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Nick Turse: Hot Drone-On-Drone Action

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

It's now commonly estimated that more than 50 nations have drones, are making plans to develop them, or are at least planning to buy them from those who do produce them. In other words, the future global skies are going to be a busy -- and increasingly dangerous -- place. They will be filled not just with robotic surveillance aircraft, but also with non-U.S. remotely piloted armed assassins which, thanks to the path Washington has blazed, need pay no attention to anyone's national sovereignty in a search for their version of bad guys to destroy. Iranians, Israelis, Russians, Chinese, Indians, British -- you name it and if they don't already have something robotic aloft, they undoubtedly will soon enough. And those estimates don't even include insurgent groups and terrorists, who are undoubtedly giving real thought to how to develop and use the equivalent of suicide drones.

Just keep an eye on the news, because those numbers are only going to rise. In fact, just this month they've gone up by at least one, thanks to the decision of the Obama administration to sell surveillance drones to the Iraqis (and it is evidently also preparing to arm Italy's six Reaper drones with Hellfire missiles and bombs). Right now, Washington is almost alone in launching drones at will in countries ranging from Yemen to the Philippines, but that won't last long. Already we know that these wonder weapons, hailed like so many previous wonder weapons as the ultimate answer to a military's problems, as the only game in town, will kill many, but won't deliver as promised.

Take Pakistan. Last week, among other attacks, a U.S. drone launched two missiles at a bakery in the North Waziristan tribal area, killing (we are assured by ever-anonymous officials) four suspected "foreign" militants "buying goods." (No information was available on the fate of the baker, of course.) Strange to say, the Pakistani people, or at least 97% of them, haven't taken as well as Washington might have expected to its urge to launch endless drone attacks on their territory, no matter what they or their parliament might say. Drones, which have certainly killed their share of "bad guys" (and children) in the Pakistani borderlands, have also managed to throw U.S.-Pakistan relations into chaos, caused a surge of anti-Americanism, undoubtedly created future blowback among the relatives of the dead, and have almost singlehandedly made it impossible for the Pakistani government to reopen its borders to supplies for our Afghan War. This, in turn, has helped send the already-exorbitant costs of that war skyrocketing, an immediate form of blowback for the American taxpayer.

Like most wonder weapons, drones have proven a distinctly mixed bag for Washington wherever they have been used (though you wouldn't know it from the press they get), but like most wonder weapons, not delivering ultimate global victory or even victory on local battlefields hasn't stopped them from proliferating. In search of the perfect solution to impossible-to-win local and global wars, Washington has ensured that drones will proliferate everywhere on what, for all of us, will turn out to be the worst possible terms. Assassination was once a complex, secret, shameful, difficult to arrange, and relatively rare act of state. Now, it's as normal, easy, and -- amazingly enough -- almost as open as sending a diplomat to another country. Nick Turse, TomDispatch regular and co-author of the new book Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050, explores just why the drone has a remarkably dismal future ahead of it and why that won't stop the dronification of our world for a second. Tom

A Drone-Eat-Drone World
With Its "Roadmap" in Tatters, The Pentagon Detours to Terminator Planet
By Nick Turse

U.S. military documents tell the story vividly. In the Gulf of Guinea, off the coast of West Africa, an unmanned mini-submarine deployed from the USS Freedom detects an "anomaly": another small remotely-operated sub with welding capabilities tampering with a major undersea oil pipeline. The American submarine's "smart software" classifies the action as a possible threat and transmits the information to an unmanned drone flying overhead. The robot plane begins collecting intelligence data and is soon circling over a nearby vessel, a possible mother ship, suspected of being involved with the "remote welder."

At a hush-hush "joint maritime operations center" onshore, analysts pour over digital images captured by the unmanned sub and, according to a Pentagon report, recognize the welding robot "as one recently stolen and acquired by rebel antigovernment forces." An elite quick-reaction force is assembled at a nearby airfield and dispatched to the scene, while a second unmanned drone is deployed to provide persistent surveillance of the area of operations.

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And with that, the drone war is on.

At the joint maritime operations center, signals intelligence analysts detect the mother ship launching a Russian Tipchak -- a medium-altitude, long-endurance, unmanned aircraft with "U.S.-derived systems and avionics" and outfitted with air-to-air as well as air-to-surface missiles. It's decision time for U.S. commanders. Special Operations Forces are already en route and, with an armed enemy drone in the skies ahead of them, possibly in peril.

But the Americans have an ace up their sleeve: an advanced Air Force MQ-1000. Unlike the MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper, the MQ-1000 is capable of completely autonomous action, right down to targeting and combat.

Pre-programmed with the requirements and constraints of the mission, the advanced drone takes off and American commanders let it do its thing. "The MQ-1000" immediately conducts an air-to-air engagement and neutralizes the Tipchak," reads the understated official account of the action. The special ops team then raids the mothership and disrupts the oil pipeline interdiction scheme.

The entire episode involves a seamless integration of robots and troops working in tandem, of next-generation drones "wired" together and operating in teams, and of autonomous drones making their own decisions. But there's a reason you've never read about this mission in the New York Times or the Washington Post. It won't take place for 20 years.

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Or will it?

The "African Maritime Coalition Vignette, 2030s" is a scenario offered up in Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap, FY 2011-2036, a recently released 100-page Defense Department document outlining American robotic air, sea, and land war-fighting plans for the decades ahead. It's the sunny side of a future once depicted in the Terminator films in which flying hunter-killer or "HK" units are sent out to exterminate the human race.

Terminators of Today?

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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