Drones: The Lethal Idiot in the Sky

by John Brissenden

Medea Benjamin's new book on the past, present and future of unmanned drones is an alarm call to stop them before software, not human operators, decides who lives and who dies.

First published: 13 June, 2012 | Category: Activism, Book Review, Foreign policy, Terror/War, Vision/Strategy

Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control, by Medea Benjamin, OR Books, 2012.

The United States, the most prolific user of drones to carry out targeted killings, asserts its attacks are legally justified as it is engaged in a global war against Al Qaeda and associated terrorist groups. By this rationale, the CIA would be justified in dropping a Hellfire missile on a suspected terrorist in an apartment in Hamburg, a restaurant in London or a mosque in upstate New York. Why stop at merely dropping bombs in poor countries dominated by people of color? (135)

Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the women-led peace group CODEPINK, presents a readable, enlightening and alarming account which spells out the many reasons why drones are such an abomination. She explains the history of drones; the vast sums expended in lobbying by the arms corporations, and returned in lucrative government contracts; the secrecy in which the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) conduct the undeclared wars in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia; the crucial role of private contractors such as Academi (formerly Xe, and before that Blackwater) in operating the drone wars; and the moral dimension by which Obama and his henchmen flatter themselves with the words of Thomas Aquinas in pursuing what they present as “just war”.

The book returns again and again to the stories of the victims – both the “targets”, denied due process, and the thousands of innocent civilians who are being killed, maimed or their lives shattered under the shadow of the killer drones. People like Malik Gulistan Khan, a member of a local pro-government peace committee in Pakistan, killed, along with four members of his family in the first drone strike of the Obama presidency, on 23 January 2009. Or Roya, a 13-year old Afghan girl who became the family breadwinner after US missiles killed her mother and brothers following the 2001 invasion.

Gravesites throughout Asia and the Middle East are filled with testaments to drone attacks gone bad. And drones are not named Predators and Reapers for nothing. They are killing machines. With no judge or jury, they obliterate lives in an instant, the lives of those deemed by someone, somewhere, to be terrorists, along with those who are accidentally – or incidentally – caught in their cross-hairs.

Think how terrifying it must be to live under the constant threat of a drone attack. Sometimes you’d see them flying menacingly overhead; sometimes they’d disappear but you could still hear their frightening, buzzing sound. (28)

The book's publication coincides with much huffing and puffing about Barack Obama’s drone war policy, prompted by revelations last month in the New York Times about the president’s personal involvement in picking out targets from the “kill list”, presented to him at the weekly counterterrorism briefing (“Terror Tuesday”). As Dennis Perrin argued during the 2008 Obama presidential campaign,[1] no one can be surprised at the sight of another Democrat president eagerly outdoing his GOP predecessor and rivals in advancing the technological frontiers of industrial-scale death and destruction. Especially as BHO was a noisy advocate of drone strikes during that same campaign.

Even a casual observer will be aware that drones represent a particular, and particularly disturbing, shift. Obama’s weapon of choice in his ever-expanding, but undeclared and secret wars, is attracting increasing opposition from unlikely quarters, including the Telegraph’s Peter Oborne and former CIA counter-terrorism chiefs.

Drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), are presented by the White House, and by a faithful media, as a new generation of smart weapons, able to spot, target and kill terrorists in remote areas in Afghanistan and Pakistan (and Yemen, and Somalia, and Gaza, and Libya, and the Philippines, the list goes on) while being controlled remotely from the safety of an Air Force base in the US. Yet, as Benjamin documents in her book, drones are anything but smart.

Of course, by themselves, drones are simply an assembly of metal and high-tech electronics, unable – for the moment – to do anything on their own. They rely on humans to launch, fly, navigate, spy, target and kill. In fact, as Benjamin notes, it takes 168 people to keep a single Predator in the air for 24 hours, while the Global Hawk surveillance drone needs 300: some on the ground, in the minority of cases where drones are deployed in a declared battle zone, but most, and more often than not, in bases hundreds and usually thousands of miles away. They collate “intelligence” from various sources, and analyse the 1500 hours of video and 1500 still images which the drones beam back each day. Finally, they make life or death decisions to launch Hellfire missiles from drones on the basis of the real-time images of people fed from the same drones' spy cameras. Those people may or may not be the targets who got the presidential thumbs down that Tuesday, may or may not be engaged in hostile activity, may or may not be male or female, may or may not be 17 or 75, may be carrying an Improvised Explosive Device or simply walking the dog. The drone doesn’t know. The pilot on a 12 hour shift, sitting watching hour upon hour of blurry blobs on a screen at Creech Air Force base in Nevada, doesn’t know either. Far from being smart, the drone is more like a lunatic with a loaded gun.

What then is driving the shift towards drones? The first thing to understand is the big money that “cheap” drones represent for the weapons manufacturers, the military, the CIA, the JSOC and the private contractors. At $5 million for a Predator and $28.4 million for each Reaper, drones look cheap by comparison to fighter jets which can cost ten times as much. But, according to Benjamin, a drone costs between $2000 and $3500 every hour it is in the air, while usage has shot up – USAF drone flying missions alone increased by 3000 per cent between 2001 and 2010. Add in the cost of Hellfire missiles ($68000 a pop), and the unknown sums in the “black budget” of the CIA, which runs much of the drone war in Pakistan and Yemen, and it’s easy to see why drones are so popular among the military-industrial complex and their friends in Washington. Weapons manufacturers such as General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, which has benefited more than any rival from the drone boom, have adopted the “freebie marketing” business model from manufacturers of printers and razors.

 Global spending on the research and manufacture of drones is expected to total more than $94 billion between 2011-2020. (32)

Competition for that money, most of which goes from federal US budgets to American corporations, is understandably fierce, and drives a relentless wave of technological innovation. Take for example, Boeing’s Phantom Ray, a fighter-sized drone which flies itself – autonomously, in the industry jargon. Or the General Atomics Gray Eagle, which “thinks for itself”, according to a GA press release quoted in the book. Benjamin makes clear that the way is clear for larger, faster, more autonomous drones which will, in the near future, be targeting not only unarmed civilians but conventional aircraft and other military forces of traditional enemies like Iran and China. Their increasing autonomy also heralds a generation of drones that not only fly by themselves, but use software to make the kill decision without any human intervention whatsoever. Meanwhile, pressure is building on the Federal Aviation Administration, not least from the White House in the form of the 2012 FAA Reauthorization Bill, to extend the integration of drones into US airspace beyond areas such as the Mexican border, where surveillance drones have been deployed at a cost of over $7000 for each undocumented immigrant or smuggler caught. Police departments across the country are queuing up to get their hands on the new toy.

Politically, back in the USA, the far-off drone wars play very well. A recent poll put support for Obama’s counter-terrorism policy at 83 per cent among all voters, and no less than 77 per cent among his liberal base. In embracing drone war, Obama has eschewed the messy business of capturing supposed terrorists (all that Guantanamo and rendition business didn’t look good, not that he has closed the former or discontinued the latter), in favour of quick kills which present no risk to American troops and, crucially, leave no evidence behind. As many have pointed out, carefully constructed election-year coverage plays his killer drones up rather than down, which testifies to their political utility.

So far, so depressing. Powerful forces are propelling us into the Drone Age. What to do about it? Benjamin is not without her critics, who accuse CODEPINK of being in the orbit of the Democratic Party. And certainly, there is a whiff of liberal, “awareness raising” activism throughout this book. But Benjamin’s closing chapters set out the serious opposition that is building to the Drone Age, both in the US and internationally. Corporations, governments and universities around the world are complicit in the drone wars, and the book closes with extensive references and links to sources of further information and groups engaged in direct action. A model for the fight against drones, Benjamin argues, is the campaign to ban landmines in the 1990s, which credits its success to “several factors”:

Benjamin’s sources concede that the forces pushing drones are probably too powerful, and have too much to gain, for a ban on all drones to be a realistic prospect. But the fight to stop the new generation of “autonomous” drones can be won, and needs to start now.

Further information







[1] Perrin, D (2008), Savage Mules: The Democrats and Endless War. London: Verso


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