It is part of a larger destabilization of the country.
To those who know their air power history, that shouldn’t be so surprising. Air power has had a remarkably stellar record when it comes to causing death and destruction, but a remarkably poor one when it comes to breaking the will of nations, peoples, or even modest-sized organizations. Our drone wars are destructive, but they are unlikely to achieve Washington’s goals.
The Future Awaits Us
If you want to read the single most chilling line yet uttered about drone warfare American-style, it comes at the end of Christopher Drew’s piece. He quotes Brookings Institution analyst Peter Singer saying of our Predators and Reapers: “[T]hese systems today are very much Model T Fords. These things will only get more advanced.”
In other words, our drone wars are being fought with the airborne equivalent of cars with cranks, but the “race” to the horizon is already underway. By next year, some Reapers will have a far more sophisticated sensor system with 12 cameras capable of filming a two-and-a-half mile round area from 12 different angles. That program has been dubbed “Gorgon Stare”, but it doesn’t compare to the future 92-camera Argus program whose initial development is being funded by the Pentagon’s blue-skies outfit, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Soon enough, a single pilot may be capable of handling not one but perhaps three drones, and drone armaments will undoubtedly grow progressively more powerful and “precise.” In the meantime, BAE Systems already has a drone four years into development, the Taranis, that should someday be “completely autonomous”; that is, it theoretically will do without human pilots. Initial trials of a prototype are scheduled for 2010.
By 2020, so claim UAV enthusiasts, drones could be engaging in aerial battle and choosing their victims themselves. As Robert S. Boyd of McClatchy reported recently, “The Defense Department is financing studies of autonomous, or self-governing, armed robots that could find and destroy targets on their own. On-board computer programs, not flesh-and-blood people, would decide whether to fire their weapons.”
It’s a particular sadness of our world that, in Washington, only the military can dream about the future in this way, and then fund the “arms race” of 2018 or 2035. Rest assured that no one with a governmental red cent is researching the health care system of 2018 or 2035, or the public education system of those years.
In the meantime, the skies of our world are filling with round-the-clock assassins. They will only evolve and proliferate. Of course, when we check ourselves out in the movies, we like to identify with John Connor, the human resister, the good guy of this planet, against the evil machines. Elsewhere, however, as we fight our drone wars ever more openly, as we field mechanical techno-terminators with all-seeing eyes and loose our missiles from thousands of miles away (“Hasta la Vista, Baby!”), we undoubtedly look like something other than a nation of John Connors to those living under the Predators. It may not matter if the joysticks and consoles on those advanced machines are somewhat antiquated; to others, we are now the terminators of the planet, implacable machine assassins.
True, we can’t send our drones into the past to wipe out the young Ayman al-Zawahiri in Cairo or the teenage Osama bin Laden speeding down some Saudi road in his gray Mercedes sedan. True, the UAV enthusiasts, who are already imagining all-drone wars run by “ethical” machines, may never see anything like their fantasies come to pass. Still, the fact that without the help of a single advanced cyborg we are already in the process of creating a Terminator planet should give us pause for thought… or not.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War and beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), an alternative history of the mad Bush years. To catch an audio interview in which he discusses our airborne assassins, click here.
[Note for TomDispatch readers: I particularly recommend the Christopher Drew New York Times piece cited above, “Drones Are Weapons of Choice in Fighting Qaeda,” which gives a vivid picture of our drone wars at home. In addition, let me offer a small bow to Nick Turse, who, back in 2004, began writing at this site about the way our government has restricted blue-skies dreaming to the military. To keep up on drones and drone warfare, there is no better place to start than Noah Shachtman’s Danger Room blog at Wired.com. It’s a must. To keep track of drone strikes as they occur in our world, keep an eye on Antiwar.com. And a final note of thanks to Christopher Holmes, whose keen copyediting eye makes this process so much less embarrassing than it might otherwise be.]
Copyright 2009 Tom Engelhardt