Guarding the Empire from Four Miles Up

Posted June 24, 2012

Categories: Articles, Book Reviews, Featured, US Foreign Policy

They are unpopular all over the world, with one exception. According to a new Pew Research Center poll, the only country where a majority of citizens support drone strikes is the country that uses the new technology most regularly: the United States.

Only 28 percent of U.S. citizens oppose drone strikes, compared to 62 percent who approve of their use. Once again, they prove the exception to the rule.

Armed Predator drone firing a Hellfire missile. Credit: Public domain

As Nick Turse and Tom Engelhardt write in alternating chapters in their terrifying new book “Terminator Planet”, drones have been part of U.S. exceptionalism from their very beginning. They were introduced in the late 1990s to conduct surveillance during the Kosovo conflict, and they soon became a major element of the U.S. dominance of airspace.

As the two authors point out, even before the introduction of drones, U.S. pilots had such overwhelming air superiority that Pentagon chief Robert Gates, in a 2011 speech, could declare that the United States hadn’t lost a plane during air combat or a soldier from enemy aircraft attack in 40 years.

With a persistent economic crisis putting cost-cutting pressure on the Pentagon budget, drones have become a low-cost method of preserving U.S. military dominance and thus the status of the United States as the single global superpower. As Engelhardt points out, drones are an integral part of “guarding the empire on the cheap as well as on the sly, via the CIA.”

But drones have played another key role in extending the tradition of U.S. exceptionalism. The Barack Obama administration, inheriting the counter-terrorism programme from its predecessor, expanded the use of drones to kill top Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders.

“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 everyday, all-year-round activity,” writes Engelhardt.

The United States has asserted its right to conduct these assassinations outside of war zones in the face of global public opinion, U.N. reports, and international law.

In this collection of essays that originally appeared on the TomDispatch website, Nick Turse provides a comprehensive mapping of the new drone world the Pentagon and the CIA have created. The Reapers and Predators and Global Hawks take off from the al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, the bases at Incirlik in Turkey and Sigonella in Italy, from new sites in Djibouti and Ethiopia and the Seychelles, across Afghanistan, and now even in Asia.

The military has come to rely more and more on the new technology. One in three military aircraft are robots. In 2004, Reapers flew 71 hours. In 2006, this number had gone up to 3,123 hours. By 2009, the flying time had increased to 25,391 hours.

With manpower tied up in operations in Afghanistan, anti-base movements challenging large concentrations of U.S. soldiers abroad, and bureaucrats in Washington desperately looking for places to cut the U.S. budget, drones appear as an attractive alternative.

“We are moving toward an ever greater outsourcing of war to things that cannot protest, cannot vote with their feet (or wings), and for whom there is no ‘home front’ or even a home at all,” Engelhardt observes.

The global unpopularity of drones stems in large part from their fallibility. The pilots and screeners viewing the footage from the safety of bases in the United States make a lot of mistakes and end up killing a lot of civilians, several hundred in Pakistan alone, including nearly 200 children.

So far, U.S. citizens are immune to these effects of drones. They have been reassured by the Obama administration that drones surgically remove the cancer and leave the surrounding healthy tissue intact.

Moreover, the United States continues to maintain a major technological edge in the research and development of drones. The risk of a drone attack on the United States remains low, though the George W. Bush administration justified its attack on Iraq in part on the belief that Saddam Hussein could launch weapons of mass destruction against the United States via drones.

But drone attacks have also generated enormous anti-U.S. sentiment, as the Pew poll suggests. The Times Square bomber, whose car bomb failed to detonate in Times Square in New York in 2010, was motivated to act in part because of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan.

Also, other countries – Israel, Russia, China, even Iran – have entered the drone business. It may only be a matter of time before the United States loses its dominant market share.

Turse and Engelhardt are divided on the question of whether drones represent a fundamental revolution in military affairs or simply an extension of an earlier trend toward air superiority.

“Such machines are not, of course, advanced cyborgs,” Engelhardt writes. “They are in some ways not even all that advanced.”

Moreover, modern air defence systems can rather easily bring down these drones. They have been effective only in places where they are largely unchallenged.

On the other hand, in the same way that the exponential growth of the web not only revolutionised communication but transformed the way humans think, drones may well be precipitating a change in how the United States, and increasingly the rest of the world, is thinking about war and national boundaries. The two authors describe various futuristic scenarios that pit autonomous drones, preprogrammed to target and fight, against each other.

In one of these scenarios, drawn from a Pentagon document titled the “Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap, FY 2011-2036,” U.S. drones detect and neutralise other drones tampering with an undersea oil pipeline off the coast of West Africa. This projection into the future of drones anticipates that the United States maintains its lead in drone technology.

The other scenario that the authors return to again and again is from Hollywood: the “Terminator” movies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a cyborg sent from the future to the present to kill the woman who would eventually give birth to a rebel leader. That leader, John Connor, is in charge of the human resistance to the robots that rule the planet.

The Pentagon is betting on the first scenario. Turse and Engelhardt are concerned that a naïve faith in technology, a consistent belief in U.S. exceptionalism, and the exponential spread of drones around the world may well bring about a world much closer to Hollywood’s nightmare vision.

Inter Press Service, June 15, 2012

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