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The Coming Global Drone War

Politics / Drone Wars Mar 03, 2013 - 10:47 AM GMT

By: Andrew_McKillop


Mr Barack Obama is never ashamed about the US drone war. The few and short occasions that he, or his administration ever talk about drone war, they praise it. The most recent case was February 5, 2013:
"We conduct those strikes because they are necessary to mitigate ongoing actual threats—to stop plots, prevent future attacks and, again, save American lives”, White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters. For the Obama administration: "These strikes are legal, they are ethical, and they are wise".

Journalists such as David L. Knoll investigating the strange fascination of drones for the US military-political elite note the now legendary, probably mythical "founding miracle" that swayed a generation of the elite in favor of drones. This was during the first Gulf war of 1991. Legend has it that a small group of Iraqi soldiers surrendered to an unarmed US drone prowling near their position. By the next Gulf war, against Iraq and openly so in 2003, the US had small numbers of pilotless planes armed with air to ground missiles that "acquired and eliminated" human and military targets.

By 2012, the drone war programme had become a cornerstone of the US War on Terror. According to major critics of this cowardly, immoral, probably illegal and proliferative new tech warfare, such as US Congressional member Denis Kucinich, it has to date killed around 2500-3500 persons simply in Pakistan. No formal declaration of war against Pakistan has ever been made be the US.

This could be called the good news.

The bad news is that outside the United States, there are 75 countries that possess or are developing so-called UAVW or unmanned aerial vehicle weapons technology. Nuclear proliferation is far behind, by the number of countries economically and technologically able to do it, as well as wanting to.

To date no public data or test results on simulated installations are available for the use of armed drones or other UAVW such as aerostats or balloons, kites and gliders, miniaturized rockets, and others, against the ultimate soft target: nuclear reactors, their control and core cooling systems, and other nuclear-related targets. Chernobyl and Fukushima however provide all the data needed on potential economic loss and loss of human life from worst-possible nuclear damage. Both catastrophes have resulted, or in Fukushima's case will result in economic losses in the range of $350 - $500 billion. The death toll from the Chernobyl catastrophe remains "controversial", but may be as high as 35 000 across Europe, to date, in the nearly 27 years since the event.

The US can in no way pretend to be surprised, although it should be alarmed at the swift pace of worldwide development, followed by deployment of UAVWs, due to the nature of the technology.  Firstly, as clearly admitted but hidden inside the tortured prose of US Administration officials, drones are literally "fire and forget", "no harm to us" weapons. They are politically expedient because they avoid using human troops on the ground or "in theatre", and prevent any loss of these troops with its inevitable blowback on domestic public opinion in favour of, at least accepting the stated war aims.

The political cost of using drones is low. They can be made operational very fast. At least as important however, UAVWs are cheap relative to conventional military hardware and operations, and they drastically lower the "strike threshold" for causing maximum possible damage to the enemy.

Lowering this threshold will very surely and certainly create an important, possibly disastrous problem for world peace and national security in the years to come. Not only will this be driven by the shift made by the US in the 1990-2000 period, from using unarmed surveillance drones, to armed UAVWs, but by very rapid "Moore's Law" increase of the numbers and capabilities of UAVWs worldwide.

Put another way, the US opened the Pandora's Box of the Poor Mans Nuke and will have to live with the consequences. The problem is that everybody else will also be forced to do so.

Since the 1991 first Gulf war, the terminology used for US UAVWs reflects both the technological and strategic, as well as elite political military thinking on drone war. Predator is a favoured, supposedly "colorful" name used for one present key drone utilised by the US. Again using information that cannot be verified, and possibly already an elite myth, the Pentagon made a policy decision in 1998 to move on from unarmed drones, to UAVWs, after two missed attempts to kill Osama Bin Laden with more expensive and cumbersome, less precise cruise missiles.

As we know, OBL was officially killed by helicopter-borne Navy SEALS on May 2, 2011. In 2001, again using official US military press releases, a Predator drone strike killed the al-Qaeda military chief Mohammed Atef in Kabul: this was the first official UAVW-initiated fatality.

No exact total number of either drones, or other UAVWs held operational by the US is publicly available. Some estimates are that through 2001-2011 the number pilotless armed flying vehicles produced in the US increased 50-fold and today number approximately 7 500. As of end-2012 the US Air Force has 5 484 conventional military aircraft, 450 ICBMs (ballistic missiles) and 63 military satellites at its dispostion. For reasons as simple as their cost, but also including their operational flexibility current or "first generation" armed drones, such as the Predator, will surely continue to increase in number at a rapid rate. Budget cuts, caps and "sequestration" can only intensify this.

The USA's current arsenal of UAVWs, mostly drones, includes multi-role machines that fit all missions and capabilities: tactical to strategic, reconnaissance to assassination, and increasing numbers of hand-launched, miniature and subminature "in theatre" short range flying weapons.

UAVWs are often linked, at present more in the imagination and by Hollywood than in reality, with the  development of "Mutant War" android or "enhanced human" fighting capabilities, such as the Lockheed Martin HULCE. This weapons tech, we can note, is again not in any way a reserved domain for the US, but as with nuclear weapons development is very high cost. Future potential, real linkage of these two military technology development strands could include non-human troops able to launch UAVWs "in theatre", further increasing the political attractiveness of removing human soldiers from exposure to politically embarassing death in service.

Both drone development, and "second generation" UAVW development has not been limited to the United States.  Somewhat like cellphones and personal computers, and the global car industry the speed at which UAVW proliferation is now moving is extraordinary. Using published data from the US GAO  (Government Accountability Office) as of early 2006, at least 41 countries already had UAVW capacity.  By late 2012 the estimated number was 76. The numbers and types of UAVWs, now including very high altitude, high speed, stealth or radar avoiding, miniaturized and other categories is estimated by military aviation analysts at well over 850.

At least 50 countries are now actively developing both "conventional" drone-type UAVWs, and second generation UAVWs. While the US still holds a lead for production and export of UAVWs, other countries already able to manufacture and export UAVWs and related support equipment include Russia, China, Israel, South Africa, Germany, Austria, France, Italy, India and Japan.

Indigenous or stand-alone development of drones, and possibly other UAVWs has of course attracted "declared foes" of the US, especially Iran and North Korea. Iran touts its national UAVW programme that includes unarmed reconnaissance drones and target-destruct or self-exploding attack drones. Due to these weapons being far cheaper than conventional aerial weapons systems, their proliferation is assured: some reports claim Iran has already handed over drones and their control equipment to Hezbollah forces in Lebanon. In October 2012, Israeli forces shot down a Hezbollah surveillance drone operating at 30 kilometres from Israel's "secret bomb factory", the Dimona nuclear facility.

The main threat is very simply stated: UAVWs lower the threshold for airborne attack by equipped forces and entities, not necessarily national states, to the point where future operators will use them as frequently as the United States already does.  As armed drones proliferate, soon to be joined by "second generation" UAVWs, attacks using these vehicles could become commonplace for exactly the same reasons the US chose to develop, deploy and utilize at least 7 500 UAVWs as of today. They are cheap; if necessary they can be self-destroyed while airborne in aborted missions; and their use avoids all  domestic political restraints linked to using conventional human armed forces.

Arguments in favour of maintaining, or increasing the US drone war program claim that it is difficult to become over-reliant on UAVW strikes as the most important pillar of US counterterrorism strategy. The  claim is made they are a tactic, not a strategy. If reserved only for high-level terrorist targets, this would "set a precedent" for existing, and future owners of UAVWs and prevent them becoming the key weapon for a new type of unrestricted warfare.

Belief that the US will maintain, and can maintain technological supremacy in UAVWs is also used to argue for maintaining current US policy in favour of drone war, but this is as laughable as claiming nobody else but an American can chew gum and walk straight at the same time. Unfortunately, UAVWs are here to stay, and we can fear how they will be used.

By Andrew McKillop


Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights

Co-author 'The Doomsday Machine', Palgrave Macmillan USA, 2012

Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.

© 2013 Copyright Andrew McKillop - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisor.

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