What do Predators, Shadow Hawks, Tarantula Hawks, Reapers, Guardians, and Global Hawks have in common?
No, they are not all predator species. Yes, they are all flying the skies of North America. And yes they are all drones, or what their breeders call Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs.)
Although produced (mainly in the aviation-manufacturing complexes of Southern California) by military contractors, the drones in domestic airspace are unmanned but generally unarmed. For the most part, they are data-gathering “eyes in the sky” but lacking attack capabilities – although some smaller drones for law enforcement are being outfitted for possible taser strikes on criminals.
General Atomics, Honeywell, Vanguard Defense Industries, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin are turning out flocks of drones for the Pentagon – more than $20 billion in UAV contracts in this century’s first decade.
The U.S. military has been experimenting with remotely piloted drones for several decades. The operational concept guiding drone development was their role in what the military and the intelligence community calls ISR – Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance. It wasn’t until the U.S. military stepped up its presence in Afghanistan after the terrorist strikes of Sept. 11, 2001 that the Predator drones previously employed for ISR started carrying ordnance – largely missiles – payloads, thus opening up a form of air warfare.
It is commonly said that drones are especially well-suited for the so-called three Ds – dull, dirty, and dangerous missions. All three types of missions stem from the unmanned character of UAVs.
Although the drones require remote piloted and extensive crews to sift through data and to manage the launch-and-recovery operations of all UAV flights, the unmanned systems don’t directly put the lives of operators at risk in dirty (entering contaminated areas) or dangerous (entering conflict zones) missions.
At home and in the close abroad (Mexico), the drone proliferation seen in U.S. counterterrorism and war-fighting mission since 2001 is increasingly paralleled by the deployment of drones on “dull” missions that take advantage of the capacity of UAVs to loiter for long intervals – as part of border security, law enforcement, and drug war missions.
The surge of interest by law enforcement agencies -- the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Northern Command and the Justice Department, as well as by advocacy groups such as the House Unmanned Systems Caucus and the Association of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems International -- in drone deployment for these missions has not been accompanied by the congressional oversight and public debate necessary to ensure that drone operations don’t violate the civil rights, privacy, and human rights of all those subject to domestic ISR operations.
DHS insists, for example, that its Predator missions are fundamental to gaining “situational awareness” – the same terminology used by the U.S. military in “war-fighting” missions. If subject to proper oversight and regulations, UAVs could increase public safety and U.S. homeland security without putting constitutional and internationally stipulated rights at risk.
Thus far, however, these checks and balances are not in place. Nor are these safeguards even being properly considered by U.S. federal, state, and local authorities.
(As part of an initiative by the Cato Institute to spark more discussion about drone deployments, I am participating in a online forum in Cato Unbound, the institute’s monthly magazine.
Here is a link to the lead essay, “License to Kill” by David Cortright:
I will publish the response in the next blog post.)