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Hancock AFB Drone Resisters’ Charges Dismissed “In the Interest of Justice”

Sunday, May 1st, 2022
Press Release:

Contact: Tom Joyce 607.277.7426 tomjoyce51@aim.com
Mark Scibilia-Carver 607-387-3916 marksc112@yahoo.com
Mary Anne Grady Flores 607-280-8797 gradyflores08@gmail.com
(interviews available)

On April 28, 2022, in DeWitt, NY night court, Judge David Gideon presiding, pro se defendants Mark Scibilia-Carver and Tom Joyce of the Ithaca Catholic Worker and the Upstate Drone Action Coalition, had their 2019 violation charges for blocking, with several others, the main entrance of Hancock drone base, home of the 174th Attack Wing of the NYS Air National Guard. dismissed “in the interests of justice.”

According to Sujata Gibson, stand-by counsel and Cornell Law School faculty, the dismissal “was significant, not just to this movement but to our collective conversation about the role of non-violent peaceful action in our democracy.” Gibson continued, “It was an honor to witness the thought that Judge Gideon put into his decision and deeply moving to hear the words of those who put themselves on the line to bring attention to these issues.”

Mark Scibilia-Carver, addressing the court, noted that, as we warned in court several years ago, “The US has developed ‘low-yield’ nuclear weapons that can be delivered by MQ-9 drones” like those piloted robotically from Hancock AFB. According to drone pilot whistle-blower, Daniel Hale, serving 4 years in prison for revealing truths about US drone warfare, 90% of drone kills were not the intended targets. On August 29, 2021, 10 Ahmadi family members were killed after the father was mistakenly targeted as a Taliban operative. A recent NYT article about the PTSD suicide of drone pilot Kevin Larson noted that “Drone crews have launched more missiles and killed more people than nearly anyone else in the military in the last decade.’ There have been well over 30,000 cases of PTSD suicide in the US military since 9/11/01.”

Longtime Hancock drone resister Ed Kinane, declared, “After his ruling, Judge Gideon, talked about how his views have changed regarding our civil resistance campaign at Hancock. Given the increasing perilousness of the world these days, he acknowledged that he had ‘learned from Upstate Drone Action’s decade-long series of DeWitt court trials.” During Upstate Drone Action’s 13-year civil resistance campaign to expose Hancock’s lethal role in drone terrorism in Afghanistan and elsewhere, 148+ have been arrested with scores of trials and many jail sentences.

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Will the U.S. Send Reaper Drones Into the Ukraine Whirlwind?

by Nick Mottern, published on Common Dreams, April 27, 2022

Two retired U.S. Air Force generals who were deeply involved in the early development of the U.S. drone war program have suggested introducing the notorious MQ-9 Reaper, the most powerful U.S. killer drone, into the skies over Ukraine.

Such a move would open a new, even more dangerous phase in Ukraine’s war in which Reapers, and MQ-1 Gray Eagle drones, both widely used in Afghanistan, might be put at the service of the Ukrainian military to attack Russian forces in Ukraine and, quite possibly, to conduct assassination and bombardment inside Russia.

These drone operations, which would almost certainly be reliant on U.S. military personnel, could lead to a nuclear response from Russia if they are seen to further signal a determination by the United States to fragment Russia’s central government and turn Russia into a failed state like Iraq, Libya, Syria and Afghanistan. The United States and western Europe waged wars of choice in these countries, presumably because the countries had not subordinated their national interests to the national interests of the United States and Western Europe.

TANK BUSTERS

On March 16, 2022, retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General David Deptula, writing in Forbes, called for the introduction of the Reaper and Gray Eagle drones into the Ukraine war for “defensive operations” against Russian tanks and other military equipment.  He argued that these American drones can greatly expand on the success that smaller Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones have had against Russian equipment:

“Ukrainians can be trained to operate these (U.S. drone) systems in a relatively short period of time, thus avoiding valid concerns regarding U.S. personnel directly engaging Russian forces. Given U.S. use of this equipment over the past 20 years, they are rapidly available in high numbers, as is all the supporting infrastructure. The MQ-1 can be operated from a ruggedized laptop computer instead of a traditional ground control station thus simplifying basing logistics, and it takes-off and lands automatically reducing the need for highly skilled pilots.”

General Deptula’s advocacy for introducing Reaper and Grey Eagle drones into the Ukraine war might be dismissed because he is currently Dean of the Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Power Studies, which is, as noted with the Forbes column, supported by the maker of these drones, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.  However, his Air Force experience in developing the U.S. drone war program was taken seriously enough by Defense Daily to ask the Pentagon for comment, which was not immediately received.

General Deptula told Defense Daily that Ukrainians could be trained to operate the U.S. drones in two or three weeks and that the drones could be controlled “from positions far from areas of direct combat.”

Although the general makes it seem that the use of the Reapers and Gray Eagles would be a strictly Ukrainian operation, realistically it appears that while Ukrainians might symbolically be present, or be trained in U.S. drone control centers, it is unlikely that they will actually control either type aircraft for months Training time for a U.S. Air Force drone pilot is a minimum of one year, and the U.S. Army, which operates the Grey Eagle, says that an unmanned aerial systems operator receives “more than 23 weeks” of training.

In addition, operation of both U.S. drone types requires substantial support contingents. In 2013, retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Martha McSally, who had experience with U.S. drone operations in Africa, and elsewhere, testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights:

“It actually takes about 200 individuals to keep one of these aircraft airborne for a 24-hour orbit.  And, that 200 individuals includes the operators, the intelligence personnel, the maintenance personnel, the equipment people, the lawyers, and also as part of the process, you have literally hundreds of other personnel that are involved in the process on the military side when you’re actually conducting one of these operations.”

The Reaper drone control centers closest to Ukraine for the missions that General Deptula advocates would be at Campia Turzii Air Base in Romania and Miroslawiec Air Base in Poland. Clearly, this direct involvement in attacks against Russian forces would mean greater danger for these nations.

Although the Gray Eagle drone is built to be “flown” by troops in the field of combat, and laptop computer control of the Gray Eagle is being developed, its operating system involves complex ground-based and satellite systems that can require a team of more than 100 trained soldiers, as described by the U.S. Army:

“The system is fielded in platoon sets consisting of four unmanned aircraft, two Universal Ground Control Stations, seven Ground Data Terminals, one Mobile Ground Control Station, one Satellite Ground Data Terminal, an automated takeoff and landing system, Light Medium Tactical Vehicles (LMTVs) and other ground-support equipment operated and maintained by a company of 128 Soldiers within the Combat Aviation Brigade. U.S. Army Special Operations Forces and Intelligence and Security Command have two Gray Eagle Extended Range (ER) systems which include 12 unmanned aircraft, six Universal Ground Control Stations, nine Ground Data Terminals, three Mobile Ground Control Stations, one Satellite Ground Data Terminal, an automated takeoff and landing system, LMTVs, and other ground-support equipment operated and maintained by a company of 165 Soldiers.”

In addition, it is likely that if Gray Eagle drone control equipment were sent into Ukraine, the U.S. would protect it from capture, which would likely require U.S. troops to accompany the deployment of such equipment.

PILOTLESS NO FLY-ZONE

On March 30, 2022, retired U.S. Air Force Major General James Poss published a column in Inside Unmanned Systems in which he described a complex system using Reaper drones and manned surveillance aircraft to monitor a no-fly zone over Ukraine.  The plan also would require Reaper drones to attack Russian anti-aircraft weapons in Ukraine and to fire on Russian aircraft.

The general acknowledged at the end of his column that using Reaper drones to enforce his no-fly zone, in the absence of a new generation of air combat drones, would be very hard and perhaps might not work:

“An unmanned no-fly zone is possible in 2022 but would involve a lot of MQ-9 losses and the MQ-9 would struggle to engage Russian aircraft violating the no-fly zone. The coalition could handle the losses. The USAF alone has over 250 MQ-9s in its inventory and a further several hundred MQ-1A Predators in storage. I’m sure every one of these drones would relish the opportunity to die in glory instead of rotting in storage. However, the ineffectiveness of today’s drones in air-to-air combat would make an unmanned-only no-fly zone very difficult to execute.”

NO CONSEQUENCES?

The generals’ recommendations to send in the drones appear to be based on the idea that this would enable the U.S. to support Ukraine without risking American pilots’ lives and without putting Americans into direct combat with Russians. In General Deptula’s scheme, the United States is further protected by a veil of faux Ukrainian control of Reaper and Gray Eagle attacks.

But, the primary impetus for their initiative appears to be the surprising failure of Russian anti-aircraft weapons to knock down the low-flying, propeller-driven, 125 mph maximum, Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones

“Given the performance of the Russian Aerospace Forces to date over Ukraine,” General Deptula said in Defense News, “there is little concern of interception/shoot down of these UAVs (Reaper and Gray Eagle drones).” https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/04/01/russia-belgorod-fire-helicopter-ukraine/

The Russian Pantsir S1 anti-aircraft system was “trounced” by Turkish drone attacks in Libya in 2020, according to Real Clear Defense, and it apparently has not been as successful as anticipated in Ukraine.  The same can be said for the Russian 9S932-1 anti-aircraft weapon, which is considered highly advanced technologically.

Ukrainian forces have captured units of both these systems, and, as noted in The Drive, assuredly this equipment is being studied by the U.S. to determine its vulnerabilities and countermeasures.

“Altogether, for every system like the 9S932-1 that Ukrainian forces capture, they are not only hampering Russian forces’ ability to operate in the country, they are also potentially exposing new details and providing new insights about some of their most advanced capabilities.”

FATAL ATTRACTION

When one considers the apparent failures of Russia’s anti-aircraft systems against relatively slow, low-flying aircraft, like drones, and that Russia shares a 1,200-mile land border with Ukraine, it is apparent that Russia may be extremely vulnerable to armed Reapers that might fly by night carrying electronic jamming systems and artificial intelligence targeting assistance.

The Reaper drone, therefore, offers an extremely tempting weapon to be flown into Russia, flying the Ukrainian flag, for assassination and bombardment. These drones have already been used in a number of nations around the world as a key part of a strategy to disable central governments.

Precedent for Ukrainian attacks within Russia, was established on April 1, 2022, when, according to The Washington Post, two Ukrainian helicopters, flying at a low altitude, appeared to have attacked a fuel storage area in the Russian city of Belgorod, 22 miles from the Ukrainian border.

On April 1, 2022, Jeremy Scahill wrote in The Intercept:

“The White House smells Putin’s blood in the waters of his disastrous invasion. The flow of weapons, the sweeping sanctions, and other acts of economic warfare are ultimately aimed not just at defending Ukraine and making the regime pay for the invasion in the immediate present, but also setting in motion its downfall.”

On March 22, 2021, Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov told CNN:

“Well, we have a concept of domestic security, and it’s public,” Peskov said. “You can read all the reasons for nuclear arms to be used. So, if it is an existential threat, a threat for our country, then it can be used in accordance with our concept.”

At this moment, decisions about whether and how to use Reaper and Grey Eagle drones in Ukraine can have profound consequences for humanity.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

*Featured Image: Armed U.S. General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper drone heading for take-off at Kandahar Air Base. (Photo: Franz J. Marty/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)


Nick Mottern has worked as a reporter, researcher, writer, and political organizer over the last 50 years.  He manages KnowDrones.com, a website devoted to education and organizing to stop drone warfare and surveillance.




US Special Operations Command Picks Anduril to Lead Counter-Drone Integration Work in $1B Deal

by Jen Judson, published on Defense News, January 24, 2022

WASHINGTON — U.S. Special Operations Command has picked California-based Anduril Industries to lead its counter-drone systems integration work in a $1 billion deal, according to a contract announcement and company statement.

As the integration partner, “Anduril will deliver, advance and sustain [counter-unmanned systems] capabilities for special operations forces wherever they operate,” the Jan. 24 company statement read.

Anduril’s family of systems designed to counter drone threats is run by the Lattice operating system and includes its Sentry tower and the small unmanned aerial system Anvil. The system also brings in “best-of-breed” third-party sensors and effectors “for a layered defensive approach,” according to the company.

The Lattice system is able to provide autonomous detection, classification and tracking of targets at the edge of the battlefield and alerts users to the detected threats. It also prompts users with solutions to engage and destroy the threats, the company described.

The Sentry tower is comprised of an onboard radar and optical sensors within embedded computing cores that can process data through machine-learning algorithms to detect, identify and track threats.

Anduril said it will deliver capability through “traditional means,” but will also deploy the capability as a service and configure the system to carry out specific missions as threats evolve or new threats emerge. And under the contract, it must design, prototype and develop new counter-UAS technology.

“Anduril’s software-first approach and its open and interoperable Lattice operating system enables sensor modularity and massive scalability,” the statement said. “As the SIP, Anduril will maintain continuous system updates, develop and deploy new capability, and integrate best-in-class third-party sensors and effectors, future-proofing deployed systems at no additional cost to the customer.”

Under the SOCOM contract, Anduril will perform the work both within and outside of the continental United States. The contract is expected to be completed by Jan. 19, 2032, according to the Defense Department contract announcement.

Eleven other proposals were received in response to a publicly posted SIP, or system integration partner, prototype opportunity notice.

The company has other contracts within the Defense Department and with other national security-related customers.

Anduril has also adapted existing technology developed for base and border protection over the course of 11 months so it could detect another major threat: cruise missiles. The company demonstrated the capability at the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System demonstration in 2021 using autonomous Cruise Missile Defense Sentry Towers. The towers were integrated into the company’s Lattice open-platform command-and-control system like they are for the c-UAS capability

Anduril also grew its capability portfolio in April 2021 with the acquisition of Area-I, a Georgia-based, air-launched effects company, with plans to incorporate its mission autonomy and intelligent teaming technology into Area-I’s unmanned systems.


Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts from Kenyon College.




Can the Drone War Be Made More Humane?

by John Kiriakou, published on Covert Action Magazine, January 23, 2022

An article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, widely seen as the official mouthpiece of the neoliberal foreign policy establishment, posits that the U.S. government’s drone program could be made more humane, killing “fewer innocent civilians,” while still targeting the bad guys who find themselves on the White House “Kill List“.

Billboard in Sana, Yemen pointing to human costs of U.S. drone war there. [Source: peoplesdispatch.org]

The authors, three professors from Cornell University[1], point to a recent New York Times article that said,

“Airstrikes (during the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts) allowed America to wage war with minimal risk to its troops. But for civilians on the ground, they brought terror and tragedy.”

They write that the Pentagon admitted to 188 civilian deaths by drone since 2018, but that the real total “is likely hundreds more than that.” My own educated guess is that civilian deaths by drone number well into the thousands. But that’s not the only problem with the drone program.

Any drone program, whether it’s run by Americans at the Pentagon or the CIA, Saudis in Yemen, or any other combatant anywhere in the world, is illegal, immoral, and unethical.

Lamenting the loss of civilian lives, promising to make drones more precise, and paying off the families of dead civilians doesn’t make it right. And the mainstream media seem either unable or unwilling to recognize this.

The New York Times published an interview with a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, in which he said without any challenge from the journalists,

“Mistakes do happen, whether based upon incomplete information or misinterpretation of the information available. We try to learn from those mistakes.”

That’s simply not true.

Did the Pentagon learn anything when it bombed an innocent family in Afghanistan while the father was loading bottled water into the trunk of his car, killing 10 people, including seven children?

Innocent family killed in the last U.S. drone strike in the long Afghan War. [Source: cnn.com]

Did it learn anything when it launched an attack on ISIS headquarters,” targeting “white bags of ammonium nitrate” and a “homemade explosives factory,” which turned out to be the longtime home of two brothers and their wives and children; the white bags turned out to be bags of cotton. And a “heavy object being dragged into a building” was a child. What was the lesson learned there?

What The New York Times and other outlets won’t tell you is that many drone strikes are specifically meant to attack civilians.

Image of a mosque that was destroyed by a U.S. drone strike in Jinah Syria in March 2017 that killed 46 civilians. [Source: chicagotribune.com]

Just look at what’s happening in Yemen, where the Saudi and Emirati governments are using U.S.-made drones to terrorize the civilian population under the guise of fighting the Shia Muslim Houthi “rebels.” The U.S. and its allies deem the latter to be Iranian proxies.

Even the pro-Pentagon Military Times reported that in 2018 fully one-third of all drone strikes in Yemen were against civilian targets.

People are seen near a bus destroyed by an airstrike that killed dozens of children, in a photograph taken on August 12, 2018 in Saada, Yemen.
People are seen near a bus destroyed by an airstrike that killed dozens of children, in a photograph taken on August 12, 2018 in Yemen. [Source: hrw.org]

In one such incident in August 2018, the Saudi military, using U.S. drones and U.S. missiles, blew up a school bus in Dhahyan, Yemen, killing 26 children and wounding another 19, a clear war crime.

In 2019, a Saudi drone strike on a Yemeni vegetable market killed 13 people, including children, and wounded another 23. Also in 2019, the U.S. rocketed a wedding in Afghanistan, killing at least 40 civilians. (The Pentagon had claimed that it was an attack on the Taliban and bragged that a “foreign fighter” from Bangladesh also had been killed.)

Afghans wheel victim of wedding attack to their grave. [Source: cnn.com]

The truth of the matter is that the drone program makes Americans less, rather than more, safe. I can tell you from first-hand experience that nearly every al-Qaeda fighter that I captured or interviewed when I headed counterterrorist operations for the CIA in Pakistan told me that he had never had any problem with the United States, until we launched drone attacks on his village.

It had never occurred to most young al-Qaeda fighters to take up arms against the United States until they heard the sound of “the dragonfly,” as they call the drones, until the drone fired rockets indiscriminately at their homes, until the drone killed their fathers, brothers, cousins, uncles, and friends.

What else, then, would we expect them to do? I would probably seek revenge, too.

There is a way to change this situation, of course.

It’s not to “learn from the mistakes of the past,” as the CENTCOM spokesman maintains. It’s to end the drone program permanently.

Has nobody at the White House, the Pentagon, or the CIA ever thought that perhaps wars are supposed to be difficult to fight?

Perhaps there should be a danger to soldiers. That might make policymakers think twice before putting U.S. lives on the line.

Drones aren’t better for warfighting. They’re worse. They put our country in long-term danger.

Every patriot should oppose them.

  1. Paul Lusehnko, Sarah Kreps, and Shyam Raman.

*Featured Image: Billboard in Sana, Yemen pointing to human costs of U.S. drone war there. [Source: peoplesdispatch.org]


John Kiriakou is a CIA whistleblower. Since he left prison, he has worked as a writer and commentator in the alternative press.




Military Spy Drones: How Domestic U.S. Drone Integration is Propelling Next Wave of Killer Drone Proliferation

by Barry Summers, published on Covert Action Magazine, January 21, 2022

“Gorgon Stare will be looking at a whole city, so there will be no way for the adversary to know what we’re looking at, and we can see everything.” [Source: wired.com]

Drones, or Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), were developed for war. The idea was first conceived in World War I and they were first adopted for surveillance purposes at the end of World War II and in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Then military drones like the Predator became armed during the “Global War on Terror.”

For many years now, people in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan have had to assume that they were being tracked by a drone they could not see, circling miles over their heads. In the United States, government and corporate surveillance is everywhere. However, other than isolated exceptions like the Predator circling over Minneapolis during the George Floyd protests, military drones have not been allowed to operate in civilian, or “non-segregated,” U.S. airspace. That is about to change.

With very little public notice, the U.S. government started the process of opening U.S. civilian airspace to military drones (otherwise known as “integration”) in 2010. The Department of Defense (DoD) and the Department of Transportation began drafting a “Plan,” at the direction of Congress, and that Plan was signed into law by Barack Obama in 2012.

The Plan emphasized Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) steps to integrate “civil” (civilian, commercial, hobbyist) drones into the National Airspace System (NAS). But the short section devoted to “public” (government, military) drones served the original purpose—beginning the opening of U.S. skies to routine operation of Predators, Reapers, and other drones. A plan within a Plan.

Since then, it has become clear that there was another plan within this Plan. It involved using the imprimatur of the FAA to push the next generation of U.S.-made surveillance/attack drones onto U.S. allies across the globe—not all of whom were deemed suitable to receive advanced U.S. drones previously. Countries with a history of human rights violations [like Morocco or the United Arab Emirates (UAE)], or perpetual states of conflict with their neighbors (like India or Taiwan) have not been able to acquire the most advanced U.S.-made drones. Those restrictions are now falling away.

One U.S. drone maker was at the center of the effort from the start: General Atomics (GA). Maker of the Predator, and then the Reaper, its newest, most advanced drone is the MQ-9B SkyGuardian.

Originally called the “Ceritifiable Predator B,” GA started developing it in 2012 soon after the Plan was signed into law. As the name implies, it was designed from the ground up with the intention that it be certified to operate in domestic airspace. GA has been aggressively marketing it overseas since 2014, with the presumed certification by the FAA as a major selling point. (How aggressively? GA sued the German government to try to force it to reconsider choosing a competitor’s drone.)

GA funded this project internally, meaning it placed a gigantic bet that its “certifiable” drone would be warmly received by the FAA. If in fact there was prior coordination among the DoD, FAA and General Atomics, it suggests that a U.S. foreign policy initiative, a “Public-Private Partnership,” huge and unpublicized, was woven into this Plan.

Since it began in 2012, the majority of the reporting on the DoD/FAA’s drone integration program has been about the civilian/commercial benefits of small drone integration—package delivery, local law enforcement, infrastructure inspection, etc. But behind the scenes, integrating military drones appeared to be the main purpose. And then, there are the foreign sales.

“The foreign sales aspect of these RPAs is potentially huge.”

U.S. Air Force (USAF) Major General James O. Poss, Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance, the senior Intelligence officer for the USAF, was quoted in a 2012 article titled “Military ‘Aggressively Working’ To Ease Drone Sales Abroad.” He stated that “the foreign sales aspect of these RPAs [remotely piloted aircraft] is potentially huge.… A less restrictive export policy for unmanned aircraft is “in the national interest of the United States,” Poss continued. “It’s something we’re aggressively working with both the OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense] policy folks and the State Department.”

Two months after that article appeared, General Poss retired from the USAF. During his career he had, among other things, shepherded the Reaper drone through its certification in 2005. He was central to expanding the role of drones in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for touting their capabilities, like the new “Gorgon Stare” technology. Gorgon Stare and its successors allowed the USAF to maintain a constant, high-definition video database of a huge area, which could be searched at a later date.

“Gorgon Stare will be looking at a whole city, so there will be no way for the adversary to know what we’re looking at, and we can see everything.”

[Source: cp-techusa.com]

After leaving USAF, Poss was tapped by the FAA to direct research into integrating drones into domestic U.S. airspace. He was almost certainly one of the authors of the Plan.

While the choice of leadership of the FAA UAS Center of Excellence was billed by the FAA as a “rigorous competition,” Poss appeared to have known years in advance that he would be holding this office. In a January 2015 interview just before the choice was announced, he said “We’ve been preparing for this competition for over five years.” So that was, what—2010? From 2010 – 2012, Poss was still at the Pentagon.

The decision to place Poss in this office was likely made by the FAA Assistant Administrator for NextGen, the office that oversees all FAA Centers of Excellence. At the time, that position was held by former USAF Major General Edward L. Bolton, Jr., Director, Space and Cyber Operations. His role is especially interesting as GA was on a path to become a major player in the militarization of space.

Bolton and Poss were two of the dozens of former senior military officers occupying positions at FAA and ancillary organizations involved in drone integration.

General Poss again, from the 2012 article:

[T]here are international lawyers out there that think the various treaties dealing with cruise missiles apply,” such as the Missile Technology Control Regime (MCTR).

The MTCR was embraced by the U.S. in part to keep advanced drone technology from countries which were not solid allies of the U.S. Not that U.S. drone technology is unrepresented abroad. The Reaper drone is a major weapons system of many U.S. allies. (A man named Stephen Luxion was instrumental in providing the MQ-9A Reaper to U.S. allies. His name will come up again.)

Another of those likely Plan authors featured in that 2012 article was DoD official Steven Pennington. For the previous several years, he had been the principal public advocate of opening U.S. airspace to military drones.

“A senior Air Force civil servant put the stakes bluntly: ‘The aviation enterprise is the crown jewel in the U.S. economy by far. It has the greatest number of high value jobs, it has the greatest value that is exported,’ said Steven Pennington, director of ranges, bases and airspace. If the U.S. does not take the lead in the global drone market, he warned, Europe, Asia and others will ‘quickly fill that void.’

“Poss said, ‘The stakes are strategic as well as economic. The military sees foreign military sales of all kinds as a way to build relationships with friendly governments while equipping them with gear that makes it easier to operate alongside U.S forces. Unmanned air vehicles are a particularly important area to be interoperable.’”

Poss had been celebrated for his years as a leader of “interoperability” between the U.S. and United Kingdom (UK) airborne intelligence forces. If there is any evidence that the drone integration Plan had an international proliferation agenda within it, this was it.

When Poss left the USAF in late 2012, his senior Intelligence counterpart in the Royal Air Force (RAF), Sir Stephen Hillier, had left his position several months earlier, to oversee UK Ministry of Defense (MoD) military procurement. This would place him at the center of the decision whether to purchase the newest U.S.-made military drone, GAs MQ-9B SkyGuardian, for the UK’s “Protector” initiative. It was one of four career moves for Hillier in ten years, coinciding with steps that would lead to the MQ-9B operating in UK skies. Other steps are explained below.

On the last day of 2013, the FAA announced the winners of the coveted state-level UAS test sites mandated in the 2012 FAA Act, chosen after a supposedly rigorous competition. There was no mention of military activities. However, each site wound up being led by a high-level, recently retired military officer. In one case, North Dakota (ND), it was headed by the state’s active-duty Air National Guard Commander.

DoD official Pennington actually cited ND’s Grand Forks Air Force Base in a 2011 article about the DoD/FAA drone program, months before the legislation was signed into law. He also stated that the funding for these sites would come from the DoD, not FAA. While they would all go on to conduct some civilian, commercial drone integration research, the military leadership, funding and military bases they operated on or next to, signaled what their principal purpose was.

For example, a few years after its founding, it was difficult to see where the FAA’s “Northern Plains UAS Test Site” (NPUASTS), Grand Forks Air Force Base, and the large General Atomics facility next door begin and end. This was where the 2018 MQ-9B SkyGuardian flight over the Atlantic would depart from, on its PR mission to the UK’s Royal Air Force. It was timed to arrive for the Royal International Air Tattoo airshow, where the newest military aircraft are displayed for potential buyers.

DoD official Pennington, cited above, was quoted in February of 2012 that the DoD would be selecting these sites based on their criteria. The fiction that this was anything but a principally military research operation is pretty thin. In any case, the test sites would share in federal research grants disbursed by former Major General James Poss’s FAA UAS Center of Excellence, ASSURE.

By mid-March of 2016, the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Executive Committee (ExCom), created in 2009 to coordinate UAS activities among federal agencies, was expanded. It then included DoD, FAA, NASA, and the Departments of Commerce, Justice, and Interior. When NASA joined in 2010, it understood that the purpose of this coordination was to expedite public (military) UAS access to the NAS. The ExCom was chaired by former Major General Marke “Hoot” Gibson, previously Director of Operations, Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations for the USAF. At the time, he was the FAA’s “Senior Adviser on UAS Integration.” A two-star Air Force General would be representing the “civilian” FAA on a joint-agency committee overseeing drone integration.

The FAA also stated explicitly that the focus of the ExCom was DoD’s UAS access into the NAS.” ExCom was originally named the “Joint Department of Defense and Federal Aviation Administration Executive Committee on Conflict and Dispute Resolution,” suggesting a history of conflict and disputes between the DoD and FAA on military drone integration which, according to the 2009 National Defense Authorization Act, posed “a threat to national security.”

At that same time, emails obtained in 2018 by DroneWarsUK revealed extensive coordination between the MoD, GA, USAF, and FAA to persuade skeptical UK civilian air regulators not to block the acquisition of the MQ-9B for the Protector Initiative. One thread of emails had the subject line “Developing the Mechanism for a Technical Support Arrangement to Protector.”

That is when, coincidentally, the USAF committed to opening a “Non-DoD Military Aircraft Office” (NDMAO) at Wright-Patterson AFB. It would be dedicated to providing certification services to U.S. companies producing military aircraft that the U.S. did not currently intend to purchase. These services would be provided to private companies for a fee. The email thread then had the words “[Non-DoD Source]” added to the subject line. MQ-9B SkyGuardian is the NDMAO’s first customer. The UK would eventually pay the bill.

It appears that did the trick. One month later, the UK announced it would buy the MQ-9B. Both James Poss and Stephen Hillier resigned their respective posts within weeks, strongly suggesting that the sale of the MQ-9B to UK was the reason they were in those posts to begin with. Hillier would go on to become Air Chief Marshal, Commander of the Royal Air Force. Poss would found his own UAS consulting company. Edward Bolton had left FAA a month earlier, to become a Vice President at the Aerospace Corporation, the private company that manages the launch and space systems of the USAF and the National Reconnaissance Office.

Poss’s successor at the FAA UAS COE was former USAF Colonel Stephen “Lux” Luxion. His career had two notable high points: He created and ran the first Predator attack unit tasked to the CIA in the “Global War on Terror,” the 17th Reconnaissance Squadron. (While this fact was originally included in his ASSURE bio, it has since been deleted.)

Later, when the Reaper was established as the drone of choice for U.S. allies, Luxion was stationed in Europe overseeing basing decisions for the new drone squadrons. It is an unexpected pedigree for the head of FAA research into integrating drones into civilian U.S. airspace, unless one considers that the goal may have been to place advanced U.S.-made drones into other countries airspace as well.

A few months later, in July of 2016, ExCom member NASA announced its UAS “Systems Integration and Operationalization” (SIO) flight demonstrations. Listed first in the missions of vital importance are “national security and defense.” However, when GA was later announced as one of the participants, the stated purpose of its flight would be to demonstrate potential civilian, commercial uses of large, military-grade drones. GA floated one civilian/commercial use of the MQ-9B on a defense industry news site: local law enforcement. In a surprisingly candid moment, the pro-industry reporter covering it called the idea “dystopian.” GA would eventually land on “infrastructure surveying” as a plausible commercial application of the $100 million, 6-ton, 79-foot wingspan MQ-9B.

A May 2017 presentation of NASA’s program on drone integration appeared to have the SIO demo flights scheduled for summer 2021 (page 23).

In June 2017, the Trump administration announced its intention to sell the “SeaGuardian” MQ-9B variant to India. For the U.S. to sell the MQ-9B to India would require “decoupling UAS from the MTCR.” A few months later, the Trump administration confirmed that it was “reviewing” the MTCR.

By October 2017, it appears that NASA’s SIO demo flights were moved up one full year to summer 2020 (page 19).

November 2017. General Atomics purchased the U.S. subsidiary of UK-based satellite maker Surrey Satellite Technology. GA is described as “a defense contractor with a growing interest in building military-optimized spacecraft.”

August 2018. NASA announced that General Atomics was one of the three companies selected to participate in its SIO demonstrations.

September 28, 2018. General Atomics Awarded NASA Contract for Commercial Satellite.

January 24, 2019. The UK’s MoD announced they would purchase the “Sense-and-Avoid” systems for their MQ-9B Protector drones, after the original contract omitted that option. The decision came after GA went around MoD and lobbied Parliament directly:

“[F]ailure to make appropriate provisions threatens to undermine Protector’s operational capability…One of the platform’s key design characteristics is provision for the sense-and-avoid capability required to facilitate operations in non-segregated airspace… MoD aspires to integrate such a sense-and-avoid system but it was not funded within the core program.”

August 2019. GA performed a test of the SkyGuardian in civilian U.S. airspace for the benefit of the RAF, U.S. Marine Corps, and Royal Australian Air Force. The USMC was the first U.S. military branch overtly interested in the MQ-9B. GA touted the FAA clearance for the flight, which occurred almost entirely over mountains and desert. A week later, James Poss penned an opinion piece applauding the UK’s purchase of the MQ-9B SkyGuardian, and urging the U.S. and all its allies to do the same, to prepare for a possible war with Iran. He claimed that the MQ-9B “can fly integrated with even civilian manned aircraft,” a statement which two years later, still is not exactly true.

October 7, 2019. GA announced the planned SIO demo flight over San Diego. There are numerous misleading statements in the announcement, such as City of San Diego participation, etc. The principal stated purpose of the demo was infrastructure inspection, although it would be revealed later by the Voice of San Diego (VOSD) that they were still secretly pitching law enforcement uses.

November 28, 2019. Seven weeks after the San Diego SIO announcement, Australia announced it was going to purchase the MQ-9B instead of the cheaper MQ-9A, specifically because “the MQ-9B is able to be certified to fly in civilian airspace,” again, not yet exactly true.

Mav 7, 2020. The UK announced that Sir Stephen Hillier would resign as Air Chief Marshal of the RAF, in order to take over the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), just as it was grappling with whether to allow the MQ-9B to operate in UK airspace in the summer of 2021.

June 1, 2020. VOSD announced its lawsuit against the FAA for documents related to the proposed MQ-9B flight over the City. “We can’t get into details about a military aircraft program,” said the FAA. This, despite the fact that every aspect of the SIO flight stated publicly had been civilian: owner, operator, aircraft certification, airspace, sponsoring agency (NASA), stated purpose, etc.

July 9, 2020. GA informed Forbes that the SIO flight over San Diego was canceled.

July 24, 2020. The Trump administration officially changed how it “interpreted” the MTCR, clearing the way for military drone sales to countries that were previously excluded. New potential buyers of the MQ-9B soon included India, Taiwan, Morocco, and the UAE. Along with the confirmed sales to the UK, Belgium and Australia, it looked like MQ-9B sales would soon exceed $10 billion.

October 26, 2020. The VOSD released FOIA’d emails that showed the deep skepticism that FAA engineers had over the safety claims by GA. The proposed SIO flight over San Diego was eventually canceled, and replaced by a flight over non-populated areas. However, the specific reasons why it did so were redacted. Also, it is clear that FAA personnel were aware that GA would be using this supposed commercial demonstration flight to showcase the MQ-9B to foreign military buyers.

March 26, 2021. Reuters reported that the Biden administration was likely to keep the new MTCR policy.

May 2021. NASA released General Atomics final report on its SIO flight, which GA was required to generate in its SIO contract with NASA. It revealed that the critical safety component for avoiding other aircraft, the “Detect and Avoid” system, failed repeatedly during the flight, just as FAA engineers feared it would.

July 24, 2021. After fighting in court not to reveal the reasons for denying the proposed SIO flight over San Diego, the FAA agreed to answer a few more questions from the VOSD. In response to the question of “Whether General Atomics voluntarily rerouted its flight to the desert, or whether the FAA denied the permit,” its paragraph-long answer could be summarized as: We never denied General Atomics a permit to fly the SkyGuardian over San Diego. We approved its permit to fly, just not over San Diego.

It is also fair to ask if the FAA was keeping the reasons for the San Diego denial under wraps so as to not embarrass GA. GA’s sales pitch to foreign customers was that the MQ-9B could be certified for domestic operations. Rejection by the FAA for a demo flight for which it had been preparing for many years might cause potential customers to think twice before committing to a multi-billion dollar weapons purchase.

July 28, 2021. After delaying the decision for months, the UK’s CAA (now headed by Sir Stephen Hillier, former Air Chief Marshal of the RAF) approved temporary airspace changes that would allow the MQ-9B SkyGuardian to operate in UK civilian airspace during the NATO “Joint Warrior” exercises. Joint Warrior is a major opportunity to demonstrate the MQ-9B to potential allied military customers. This was the exact same drone that was rejected by the FAA for a flight over the City of San Diego one year earlier.

September 8, 2021. In the middle of the Joint Warrior exercises, the MQ-9B appeared to detour to conduct “Contested Urban Environment” exercises over the UK Army’s Imber Range in southern England. It is not clear if it was part of the official CUE2021 exercise. Some 48 hours after the flight, the Chief of the Air Staff of the RAF announced that, when the Protector drone is operational, it will be available for “assisting local authorities.”

September 9, 2021. The RAF announced the creation of the “Protector International Training Centre” at the Waddington RAF base. That would be a MQ-9B pilot training facility for “international partners.”

General Atomics is becoming a major player in military space hardware construction, including winning a DARPA contract to design a nuclear reactor to power spacecraft to the moon.

[Source: spacenews.com]

A Freedom of Information Act request to see the report containing the Plan mandated in the 2010 NDAA was placed with the FAA in the spring of 2021. Nine months later, the FAA has yet to acknowledge receipt of the request.

The Plan appears to be: civilian drone integration is cover for military drone integration is cover for military drone proliferation. Underlying it all is the familiar argument for foreign military sales: If the U.S. does not do it first, others will. For decision-makers, this dovetails neatly with the economic and political rewards, leading to: Drone proliferation is a necessary good.

Apparently, we have no choice but to stay in the lead of the arms race we started. Rinse, repeat.

In the coming years, people in more and more countries (including the U.S. and its allies) will be wondering if a high-tech surveillance/attack platform is circling overhead, making a permanent record of everything they do once they set foot outside their homes. Is this the kind of “freedom” America should be exporting?

 




Public Health Professionals Must Demand an End to the Use of Weaponized Drones

by William Bruno, published on Truthout, January 14, 2022

On January 13, 2017, a family including a husband, wife and three small children scurried from building to building in East Mosul, Iraq. They were seeking refuge as a battle between ISIS (also known as Daesh) and U.S.-backed forces swirled around them. The family was huddled in an abandoned school surrounded by other civilians when a U.S.-operated drone struck and destroyed the structure. The father and one of his sons narrowly escaped with their lives. The tragic fate of his wife and other children would not be confirmed until months later when he watched as their bodies were excavated from the rubble.

This account was just one of several described in a recent publication of Pentagon reports documenting the extensive civilian casualties resulting from U.S. drone and air strikes. As the reporting shows, the considerable toll armed drones reap on civilian populations has largely been obfuscated by the U.S. government. What reporting such as this makes clear, however, is that weaponized drones are becoming a serious threat to public health.

The use of weaponized drones for targeted killings is not new and neither is the government’s lack of transparency. The U.S. government has been steadily increasing lethal covert drone operations since 2008, and almost everything we know about the program comes from whistleblowers and leakers. Specifics around the number of civilians killed and the extensiveness of the program are difficult to ascertain, but stories like the one above demonstrate the disregard for human life that results from the use of weaponized drones.

Like all violations of human rights, the public health community, of which I am a part, has an obligation to condemn the use of weaponized drones and demand an end to these targeted killings. If the goal of the public health sector — which includes health care practitioners, researchers, academics and policy makers — is, as the American Public Health Association’s (APHA) website states, “to prevent people from getting sick or injured,” then surely lending an authoritative voice in opposition to weaponized drones is more than appropriate.

U.S. citizens bear special responsibility. Unlike other causes of death or disability, weaponized drones are built, maintained and funded by our tax dollars. It is our elected officials who put them in action. Our complicity is unacceptable.

The APHA has made impassioned arguments advocating for the prevention of armed conflict from a public health perspective. However, little has been written specifically with regard to drones. This omission is important when one considers how our political leaders — even those often seen as advocates for “peace” — view the use of weaponized drones. For example, the Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning former President Barak Obama saw drone strikes as an alternative to the more uncouth, “stupid wars” that he railed against during his campaign. This perspective resulted in a huge expansion of the program under his administration with well over 500 strikes, including one that explicitly targeted and executed a 16-year-old-boy. Political leaders like Obama see drones as an acceptable “middle ground” that allows for the implementation of U.S. force without, at least ostensibly, the traditional collateral of American casualties or civilian deaths.

Drone strike-related deaths are not the only consequence felt by civilians. One researcher explains how children living in a region such as northern Pakistan — with heavy U.S. drone activity — “become hysterical when they hear the characteristic buzz of a drone,” which often circle overhead 24/7. The psychiatric toll this constant threat of violence takes on children is hard to imagine.

Despite the common refrain from U.S. government officials that weaponized drones offer an extremely “precise” method of targeting, the truth is that civilian casualties of weaponized drone attacks are a common occurrence. The indiscriminate nature of weaponized drone attacks is reminiscent of a much older though equally brutal weapon — landmines. Over the past several decades, human rights organizations, academics and activists have worked tirelessly to show the world that landmines maim and kill civilian populations, and therefore, their use should be banned. The public health community has played a pivotal role in this movement by, for example, conducting research which adds evidentiary support for the movement’s claims. The same tact should be taken with weaponized drones. Public health researchers should work with activists and human rights scholars to form a coalition that demands an end to the use of weaponized drones.

Professional societies such as the APHA could provide guidance highlighting the role of public health in ending the use of weaponized drones. This could take the form of a bold policy statement similar to the one APHA released in 2009 regarding public health’s role in the prevention of armed conflict.

With political leaders from both major U.S. parties seeing drones as a convenient workaround to the traditional pitfalls of American use of force, it is imperative that the public health community remind the world that these weapons have tragic consequences. It is our responsibility to lend our voices, research skills and positions of prominence to stop the use of weaponized drones and end the pain and suffering they cause.

*Featured Image:  Emal Ahmadi surveys the damage to his home after a U.S. drone strike killed 10 of his family members in Kabul, Afghanistan, on October 2, 2021. MARCUS YAM / LOS ANGELES TIMES

Copyright © Truthout.  Reprinted with permission.


William Bruno, M.D., is an emergency medicine resident physician at the LAC+USC Medical Center in Los Angeles, California. In addition to working clinically in the emergency department, William has research interests in humanitarian response and the ethics of conducting research in disaster settings. Follow William on Twitter: @williamjbruno.




Saudi Bombings Kill Scores of Civilians—Including Children—in Yemen

by Andrea Germanos, published on Common Dreams, January 21, 2022

A series of Saudi-led airstrikes were blamed Friday for killing scores of people in Yemen as civilians, including children, continue to suffer deadly consequences of the U.S.-backed conflict that has lasted for years.

Overnight bombings included one that targeted a prison holding mostly migrants in the northern city of Sa’ada, an area described as being under the control of Houthi forces.

It is impossible to know how many people have been killed. It seems to have been a horrific act of violence,” said Ahmed Mahat, MSF’s (Doctors Without Borders) head of mission in Yemen.

A hospital in the city “has received 138 wounded and 70 dead” and is “so overwhelmed that they can’t take any more patients,” MSF said.

Strikes also hit further south in the port city of Hodeida. According to Agence France-Presse:

“Video footage showed bodies in the rubble and dazed survivors after an air attack from the Saudi Arabia-led pro-government coalition took out a telecommunications hub. Yemen suffered a nationwide internet blackout, a web monitor said.”

The humanitarian group Save the Children said that at least three children, as well as more than 60 adults, were reported killed by the series of strikes, though the number of confirmed casualties would likely rise.

The children killed as a result of the Hodeidah strike had been playing on a nearby football field, the group said.

Children are bearing the brunt of this crisis,” said Gillian Moyes, the group’s country director in Yemen.

“They are being killed and maimed, watching as their schools and hospitals are being destroyed, and denied access to basic lifesaving services,” she said. “They are asking us: Does it matter if I die?”

“The initial casualties report from Sa’ada is horrifying,” Moyes added. “Migrants seeking better lives for themselves and their families, Yemeni civilians injured by the dozens, is a picture we never hoped to wake up to in Yemen.”

In the U.S., the Biden administration—like previous administrations—has faced calls to stop supplying Saudi Arabia with weapons and other support being used to wage the bombing campaign on Yemen that’s estimated to have killed over 300,000 Yemenis since 2015 and unleashed what the United Nations called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

In The New Republic earlier this month, the Quincy Institute’s Trita Parsi and Annelle Sheline wrote:

Despite Biden’s promise to end the war in Yemen and his pledge to make the Saudis “pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are,” he has fallen back into America’s hegemonic role in the Middle East: taking sides, making America a party to conflicts, and selling more weapons—U.S. interest, peace, stability, and human rights be damned.

Responding to news of the overnight airstrikes, journalist Spencer Ackerman tweeted:

“America is complicit in this, as it has been complicit in every Saudi or UAE airstrike of this horrific war that Biden and his senior officials once promised to end. I hope they see these children when they sleep at night.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross sounded alarm about the recent intensification of violence in Yemen.

“It is essential that we protect the lives of people in armed conflict. The human toll that we witness in Yemen is unacceptable,”

Fabrizio Carboni, ICRC’s regional director for the Near and Middle East, said in a statement Thursday.

“Civilians living in densely populated areas have been exposed to increased attacks,” he continued, “causing death and injury and deepening the psychological trauma among the affected communities after seven years of war.”

The deadly strikes came after a Tuesday statement from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights also expessing concern about the uptick in violence in Yemen.

In recent days,” said spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani, “there have been dozens of airstrikes and artillery strikes launched by the parties with seemingly little regard for civilians.”

“The fighting has damaged civilian objects and critical infrastructure, including telecommunication towers and water reservoirs, as well as hospitals in Sana’a and Taizz. With frontlines shifting rapidly over large areas, civilians are also exposed to the constant threat of landmines,” she said.

As has been shown time and time again,” added Shamdasani, “there is no military solution to the conflict in Yemen.”

*Featured Image: Yemenis inspect the scene of aerial attacks said to be carried out by aircraft of the coalition led by Saudi Arabia on January 18, 2022 in Sana’a, Yemen. (Photo: Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images) Cropped


Andrea Germanos is a senior editor and staff writer at Common Dreams.  She can be reached on twitter at @andreagermanos and by email: andrea@commondreams.org




Keep Your LAWS Off My Planet:Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems and the Fight to Contain Them

by Rebecca Gordon, published on Tom Dispatch, January 9, 2022

Here’s a scenario to consider: a military force has purchased a million cheap, disposable flying drones each the size of a deck of cards, each capable of carrying three grams of explosives — enough to kill a single person or, in a “shaped charge,” pierce a steel wall. They’ve been programmed to seek out and “engage” (kill) certain human beings, based on specific “signature” characteristics like carrying a weapon, say, or having a particular skin color. They fit in a single shipping container and can be deployed remotely. Once launched, they will fly and kill autonomously without any further human action.

Science fiction? Not really. It could happen tomorrow. The technology already exists.

In fact, lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) have a long history. During the spring of 1972, I spent a few days occupying the physics building at Columbia University in New York City. With a hundred other students, I slept on the floor, ate donated takeout food, and listened to Alan Ginsberg when he showed up to honor us with some of his extemporaneous poetry. I wrote leaflets then, commandeering a Xerox machine to print them out.

And why, of all campus buildings, did we choose the one housing the Physics department? The answer: to convince five Columbia faculty physicists to sever their connections with the Pentagon’s Jason Defense Advisory Group, a program offering money and lab space to support basic scientific research that might prove useful for U.S. war-making efforts. Our specific objection: to the involvement of Jason’s scientists in designing parts of what was then known as the “automated battlefield” for deployment in Vietnam. That system would indeed prove a forerunner of the lethal autonomous weapons systems that are poised to become a potentially significant part of this country’s — and the world’s — armory.

Early (Semi-)Autonomous Weapons

Washington faced quite a few strategic problems in prosecuting its war in Indochina, including the general corruption and unpopularity of the South Vietnamese regime it was propping up. Its biggest military challenge, however, was probably North Vietnam’s continual infiltration of personnel and supplies on what was called the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which ran from north to south along the Cambodian and Laotian borders. The Trail was, in fact, a network of easily repaired dirt roads and footpaths, streams and rivers, lying under a thick jungle canopy that made it almost impossible to detect movement from the air.

The U.S. response, developed by Jason in 1966 and deployed the following year, was an attempt to interdict that infiltration by creating an automated battlefield composed of four parts, analogous to a human body’s eyes, nerves, brain, and limbs. The eyes were a broad variety of sensors — acoustic, seismic, even chemical (for sensing human urine) — most dropped by air into the jungle. The nerve equivalents transmitted signals to the “brain.” However, since the sensors had a maximum transmission range of only about 20 miles, the U.S. military had to constantly fly aircraft above the foliage to catch any signal that might be tripped by passing North Vietnamese troops or transports. The planes would then relay the news to the brain. (Originally intended to be remote controlled, those aircraft performed so poorly that human pilots were usually necessary.)

And that brain, a magnificent military installation secretly built in Thailand’s Nakhon Phanom, housed two state-of-the-art IBM mainframe computers. A small army of programmers wrote and rewrote the code to keep them ticking, as they attempted to make sense of the stream of data transmitted by those planes. The target coordinates they came up with were then transmitted to attack aircraft, which were the limb equivalents. The group running that automated battlefield was designated Task Force Alpha and the whole project went under the code name Igloo White.

As it turned out, Igloo White was largely an expensive failure, costing about a billion dollars a year for five years (almost $40 billion total in today’s dollars). The time lag between a sensor tripping and munitions dropping made the system ineffective. As a result, at times Task Force Alpha simply carpet-bombed areas where a single sensor might have gone off. The North Vietnamese quickly realized how those sensors worked and developed methods of fooling them, from playing truck-ignition recordings to planting buckets of urine.

Given the history of semi-automated weapons systems like drones and “smart bombs” in the intervening years, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that this first automated battlefield couldn’t discriminate between soldiers and civilians. In this, they merely continued a trend that’s existed since at least the eighteenth century in which wars routinely kill more civilians than combatants.

None of these shortcomings kept Defense Department officials from regarding the automated battlefield with awe. Andrew Cockburn described this worshipful posture in his book Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins, quoting Leonard Sullivan, a high-ranking Pentagon official who visited Vietnam in 1968:

“Just as it is almost impossible to be an agnostic in the Cathedral of Notre Dame, so it is difficult to keep from being swept up in the beauty and majesty of the Task Force Alpha temple.”

Who or what, you well might wonder, was to be worshipped in such a temple?

Most aspects of that Vietnam-era “automated” battlefield actually required human intervention. Human beings were planting the sensors, programming the computers, piloting the airplanes, and releasing the bombs. In what sense, then, was that battlefield “automated”? As a harbinger of what was to come, the system had eliminated human intervention at a single crucial point in the process: the decision to kill. On that automated battlefield, the computers decided where and when to drop the bombs.

In 1969, Army Chief of Staff William Westmoreland expressed his enthusiasm for this removal of the messy human element from war-making. Addressing a luncheon for the Association of the U.S. Army, a lobbying group, he declared:

“On the battlefield of the future enemy forces will be located, tracked, and targeted almost instantaneously through the use of data links, computer-assisted intelligence evaluation, and automated fire control. With first round kill probabilities approaching certainty, and with surveillance devices that can continually track the enemy, the need for large forces to fix the opposition will be less important.”

What Westmoreland meant by “fix the opposition” was kill the enemy. Another military euphemism in the twenty-first century is “engage.” In either case, the meaning is the same: the role of lethal autonomous weapons systems is to automatically find and kill human beings, without human intervention.

New LAWS for a New Age — Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems

Every autumn, the British Broadcasting Corporation sponsors a series of four lectures given by an expert in some important field of study. In 2021, the BBC invited Stuart Russell, professor of computer science and founder of the Center for Human-Compatible Artificial Intelligence at the University of California, Berkeley, to deliver those “Reith Lectures.” His general subject was the future of artificial intelligence (AI), and the second lecture was entitled “The Future Role of AI in Warfare.” In it, he addressed the issue of lethal autonomous weapons systems, or LAWS, which the United Nations defines as “weapons that locate, select, and engage human targets without human supervision.”

Russell’s main point, eloquently made, was that, although many people believe lethal autonomous weapons are a potential future nightmare, residing in the realm of science fiction, “They are not. You can buy them today. They are advertised on the web.”

I’ve never seen any of the movies in the Terminator franchise, but apparently military planners and their PR flacks assume most people derive their understanding of such LAWS from this fictional dystopian world. Pentagon officials are frequently at pains to explain why the weapons they are developing are not, in fact, real-life equivalents of SkyNet — the worldwide communications network that, in those films, becomes self-conscious and decides to eliminate humankind. Not to worry, as a deputy secretary of defense told Russell, “We have listened carefully to these arguments and my experts have assured me that there is no risk of accidentally creating SkyNet.”

Russell’s point, however, was that a weapons system doesn’t need self-awareness to act autonomously or to present a threat to innocent human beings. What it does need is:

  • A mobile platform (anything that can move, from a tiny quadcopter to a fixed-wing aircraft)
  • Sensory capacity (the ability to detect visual or sound information)
  • The ability to make tactical decisions (the same kind of capacity already found in computer programs that play chess)
  • The ability to “engage,” i.e. kill (which can be as complicated as firing a missile or dropping a bomb, or as rudimentary as committing robot suicide by slamming into a target and exploding)

The reality is that such systems already exist. Indeed, a government-owned weapons company in Turkey recently advertised its Kargu drone — a quadcopter “the size of a dinner plate,” as Russell described it, which can carry a kilogram of explosives and is capable of making “anti-personnel autonomous hits” with “targets selected on images and face recognition.” The company’s site has since been altered to emphasize its adherence to a supposed “man-in-the-loop” principle. However, the U.N. has reported that a fully-autonomous Kargu-2 was, in fact, deployed in Libya in 2020.

You can buy your own quadcopter right now on Amazon, although you’ll still have to apply some DIY computer skills if you want to get it to operate autonomously.

The truth is that lethal autonomous weapons systems are less likely to look like something from the Terminator movies than like swarms of tiny killer bots. Computer miniaturization means that the technology already exists to create effective LAWS. If your smart phone could fly, it could be an autonomous weapon. Newer phones use facial recognition software to “decide” whether to allow access. It’s not a leap to create flying weapons the size of phones, programmed to “decide” to attack specific individuals, or individuals with specific features. Indeed, it’s likely such weapons already exist.

Can We Outlaw LAWS?

So, what’s wrong with LAWS, and is there any point in trying to outlaw them? Some opponents argue that the problem is they eliminate human responsibility for making lethal decisions. Such critics suggest that, unlike a human being aiming and pulling the trigger of a rifle, a LAWS can choose and fire at its own targets. Therein, they argue, lies the special danger of these systems, which will inevitably make mistakes, as anyone whose iPhone has refused to recognize his or her face will acknowledge.

In my view, the issue isn’t that autonomous systems remove human beings from lethal decisions. To the extent that weapons of this sort make mistakes, human beings will still bear moral responsibility for deploying such imperfect lethal systems. LAWS are designed and deployed by human beings, who therefore remain responsible for their effects. Like the semi-autonomous drones of the present moment (often piloted from half a world away), lethal autonomous weapons systems don’t remove human moral responsibility. They just increase the distance between killer and target.

Furthermore, like already outlawed arms, including chemical and biological weapons, these systems have the capacity to kill indiscriminately. While they may not obviate human responsibility, once activated, they will certainly elude human control, just like poison gas or a weaponized virus.

And as with chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, their use could effectively be prevented by international law and treaties. True, rogue actors, like the Assad regime in Syria or the U.S. military in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, may occasionally violate such strictures, but for the most part, prohibitions on the use of certain kinds of potentially devastating weaponry have held, in some cases for over a century.

Some American defense experts argue that, since adversaries will inevitably develop LAWS, common sense requires this country to do the same, implying that the best defense against a given weapons system is an identical one. That makes as much sense as fighting fire with fire when, in most cases, using water is much the better option.

The Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons

The area of international law that governs the treatment of human beings in war is, for historical reasons, called international humanitarian law (IHL). In 1995, the United States ratified an addition to IHL: the 1980 U.N. Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. (Its full title is much longer, but its name is generally abbreviated as CCW.) It governs the use, for example, of incendiary weapons like napalm, as well as biological and chemical agents.

The signatories to CCW meet periodically to discuss what other weaponry might fall under its jurisdiction and prohibitions, including LAWS. The most recent conference took place in December 2021. Although transcripts of the proceedings exist, only a draft final document — produced before the conference opened — has been issued. This may be because no consensus was even reached on how to define such systems, let alone on whether they should be prohibited. The European Union, the U.N., at least 50 signatory nations, and (according to polls), most of the world population believe that autonomous weapons systems should be outlawed. The U.S., Israel, the United Kingdom, and Russia disagree, along with a few other outliers.

Prior to such CCW meetings, a Group of Government Experts (GGE) convenes, ostensibly to provide technical guidance for the decisions to be made by the Convention’s “high contracting parties.” In 2021, the GGE was unable to reach a consensus about whether such weaponry should be outlawed. The United States held that even defining a lethal autonomous weapon was unnecessary (perhaps because if they could be defined, they could be outlawed). The U.S. delegation put it this way:

“The United States has explained our perspective that a working definition should not be drafted with a view toward describing weapons that should be banned. This would be — as some colleagues have already noted — very difficult to reach consensus on, and counterproductive. Because there is nothing intrinsic in autonomous capabilities that would make a weapon prohibited under IHL, we are not convinced that prohibiting weapons based on degrees of autonomy, as our French colleagues have suggested, is a useful approach.”

The U.S. delegation was similarly keen to eliminate any language that might require “human control” of such weapons systems:

“[In] our view IHL does not establish a requirement for ‘human control’ as such… Introducing new and vague requirements like that of human control could, we believe, confuse, rather than clarify, especially if these proposals are inconsistent with long-standing, accepted practice in using many common weapons systems with autonomous functions.”

In the same meeting, that delegation repeatedly insisted that lethal autonomous weapons would actually be good for us, because they would surely prove better than human beings at distinguishing between civilians and combatants.

Oh, and if you believe that protecting civilians is the reason the arms industry is investing billions of dollars in developing autonomous weapons, I’ve got a patch of land to sell you on Mars that’s going cheap.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots

The Governmental Group of Experts also has about 35 non-state members, including non-governmental organizations and universities. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a coalition of 180 organizations, among them Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the World Council of Churches, is one of these. Launched in 2013, this vibrant group provides important commentary on the technical, legal, and ethical issues presented by LAWS and offers other organizations and individuals a way to become involved in the fight to outlaw such potentially devastating weapons systems.

The continued construction and deployment of killer robots is not inevitable. Indeed, a majority of the world would like to see them prohibited, including U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres. Let’s give him the last word:

“Machines with the power and discretion to take human lives without human involvement are politically unacceptable, morally repugnant, and should be prohibited by international law.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Copyright 2022 Rebecca Gordon


Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of Mainstreaming Torture, American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes and is now at work on a new book on the history of torture in the United States.




The Other Drone Casualties: The Whistleblowers Who Tried to Stop It

by Jesselyn Radack and  William Neuheisel, published on Common Dreams, January 4, 2022

The United States continues to play prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner of anyone on the planet. Despite a decade of air carnage, the only person in prison is the man who exposed it.

The New York Times’ investigation into the Pentagon’s civilian casualty files is some of the most important journalism in the War on Terror. It methodically and thoroughly picks apart the layers of lies around drone warfare and proves that the few examples of civilian casualties that have been investigated previously were not one-off mistakes. Unfortunately, this reporting comes too late for the civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria who bore the brunt of the brutal air campaigns.

Over the years, a number of veterans have been sounding the alarm about precisely these issues, trying to blow the whistle while it could still save lives. We have represented more than a dozen such veterans who, despite being vindicated in their concerns, have suffered dire and ongoing consequences for their whistle blowing, on top of crippling moral injury from participating in a global assassination program.

They began to come forward in 2012 and 2013. Nothing. Some of them participated in the award-winning documentary ‘National Bird‘ in 2014. Several more risked their freedom and came forward publicly in 2015. They all bore witness to what had become essentially common knowledge among drone pilots, sensor operators, and imagery analysts: civilian casualties were not an aberration and the much-touted policy safeguards and precision technology were little more than a facade in terms of actually protecting innocents. Operators or their supervisors would minimize concerns of children spotted in a strike with dehumanizing terms such as “fun-sized terrorists” or “terrorists in training,”or by simply insisting the child had been a dog. People fleeing a bombed building were referred to as “squirters.”

These whistleblowers have had to navigate abnormally high rates of PTSD, anxiety, depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicide. They have been berated by anti-war groups, denied veterans’ benefits because they were not “boots on the ground,” and subject to pretextual government investigations targeting them and their families. One former service member described to NY Times Magazine the lasting effects of moral injury, PTSD, and anxiety he suffered after leaving the drone program as well as the threats and harassment he endured after speaking out. When another client was in Germany to testify before the German Bundestag about drone warfare, Air Force officials showed up on his mother’s doorstep in Missoula, Montana and told her she was being targeted by ISIS because her son was speaking out.

The most severe consequences have been borne by Afghanistan war veteran Daniel Hale, who was prosecuted under the draconian Espionage Act and is serving a nearly four-year prison sentence because he was the source for a ground-breaking reporting series and book on drone assassinations. Hale had started like other dissenters, speaking out in public forums about his experiences in the drone program after having left the military. But his conscience continued to plague him, and he had started to think of himself as a war criminal. He described his tipping point after he had unexpectedly regained access to classified drone documents at his next job as a military contractor, where his colleagues would watch “drone porn“—raw footage of drone strikes—as a form of entertainment. The documents he later gave to journalists were concrete evidence of what he and other whistleblowers had been saying (and what the Times’ investigation would later confirm): the claims of accuracy touted by the military and political leaders were grossly untrue, and they knew it. The military’s own studies showed that up to 90% of strike victims were not the intended target. Yet they almost never bothered to investigate the civilian deaths they claimed to work so hard to avoid. Instead, those deaths were deemed “enemies killed in action.” And that inflated number of “enemy” casualties formed the basis for awards and promotions.

When Hale attempted to explain the motivation for his actions at sentencing, prosecutors protested that he had “helped ISIS,” and compared him to a heroin dealer who insisted that his crimes were good for the community.

Hale spent the holidays isolated from friends and supporters by the contact restrictions and intense surveillance of a “Communications Management Unit“, where he was placed by the Bureau of Prisons under the absurd rationale that he might commit another “communications-based crime” from prison, despite having had no access to classified material for almost a decade. He was unable to comment on recent news that yet again, the military absolved itself of any wrongdoing in the horrifically botched but not atypical August drone strike in Kabul—the parting shot of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan.

*Featured Image: The most severe consequences have been borne by Afghanistan war veteran Daniel Hale, who was prosecuted under the draconian Espionage Act and is serving a nearly four-year prison sentence because he was the source for a ground-breaking reporting series and book on drone assassinations. (Photo: Flickr/cc/Backbone Campaign)


Jesselyn Radack is a national security and human rights attorney who heads the ‘Whistleblower & Source Protection’ project at ExposeFacts. Follow her on Twitter: @JesselynRadack

William Neuheisel is a human rights and civil liberties analyst at WHISPeR. Follow him on Twitter: @wneuheisel




Afghan Victim of US Airstrikes Demands Justice For His Beloveds

Family members of the victims pray at a graveyard, Kandahar, Afghanistan, Dec. 23, 2021. | Photo: Xinhua

from TelesurTV, December 30, 2021

Ten years ago, the U.S. military launched airstrikes on Lakani town, killing 63 villagers and injuring scores others.

The bodies of men, women and children were lying in blood and the crying of the injured was heard from every corner of the house,”

said 73-year-old Afghan man Din Mohammad.

Mohammad is recalling the terrible night 10 years ago when the U.S. military launched airstrikes on his hometown of Lakani in Panjwayi district of south Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, killing 63 villagers and injuring scores others.

Killed in their beds

Remembering the night is still horrific even after 10 years. Innocent people were killed in their beds without committing any crime,” he said.

U.S. fighter planes began bombarding his village just before midnight. The airstrikes continued until the next morning, claiming civilians’ lives in the village. “I lost 17 members of my family that night,” Mohammad said, holding the photos of the deceased family members.

Five children, 10 women and two men were killed” but for the U.S. military this minor event in was just a drop in a 20-year ocean of human rights abuses and violence against civilians. According to Mohammad, villagers were told that “A senior Taliban commander was in the village and all those killed in the raids were Taliban insurgents” — a baseless claim that implies that Taliban insurgents are comprised mainly of women and children.

Mohammad was injured in the strikes and has questioned Washington’s claims to be defending democracy and human rights, asking, “Do 2-year-old children or old men and women fight the U.S. military?” Calling the airstrikes “carnage,” of innocent villagers, the Afghan man said, “Ten years have passed and the United States has neither paid any compensation nor apologized.”

Final atrocities

Mohammad is not the only Afghan who has suffered due to U.S. military action against civilians during their 20-year presence in Afghanistan. Kandahar’s Jalil Ahmad’s father was killed 13 years ago but he has still received no compensation.

“I am 15 years old. It’s been 13 years since my father was killed by the U.S. forces when I was two years old,”

Ahmad said, recalling how the Americans arrested his elder brother during the operations. The U.S. military, even after defeat, and three days before their evacuation from Afghanistan targeted a house in Kabul on Aug. 27, killing 10 people including seven children.

“Targeting and killing civilians including children shows the real face of the so-called defender of the human rights. Now the international community must bring them to justice,”

 

Mohammad said.