‘Makers of Military Drones Take Off’:

by Kenneth Anderson

So says the headline of a WSJ news article today (Monday, August 24, 2009, B1, by August Cole), noting that unmanned aircraft – drones such as the Predator to us civilians, although the Pentagon seems to prefer UMV – are transforming not just the military, strategic as well as tactical considerations, but defense contracting.  (PopSci ran a story a little while ago on the training of UMV pilots as well.)  The WSJ article notes that the administration’s fiscal 2010 defense budget request “includes approximately $3.5 billion for unmanned aerial vehicles.”  The demand is robust enough that the Pentagon is reaching beyond the contracting behemooths such as Lockheed and Boeing to smaller manufacturers, such as General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc., which makes Predators.  (General Atomics, GA, is privately held and so there isn’t stock price information, but it’s an interesting company overall.  I would guess, without knowing, that its private equity investors are happy indeed.)

The WSJ article describes some of the basic economics of manufacture, operation, costs, personnel and training costs, etc. of the drones.  (It is important, by the way, to keep in mind that the typical function of drones today is surveillance, not firing missiles, which is actually a very tiny subset of what drones in total do.  That is even more true if you add in the small, soldier-carried aerial drones used in tactical surveillance – (literally) tossed by a soldier into the air to get it flying.  It is also true that much research is underway to make drones more useful as a firing platform in the future.)

Unmanned aerial vehicles are smaller and have less-extensive electronics systems than piloted military aircraft and don’t require as much fuel, big runways or major logistics support. UAV pilots also don’t require as much training as fighter jocks.

That lowers purchase and operating costs, as well as the risk to personnel. But for many missions, such as keeping enemy aircraft at bay, today’s UAVs still are no match for a manned fighter.

In Afghanistan, unmanned aerial vehicles routinely provide high-quality images that were previously available only from satellites or highflying spy planes. Demand has increased in particular for General Atomics’ biggest armed UAVs that not only can track targets, but can attack them as well.

According to Pentagon documents, about $1.3 billion in the 2010 budget is intended to buy the Predator’s better-armed successors, the Reaper and the Sky Warrior. That is enough to purchase 60 of the General Atomics aircraft for the Air Force and the Army.

By contrast, the Pentagon is seeking $10.43 billion to buy 30 of the military’s next-generation F-35 Lightning II fighter jet, which is still in development under a program led by Lockheed Martin Corp.

None of this represents merely a holdover of defense budgeting and planning from the Bush administration.  As I have repeatedly noted, in many ways the Obama administration paved the way for drones, particularly as a counterinsurgency and counterterrorism method through both surveillance and targeted killing.  It is central part of the Obama administration’s policy, and the budget priorities reflect that.  As I’ve also repeatedly said, too, this is something on which the Obama administration is right – was right during the campaign and is right now.  It is a strategically better policy and a more humanitarian one in the long term.  That is one reason I, at least, would like to see its plain and robust defense as a legal matter by the current administration in all its quarters, including, for the example, the State Department and the Legal Advisor’s office.  Given the importance of drones now and into the future, not merely as surveillance, but as tools of targeted killing, I should want to see all parts of the administration, and not just DOD, assert and articulate the legal basis for targeted killing using drones.


6 Responses

  1. “It is also true that much research is underway to make drones more useful as a firing platform in the future.”

    Although merely a parenthetical remark, I think it points to where this military technology is heading. In the late eighteenth century hot-air balloons “were used simply to determine the size and position of enemy forces, but militarists soon realized their potential for dropping grenades and other harmful objects on enemy troops.” And by the end of World War I, “both sides had engaged in inidiscriminate bombing, killing or injuring several thousand civilians.” 

    As Yuki Tanaka has written, “The premium placed on aerial bombing in modern warfare owes much to the relative safety of the attackers and the complete vulnerability of the victims.” “The psychological remoteness of pilots and bombardiers from the reality of the horror on the ground” involved in aerial bombing helps one appreciate the insidious effects of the enthusiasm expressed here for the “importance of drones now and into the future, not merely as surveillance, but as tools of targeted killing,” and no doubt soon as tools of “precision bombing.” (I’ll not here articulate my reasons for opposition to ‘targeted killing’). 

    By all means, let’s “assert and articulate the legal basis for targeted killing using drones.” Better yet, let the wealthier among us invest in the companies involved in making drones, and the rest of us still employed can anticipate buying shares of stock in these corporations. What a glorious thing it is: to be both American and capitalist!

  2. Considering that US soldiers have no problem calling in airstrikes on people they can see from a couple hundred feet away, I really doubt the remoteness of the pilot has much to do with anything.

    What difference does it make if he sits 10,000 ft from the site of the bombing or 10,000 miles?

  3. Soldiers on the ground are far more likely to directly or even indirectly encounter the consequences of their actions. In any case, I don’t doubt there’s some element of psychological distance in such cases as well, given the kinds of video game-like training, etc. they undergo. On the other hand, “the psychological remoteness of pilots and bombardiers from the reality of the horror on the ground is well described by Charles Lindbergh, who flew the first solo, nonstop flight across the Atlantic, in 1927. Lindbergh also flew combat missions in the Pacific theater as a consultant for the commander of the U.S. Army Air Forces, General Henry Arnold, during World War II:

    You press a button and death flies down. One second, the bomb hanging harmlessly in your racks, completely under your control. The next it is hurtling down through the air and nothing in your power can revoke what you have done…. How can there be writhing, mangled bodies? How can this air around you be filled with unseen projectiles? It is like listening to a radio account of battle on the other side of the earth. it is too far away, too separated to hold reality. (Please see Yuki Tanaka and Marilyn B. Young, eds., Bombing Civilians: A Twentieth-Century History, 2009).

    The psychological irreality and surreality of it all is further enhanced by the reliance on a plethora of euphemisms: “ordinance,” “collateral damage,” “surgical strike,” “revisiting the area,” “neutralizing assets,” and so forth and so on, what C.A.J. Coady aptly describes “as part of the linguistic camouflage that contemporary war fighters often use to disguise the human and moral costs of what they do.” In fact, Coady provides us with an egregious example of such a euphemism, namely, that “recently coined to describe a bomb that missed its ostensible target in Kosovo and hit a residential area: ‘seduction off the target’! This delightful touch not only helps the speaker disclaim responsibility, but manages to shift the blame onto the victims, who have somehow managed to ‘seduce’ the bomb into killing them” (C.A.J. Coady, Morality and Political Violence, 2008: 132-133).

    The architects of aerial bombing campaigns and those who direct them are of course even more psychologically remote from the actions they set in motion. This was hideously transparent during the Vietnam War when, for example, “Operation Rolling Thunder “went on almost daily from March 1965 until November 1968, dropping a million tons of bombs, rockets and missles–roughly eight hundred tons per day for three and a half years” (Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History, 1997 ed.: 468).

  4. Well, Patrick, I think we crossed that threshold some time ago, that’s what I’m saying.  War has steadily grown more impersonal as technology has advanced, drones are simply one more symptom rather than a transformative technology.

    I may have simply misunderstood your original post, or at least not understood why owning part of a company devoted to making UAVs is any different than owning part of any given weapons company.

  5. I agree with the proposition that “War has steadily grown more impersonal as technology has advanced, drones are simply one more symptom rather than a transformative technology.” (If I implied differently, it was not intentional.)

    And, as a matter of fact, I would also agree with the second proposition:  “owning part of a company devoted to making UAVs is [not] any different than owning part of any given weapons company.” (Again, if I somehow suggested otherwise, I did not mean to.)

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