Sun Nov 27th, 2011 at 04:02:52 PM EST
The way in which the United States wages war has dramatically changed in the past decade. America is now "protected" by drones that fly all over the world, around the clock, every day of the year. Ten years ago, the U.S. Air Force had only a single MQ-1 Predator drone.
"We've now got 57 Predators up, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, looking at different target points around the world," says Air Force Maj. Gen. James Poss. Poss helps oversee the Air Force's surveillance programs, which mostly revolve around drones.
The quote comes from an 11-minute news segment, "War By Remote Control: Drones Make It Easy", broadcast on NPR's All Things Considered.
Poss says the Air Force now recruits more pilots for unmanned aircraft than fighter and bomber pilots combined. A lot of the skills pilots need are the same -- spatial awareness, quick critical thinking skills -- but unlike pilots for manned aircraft, remote pilots don't need perfect vision. They don't need to worry about getting airsick. And combat can bring different strains, too.
"Unlike a person that deploys to combat, our remotely piloted aircraft force never leave combat," Poss says. Also, "you do leave your ground control station and drive home and you have to mow the lawn."
While the timing of the piece coincided with the NATO helicopter and fighter jet attack along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border that ended with 25 Pakistani soldiers dead, the piece ultimately asks us to the think about what it means for Americans that we now have the ability to fight wars without risking American lives.
The image of America in the air...
Drone aircraft technology has proven so revolutionary that the western Military-Industrial Complex has ceased research and development on manned combat aircraft, according to Peter Singer, a technological warfare expert and author of the book Wired for War. Singer argues that America's use of drone aircraft is changing "how we define war."
He points out that Obama skirted congressional authorization for military action in Libya, arguing that air support for the European effort did not risk U.S. forces. Yet, he says, the U.S. carried out 146 airstrikes in Libya -- including a final strike that may have contributed to the capture of Col. Moammar Gadhafi.
Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal reported that CIA had ordered drone strikes that killed large groups of people without knowing who they were. The CIA calls them "signature" strikes, opposed to "personality" strikes, where the target is a known terrorist leader.
Signature strikes target groups of men believed to be militants associated with terrorist groups, but whose identities aren't always known. The bulk of CIA's drone strikes are signature strikes.
The CIA has license to kill, the Wall Street Journal reported:
Mr. Obama was an early convert to drones. The CIA has had freedom to decide who to target and when to strike. The White House usually is notified immediately after signature strikes take place, not beforehand, a senior U.S. official said.
Military drones have also fired missiles on unidentified targets with deadly consequences. Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times reported that miscommunication and multiple missteps led to a U.S. Air Force drone pilot launching a missile strike that killed two U.S. Marines in Afghanistan. This is the "first friendly-fire deaths known to have been caused by a drone attack" according to the Pentagon.
After the Predator pilot learned of the fatal mistake, he asked to be relieved at the controls. "The gravity of the matter overcame my ability to continue focusing on the task at hand," he explained.
Replaying the video and voice communications, he was stunned to see that the muzzle flashes were aimed away from the road. He was "completely confused as to how I saw exactly the opposite sitting in the seat."
He asked for the video to be stopped and left the building. An Air Force chaplain was waiting outside.
Security of the U.S. drone fleet has been lacking. In 2009, Iraqi insurgents were able to intercept live video feeds from Predator drones. No special skills were used, since the drones used an unencrypted satellite video feed. Commercial satellite television has more security than U.S. drones.
Then earlier this year, the "cockpits" for the U.S. drone fleet were infected by a computer virus and the military was 'not quite sure' how it happened, Noah Shachtman reported last month in Danger Room at Wired.
"We're not quite sure how that happened yet," General Robert Kehler told reporters Tuesday. Kehler is the head of U.S. Strategic Command, which is nominally in charge of the military's Cyber Command and all other online activities.
"It was a virus that we believe at this point entered from the wild, if you will, not specifically targeted at the RPA (remotely piloted aircraft) activities but entered through some other process," he added.
An investigation by AlterNet's Nick Turse found that U.S. military drones have flown close to 3 million hours over the past decade. A number of flown hours that is "is far greater than is generally acknowledged. According to statistics provided by the Army, Navy and Air Force, remotely piloted aircraft have logged around 2.7 million flight hours during the current era of drone warfare. More than 87 percent of the time, these drones have been involved in combat."
... and on the ground
Some of the countries U.S. drones have flown over include Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Sudan, Ethiopia, Libya. America has also sent unarmed drones over Mexico as part of the drug war being fought there.
Turse "identified at least 60 bases integral to U.S. military and CIA drone operations" in an article last month, "America's Secret Empire of Drone Bases", posted at TomDispatch. "There may, however, be more, since a cloak of secrecy about drone warfare leaves the full size and scope of these bases distinctly in the shadows," Turse wrote.
Even if the Pentagon budget were to begin to shrink, expansion of America's empire of drone bases is a sure thing in the years to come. Drones are now the bedrock of Washington's future military planning and -- with counterinsurgency out of favor -- the preferred way of carrying out wars abroad...
According to a report by the Congressional Budget Office published earlier this year, "the Department of Defense plans to purchase about 730 new medium-sized and large unmanned aircraft systems" over the next decade.
This is the new reality of America's war machine. The United States will increase use of remote-controlled warfare to protect Americans from combat. The LA Times reported last year in "Drone pilots have a front-row seat on war, from half a world away" that some drone pilots would prefer to be stationed in combat rather than fight stateside.
"On the drive out here, you get yourself ready to enter the compartment of your life that is flying combat," said retired Col. Chris Chambliss, who until last summer commanded drone operations at Creech Air Force Base, the command center for seven Air Force bases in the continental U.S. where crews fly drones over Iraq and Afghanistan. "And on the drive home, you get ready for that part of your life that's going to be the soccer game."
The psychological challenges are unique: Pilots say that despite the distance, the video feed gives them a more intimate feel for the ground than they would have from a speeding warplane. Some say they would prefer to be in Afghanistan or Iraq to avoid the daily adjustment from the soccer field to the battlefield.
In the last half of the 20th century, America transitioned from declared wars to undeclared wars. Now after the first first decade of the 21st century, the U.S. has increasingly moved to fighting its undeclared wars remotely by wire. Wars that make involvement so "limited" that the administration asserts they do not require Congressional approval. But, while the drones may be fighting in some remote part of the world, the soldiers operating them may be living next door to civilians. Drones have brought America's wars even closer to home, while distancing U.S. soldiers and American society from them. The drone war has changed America.
Cross-posted from Daily Kos.