Author Archives: Drunken Predator Drone

Of Drones & Drugs

So I lobbed two posts on Twitter yesterday morning, pertaining first to drones and then to drugs, that probably weren’t a good fit for the 140-character format. In short, I implied that using UAVs for counternarcotics implied the GWOT had entered a “doing whatever the fuck we want” phase, and that the DEA was doing a better job collecting HUMINT than some other alphabet agencies. I figured I’d try to draw out the logic (or lack thereof) underpinning them.

As Spencer Ackerman rightly pointed out, UAVs are in no way new to the drug war. The Department of Homeland Security employs Global Hawks, Predators and Reapers over our land borders, and the Navy is slowly deploying Fire Scouts for drug interdiction at sea. Closer to shore, the Coast Guard and Customs & Border Protection jointly operate a Reaper variant called the MQ-9 Guardian, and testing out the smaller Scan Eagle. Police in Miami (a city boasting at least a passing acquaintance with drug trafficking) continue to field-test Honeywell’s RQ-16 T-Hawk drone.

What we have not seen- yet- is the employment of armed UAS against drug traffickers, solely vis-à-vis their being drug traffickers. But I think that line got a little blurrier last week, when the U.S Treasury Department designated Taliban leader and Helmand province “shadow governor” Mullah Naim Barich as a drug kingpin. Not that it’s not already a fuzzy distinction to begin with. We’re spending billions both on a “war on drugs” and a “war on terror,” although both activities are necessarily a criminal matter as well.

Looking at the post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) and NSPD-9, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and our covert operations in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia and other garden spots, it’s fair to say we came down pretty hard on the “war” side of the argument with terrorism. So designating a major Taliban fighter as a drug kingpin seems, at first blush, to be icing on the cake; the thought process being that while we earnestly endeavor to shuffle him off the mortal coil, we might also be able to slow down his IRGC-assisted drug pipeline into Iran. 

The Taliban aren’t the only terror organization linked with drug trafficking. Hezbollah has worked closely to launder money and move narcotics with criminal organizations in Colombia and Venezuela, not to mention the notorious Zetas in Mexico. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) even got caught trying to move cocaine through the Sahara into western Europe. I’m not really surprising anybody by saying that when you hunt terrorists, you stand a good chance of disrupting narcotics trafficking.

But since we’re now hunting Taliban who wear the dual hats of drug kingpin and military/intelligence target,  I think the day may not be far off when civilian law enforcement agencies like the DEA find themselves consistently closer to the kill/capture missions traditionally associated with JSOC and drones. It’d already be tough to tell a DEA Foreign-deployed Assistance & Support Team (FAST) agent from a JSOC operator. So I think we will be entering the “doing whatever the fuck we want” phase when the blurry line between terrorists and drug traffickers is used to blur the authorities by which we pursue them. Specifically, it would be tempting to play up a drug lord’s terrorist bonafides as a way of justifying a Title 50 Griffin through his car door, instead of risking lives on a mission to haul his ass in for a costly and uncertain federal trial.

The DEA says that’s not the case, and insisted to TIME last year that their priority is drugs, not terrorists. But as the legacy GWOT footprint lightens, it’s the DEA who’s out building FOBs and shooting people in unpleasant corners of the world. Its Special Operations Division quietly runs a Terrorism Investigations Unit, or the 960a Group, dedicated to chasing narcoterrorist bad guys across the globe. And sure, it’s still primarily a domestic law enforcement agency, but the DEA, through its Office of National Security Intelligence, is a also a full-fledged member of the IC, right alongside Air Force Intelligence and the CIA.

My point in all this is that by also designating a Taliban chief a “drug kingpin,” the already-close nexus between overseas American civilian law enforcement and some particularly pointy military/IC/contractor entities just got a little closer. And- as seen in that TIME story above- there’s some real doubts about the efficacy of prosecuting some of these international bad guys. So over the next year or so, I would not be surprised to see more mentions of DEA in the same breath as some of the more imaginative interpretations of “traditional military activity,” or flat-out Title 50 hijinks.*

*This will all be highly classified, but we’ll hear about a DEA success story, which will inevitably piss off someone at the CIA, who will leak everything to David Ignatius.


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Pakistan’s “Sovereignty” Canard

This Saturday, Pakistani politician and former cricket star Imran Khan plans to lead his PTI party into the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) on a “peace march.” Khan’s goal is to draw attention to the stark living conditions and lack of services in that remote area, but his primary objective in taking a walk through the mountains with 100,000 of his closest friends is…yes, you guessed it. Protesting against me, your long-suffering, oft-maligned Predator drone.

Although Pakistan’s government is less than thrilled about this idea, Khan has won the support of the Pakistani Taliban, who have guaranteed security for his marchers. Interestingly, Khan has blamed the government for tacitly permitting American drone strikes in the FATA, while also repeating the government’s claim that such strikes violate Pakistani sovereignty. Unfortunately, he’s contradicted himself. His first argument is fair; the second is a canard.

It’s worth pointing out that the term “canard” has its roots in the French word for duck. Specifically, it comes from that waterfowl’s well-known tactic of making loud noises and feigning injury to draw potential threats away from its nest.

And sovereignty- the right of a state to dictate what goes on within their borders- is the bedrock of the most common legalistic argument against drone strikes. Pakistani politicians (and those on the world stage who sympathize with them, like Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov) claim that American drone strikes in the FATA, in the face of Pakistani objections, constitute a violation of sovereignty. They are wrong, for the simple reason that Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter allows one nation to use force in the territory of another if the host nation grants permission.

A recent Wall Street Journal story made the degree to which Pakistan permits drone strikes abundantly clear. In comically-archaic fashion, the CIA faxes (yes, faxes) a monthly description of roughly where and how they intend to operate UAVs to Pakistani intelligence. The ISI used to fax back an acknowledgment; after the bin Laden raid, they stopped. But to this day, the Pakistani military continues to engage in “deconfliction,” ensuring that its own aircraft and civilian traffic do not interfere with American operations. (Brookings’ Lawfare blog has a podcast interview with CFR senior fellow Daniel Markey, which features an informative segment on the genesis of this Pakistani-American arrangement.)

Every time I cross the border, every time an American missile hits Pakistani soil, Pakistan’s government exercises their sovereignty by choosing not to blow me out of the sky. I operate openly, and Pakistan’s doing so would be a huge bummer, but well within their technical capacity. Yes, the sole act of not starting a war doesn’t equate to government permission. But sovereignty implies a range of options and authorities beyond war, and Pakistan has visibly exercised that sovereign authority in the recent past.

After the May 2011 bin Laden raid (which, as a side note, constituted a real sovereignty violation, with no warning whatsoever and American boots on the ground deep inside Pakistan) bilateral relations were already sour. But on November 17th of that year, a nighttime gun battle between NATO and Pakistani forces (the latter of whom were suspiciously close to fleeing Taliban) resulted in an air strike that killed 26 Pakistani border police near a village called Salala. Pakistan halted trucks resupplying NATO forces in Afghanistan, kicked American drone operations out of the Shamsi air base, and demanded an unprecedented cessation of drone strikes.

And we listened. Drone strikes that had been commonplace ground to a total halt. It took six weeks before U.S.-Pakistani ties had mended to the point where the strikes could resume. In contrast, it took six months of diplomacy and a public apology before Pakistan reopened the “Ground Lines of Communication.” This incident made it clear that, behind closed doors, Pakistani authorities could grant authority for American air strikes in the tribal areas- but they could also take it away. That’s sovereignty.

Some Americans have gone so far as to argue that Pakistan’s talk of sovereignty is ridiculous because the Pakistanis themselves can’t control the territory in question. Former CIA officer Art Keller argued in Forbes that “It is precisely Pakistan’s lack of sovereign control over the festering mess of militant activity in the FATA that makes our actions necessary,” and that Pakistanis should give up talk of sovereignty until they could establish it themselves.

I find myself defending Pakistan on that count. Sovereignty is the inherent right to control your territory, and that right isn’t solely dictated by your capacity to do so. The real problem is more complex; by publicly claiming a violation of sovereignty whilst privately exerting it, Pakistani policymakers avoid responsibility and accountability to their voters.

For what might a Pakistani politician be held accountable? In 2011, the National Counterterrorism Center estimated that Pakistan suffered 26 domestic terror attacks a week. A third of Pakistan’s kids don’t go to school and half its women are illiterate. 29 Pakistani journalists have been killed in the last five years, including Saleem Shahzad, whose work uncovering militant links to the Pakistani navy got him tortured to death by elements of the ISI. The government literally can’t afford to keep the lights on, so “load-shedding” by power companies plunges businesses and citizens into the dark. And Pakistan pays about 9% of GDP in taxes, which the Congressional Research service called “mass tax evasion by the country’s economic elite.” The Pakistani political class is much happier to instead see the nation’s outrage, ink and airtime dedicated to a safer topic. Like sovereignty violations.

And by cooperating with our counterterrorism efforts (including drone strikes,) the influential Pakistani military gets access to some of the choicest American defense hardware. Since 2001, we’ve sold- or even given- toys like P-3C Orion maritime patrol planes, Harpoon anti-ship missiles and AN/TPS-77 surveillance radars. We even gave them an Oliver Hazard Perry-class missile frigate, for crying out loud.

And no, the Taliban didn’t start buying yachts. As has been obvious for 10 years, U.S.  counterterrorism assistance represents a golden opportunity for Pakistan’s armed forces to gear up for war with India. Ending drone strikes would derail a $4.3-billion gravy train. And that’s far from the only American aid in the mix; development groups receive billions of dollars for education, shelter and basic nutrition in Pakistan. (Of course, many Pakistanis have no idea. American markings are often removed from aid shipments out of fear that they will become targets for militants.)

The elected, legitimate government of Pakistan has weighed costs and benefits, and made a clear decision. Granting permission (however grudging or tacit it may be) for drone strikes represents a better option than risking a strategic break with America. By fixing public outrage on drone strikes without actually stopping them, Pakistani civilian leaders can divert attention from domestic problems while handing out an anonymized largesse of American development dollars. And Pakistan’s military can tolerate drone strikes as the cost of doing business; after all, they’re getting an arsenal of weaponry they can throw at their “real enemy,” India.

Pakistan’s claims of sovereignty violations are a canard in the most traditional sense of the word; a false pretense, designed to divert attention away from that which has real value. By (proverbially) quacking and flapping their wings over sovereignty, they hope to distract the world, and more importantly their domestic population, from their willingness to clear the FATA skies for robots like me in exchange for weapons, food, and cash.

They have been extraordinarily successful. The narrative has shifted from a holistic approach to Pakistan’s internal problems (of which tribal-area militancy is just one symptom, like education or electricity) to a worldwide drumbeat in which evil American spies and robots violate sacred borders. So when everyday Pakistanis complain about sovereignty, they do so instead of questioning secret decisions their leaders have made on their behalf.

When Pakistani leaders invoke the sovereignty canard, they seek to have it both ways; fight the Americans in public, reap the benefits of cooperation in private. And it works; everyday Pakistanis take to the streets and burn American flags instead of asking how their nominally-democratic government can be so wildly out of step with the will of its electorate. In part, this is what makes Imran Khan unusual; although he reserves plenty of outrage for America, he also doles out a fair amount to President Zardari for cooperating with us. That’s what makes Khan’s use of the sovereignty canard so silly.

Sending me to hunt bad guys in the FATA might be a strategic error. It clearly strains U.S.-Pakistan relations. And it’s definitely against Pakistani public opinion. But it certainly is not a sovereignty violation. So when you hear someone say otherwise….just listen for the quacking.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Orwells and Oppenheimers: Drone Opponents’ Marriage of Convenience

As a self-aware Predator drone, I get my share of criticism. “You’re flying lost-link again!” “You vaporized a playground!” “You’re trying to usher in a post-human robo-dystopia!” Some of this is valid, some of it…okay, most of it is valid. But sometimes, the public discourse over drones like me becomes so turgid and dramatic that it obscures reasonable discussion of my pros and cons. And when the hyperventilating gets most hyper, when the language becomes most overwrought, when the prognostication gets most preposterous, I see it stemming from the conflation of two very different issues. And I don’t think that that’s an accident.

Two distinct constituencies use UAVs as a touchstone. One is concerned with the national security and foreign policy implications of drones, and the other with their privacy and domestic law enforcement applications. For brevity’s sake, I’ll call the first group “Oppenheimers,” after a guy who got a good look at a new kind of warfare and spent the rest of his life championing international institutions to make sure it never took place. They feel that remotely-piloted aircraft represent a qualitative shift in the ability of a nation, and a chief executive, to use force. And not a shift for the better.

Oppenheimers think drones will usher in an Imperial presidency. The capitalization there is important, because we’re talking Imperial as in Palpatine at the helm of the Galactic Empire. They fear that through technical means, drones are reducing or eliminating the political impediments to war, and blurring the line about what kind of conflict constitutes war in the first place. (Nobody puts a flag over drone wreckage, let alone puts it on the nightly news.) Oppenheimers also deplore the role that drones play in the larger framework of the Authorization for Use of Military Force, or AUMF, which the Obama administration interprets as giving them clearance to use force (whether under Titles 10 or 50) against al-Qaeda or its affiliates anywhere on the planet.

Oppenheimers advocate for the application of international law to the use of drones, and where such laws don’t exist, for their development and implementation. They see UAVs as tools that let rich countries violate human rights, flout national sovereignty, circumvent the judicial process, and do it all in a legal gray area that requires no real accountability for those who command them. And they foresee a world in which a string of tactical successes, a veritable terrorist Whack-a-Mole, leads to a crippling strategic failure by turning local populations against us through faceless violence.

The second constituency I’ll call the “Orwells.” Their primary concern about drones is domestic. They see the technological potential for drone surveillance, the interest from law enforcement and government agencies, and the massive aerospace industry primed to meet the demand. While there are often noises made about UAV safety, the primary gripe of Orwells- who can point to an actual passage in 1984 which describes small unmanned aircraft peering through people’s windows- is that drones are vanguards of a pervasive surveillance culture. The police watch you outside with robots, corporations like Facebook and Google parse your user data to better bombard you with ads, and the NSA hoovers up your phone and email communications to feed through a secret counter-terrorism algorithm.

But the Orwells face a problem of domestic case law. Despite fractious debate over “reasonable expectations of privacy,” the Supreme Court has consistently held that police departments are permitted to conduct aerial surveillance of private citizens and property, so long as they traverse publicly-available airspace and use the same technology commonly available to members of the public. Those rulings made no distinction between whether the platform used for such surveillance was manned or unmanned, nor do many court-watchers expect that precedent to be soon overturned.

While the Orwells demand action from the FAA (which, as I’ve complained, is a safety regulator and not a privacy watchdog) the only real recourse will come from state and federal legislation to restrict such searches. But it’s certainly not imminent, thanks in large part to burdensome FAA regulations and review processes. Right now, police departments drone programs lag behind such surveillance ninjas as hobbyists and high school science teachers.

The Oppenheimers want to curb the executive branch’s authority to conduct lethal operations overseas, primarily through the military and intelligence community. And they want international norms and laws to constrain the kinetic use of remotely-piloted aircraft. Conversely, the Orwells want to more carefully govern the power of local, state and federal law enforcement to conduct surveillance and evidence-gathering on Americans.

On the surface, the distinction between Orwells and Oppenheimers may not seem significant. But they truly are. Yes, both are trying to rein in the use of flying robots, which, depending on who’s talking, are assuming a role in society somewhere between J. Edgar Hoover and a winged Terminator. And both want to accomplish that goal by bringing national security and surveillance law into the 21st century. But the similarity ends there, and they are doing two important discussions a twin disservice by deliberately allowing the public to conflate them.

The Oppenheimer challenge is relevance. Why should the vast majority of Americans care about the particular platform our spies and soldiers use, when they’re using it to kill people we’ve never met, in a country we’ll never visit, as part of an effort we generally support? And the Orwell challenge is harm. Why should Americans worry about the police using drones when most of us have never seen one, most of us will probably never be surveilled by one, and even if we are, police helicopters do this kind of thing already?

By allowing the two questions to blur together- drones abroad and drones at home- the Oppenheimers demonstrate relevance and the Orwells show harm. The recent FAA reauthorization, despite the hype, allowed only a gradual phasing-in of government drone usage over the next three years. And yet it was a gift to both sides; by using stock photos of MQ-1s, MQ-9s or Global Hawks, media outlets implied that military-grade, Cessna-sized robotic weapons platforms would be found under the Christmas trees of every police department from Manhattan to Mayberry.

It’s a lot easier to make people uneasy over privacy concerns when you pair the article with pictures of a targeted-killing machine. Same way it’s easier to make people care about collateral damage in Yemen or the Phillipines by being able to say with a straight face, “You may be next.” This line-blurring is inaccurate, widespread, and actively harmful to an informed debate.

Oppenheimers are wrestling with the problem of how America uses force in hostile, fluid or ungoverned territory; Orwells are trying to apply 250 years of the rule of law to a new police technology. Both are doing so, by and large, in good faith. But establishing international standards for the deployment and operation of lethal military assets will do precisely nothing to curb the rise of the surveillance state within America’s borders. Nor will enhanced American legal protections against police UAV surveillance somehow prevent collateral damage in the lawless regions of Pakistan or Yemen.

While I actually agree with many of the concerns of both groups, pretending that their goals have anything in common, just because they use the same stock photography, is ridiculous. And when Orwells and Oppenheimers imply that the New Jersey State Police will soon rain Hellfire missiles onto Garden State Parkway speeders, it creates a rhetorical fog bank that’s too thick for logic to penetrate.

These guys are way more of a problem than I'll ever be.
Posted in Analysis, Slightly Larger Arms, War | Tagged , , , , , | 10 Comments

Leave the A-10, Take the Cannoli

To celebrate our relaunch, everybody’s favorite Unmanned Alcoholic Vehicle @drunkenpredator is back! On second thought, maybe we shouldn’t be so excited about that…

The A-10 Warthog: The Vito Corleone of CAS

I am going to do something for which I feel very bad; bang an additional nail into the coffin of the A-10 Warthog. I feel bad about this because I hold a deep affinity in my robotic heart for this unspeakably ugly aircraft, an aircraft which has put so many warheads on so many deserving foreheads over this last decade. But the A-10, the Vito Corleone of the manned-strike CAS family, is not long for this world. I’m not of the manned-strike CAS family, but I’m close to it, perhaps like Tom Hagen, and my duty as consigliere compels me to offer my thoughts.

As you may know, the Air Force recently announced it was eliminating or reorganizing a number of A-10 squadrons, cutting the operating A-10 fleet by 34%. This was met by a chorus of boos from across the American military and the aviation community in general. The Warthog (whose actual name, the Thunderbolt II, is so inconsistent with the A-10’s ugly-duckling persona that it’s hardly ever used) has served a vital close-air support (CAS) role in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Its primary selling points are its ability to haul truckloads of ordnance, deliver them accurately, absorb preposterous amounts of ground fire and return home more or less intact.

The Air Force plans to use the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) to supplant the A-10, and probably the F-15E Strike Eagle, in the manned CAS role. The USAF seems convinced that the JSF is Sonny Corleone; powerful, versatile, groomed from birth to take over all aspects of the family business. But let’s be honest. The JSF’s cost overruns, troubled development history, political problems, and safety oopsies (who really needs an ejection seat ‘chute anyway?) are making it look a whole lot more like Fredo.

So why kill off the Godfather? We could conceivably keep the production line going. A durable, survivable ground-attack asset doesn’t need to be built from scratch to work. Witness, for example, the AC-130 Spectre gunship. Beyond switching from a C-47 airframe to a C-130, Ol’ Spooky pretty much hasn’t changed since the days of Vietnam. Load a cargo plane with artillery. Add targeting equipment. Fly in circles. Rain death. Rinse. Repeat. Couldn’t the A-10 just keep the party going, like a CAS version of the Grateful Dead on perpetual tour?

To answer this question, it is instructive examine the birth of the A-10. The aircraft was designed as part of an Army/Air Force turf war; the Air Force fielded a low-altitude, heavily-armored CAS/anti-armor bird to guard against losing funding and prestige to the Army’s competing Cheyenne attack helicopter program. The Cheyenne lost, the Warthog won, the rest is history. Badass, badass history: it can lug up to eight tons of weaponry, packs a 30mm cannon, and carries almost 1,200 pounds of armor.

But the A-10 was built to wreck Soviet tanks on the plains of Eastern Europe during the opening round of World War III. That beastly payload capacity, heavy armor, and BFG under the nose are helpful in our current low-intensity conflicts, but not exactly built for them. Witness the rise of the Scorpion small missile; we’re more interested in surgical strikes than in melting an armor column. And it takes a lot of fuel to keep this flying tank in the air, drastically limiting its time on station (though it depends on distance from home base, a loaded A-10 can rarely spend more than forty minutes over a target area without refueling). The A-10 is becoming increasingly incongruous in an operating environment where lighter footprints are an imperative.

Even if the JSF deploys as intended – please suppress your laughter – it’s going to have a tough time doing the kind of CAS job the Godfather did. The F-35 is a zoomie trying to do a grunt’s job. It carries less ammunition, less fuel, lacks the armored “bathtub” around its pilot, and needs to move a lot faster to stay in the air. As Andrew Exum of the Center for a New American Security sarcastically tweeted, “I’m sure an F-35 going 800mph with just 182 rounds of 25mm is going to be a super CAS platform.”

Vito is on the way out, and Sonny Corleone is looking a lot more like Fredo. So where is the Michael Corleone, the unexpected candidate who rises to power and solves the family’s problems? The drone, paesan. Drones are the future of CAS. You can keep an A-10 on-station for 30-40 minutes, but a loaded Reaper can hang out for up to 28 hours. Part of that long loiter time stems from the lack of armor around the pilot, or more accurately, the lack of any pilot whatsoever. Not to mention that most armed UAVs hang out at an altitude beyond the range of most small arms and are a lot better-protected from MANPADS by their size and distance than a big heat-generating ‘Hog cruising 700 feet off the deck.

Sure, UAVs lack a big bad chain gun, and sure, we lack the ability to bring a Texas Wal-Mart’s worth of weaponry to the fight. But I submit to you that in current and near-future conflicts persistent surveillance paired with fewer, more precise munitions will be of the most help, to the most warfighters, most of the time. Anyone getting shot at will clearly want to have more bombs available, not less. But the advent of precision-guided munitions, the integration of the enemy into the civilian population, and an ever-shrinking tolerance for collateral damage put the current Godfather of CAS at a serious disadvantage. (And good luck getting much useful ISR from a Warthog, whose 120-knot stall speed is more than twice mine.)

It’s unlikely that we’ll find ourselves in the kind of contested airspace that’d require a fast-moving CAS asset like an A-10, although perhaps the “near-peer” competitor is an argument for retaining it. Yes, drones like me get shot quickly out of the sky by manned fighters (even the Iraqi Air Force pulled that off). But a recent Defense Technology International piece by Paul McLeary illustrated how UAV manufacturers are rapidly integrating low-observable technologies and increasing survivability. Note the recent successful test-flight of the second Avenger, my third-generation Predator cousin that boasts a zippy jet engine, a stealthy internal cargo bay, and – get this – pretty much the same targeting equipment carried by the JSF. (And I’ll add that carrying a human pilot has never done anything good for a plane’s radar cross section.)

And even if you don’t use drones for the manned anti-armor CAS mission, you’re crazy to think that we’re losing some unique capacity. The A-10 was developed years before the advent of the Hellfire missile; sometimes I think we forget that the Hellfire was first developed to bust tanks and not terrorists. But we’ve latched the Hellfire onto everything from Humvees to Apaches, to Predators and hell, even to C-130 Hercules variants (Harvest Hawk, anybody?). Tank-busting, if we have to do it again sometime, no longer requires a cannon firing bullets the size of milk cartons.

In conclusion, the world around us is changing, much like the world of Vito Corleone was changing. We don’t just need raw hitting power; we need accurate hitting power paired with effective ISR. In the first Gulf War, a single F-117A could take out a target that would have required a fleet of World War II bombers to eliminate. While our need for CAS hasn’t changed, our demand for ISR to go with it has skyrocketed. That is well worth trading some Cold War-era perks for vastly longer endurance, pinpoint surveillance, and a lighter logistical footprint.

Drones like me…we’ve got the ISR game sewn up. We’re taking over logistical missions for remote combat outposts. Congress just approved expanding our usage back in CONUS. And as I watch the A-10 fly into the sunset, and the JSF continue to flounder, I know it to be true- I’m the Michael Corleone here. I didn’t want to be the next Godfather of CAS, but I must. It’s strictly business.

Out of respect, I will close with a YouTube video of A-10s blowing shit up to AC/DC.

Posted in Slightly Larger Arms, The Acronym Game! | Tagged , , , , | 12 Comments

Drone, Drone on the Range

Ed: Today’s guest post is by blogfriend and raging alcoholic Drunken Predator Drone. And if he wrote this drunk, I don’t want to know what he can do sober. I really, really don’t.

So as some of you may know, I’m a Predator drone. I watch things and people, occasionally blow them up, and drink heavily. Not always in that order. And while this qualifies me to be an expert on many topics, civil liberties and privacy aren’t usually on that list. However, the American Civil Liberties Union recently published “Protecting Privacy from Aerial Surveillance: Recommendations for Government Use of Drone Aircraft.” Having read it, flooded my MIRC chat with expletives, and generally lost situational awareness in this aggrieved emotional state, I am compelled to break orbit and share with you a few… concerns.

Spoiler alert- I actually agree with almost all of the ACLU’s recommendations. No, seriously. They propose common-sense measures that would improve government accountability on UAV issues without seriously hampering law enforcement operations. For example, if police gather overhead imagery of innocent bystanders with no connection to their case, they recommend deleting those pictures. They think law enforcement should publicly communicate the purposes and missions for which they do and do not use drones. And the ACLU wants cops to measure UAV performance, tracking effectiveness, safety and return on investment, so the public can decide whether ceding this measure of privacy is really worth it. Why would you argue against any of that? I certainly wouldn’t, and hell, I’m a flying robot.

However, I will argue – strenuously – against the claims on which they rely to reach those conclusions. Despite its reasonable end result, the ACLU’s report rests on assumptions, case law, extrapolations and anecdotes that range from the totally irrelevant to the flat-out goofy (hint: ROOFTOP SEX.) Let’s examine a few of them.

The Hellfire effect. People are scared of drones. And that’s fair. We are scary. UAVs occupy a spot in our cultural Venn diagram overlapped by the Terminator, James Bond, the HAL 9000 and Gene Hackman’s character from “The Conversation.” We can watch you, listen to you, learn about you and kill you from 10,000 feet.

But sadly, we aren’t coming to American skies, at least not in significant numbers. Yes, DHS Predators have indeed helped local cops in North Dakota, but that’s an exception that proves the rule. A medium-altitude, long-endurance drone like a Reaper or Predator needs plenty of airspace without too much “clutter” on the ground below to justify its Homeland Security-sized maintenance and operations budget. Great for the border, but the vast majority of Americans live in urban or suburban areas, and the few urban law enforcement agencies that could afford Predators (cough NYPD) might not find them so helpful over a hyper-dense city with consistently congested airspace.

Most cops will find far more tactical utility in small drones like the Raven or the ugly-duckling T-Hawk than in a Predator, a Reaper, or (God help us) a colossal Israeli Heron TP like the ACLU report cites. That’s like comparing your mountain bike to a tank – an especially apt comparison when you consider that a paltry number of police drones are even big enough to carry weapons, and the few that are actually under consideration for arming would pack less-lethal systems.

Military and CIA drones like me are bad-ass, Hellfire-launching robotic killing machines, and a handful of our unarmed pals hang out around the periphery of America. But the overwhelming majority of our little brothers in American law enforcement are basically mall security cameras with wings. It makes one wonder if the writers of the report are deliberately trying to conflate easily-recognized, much-feared combat aircraft with barely – or totally – unarmed surveillance bots a fraction of the size of a Predator.

The FAA as privacy guardian. The report posits that since the Federal Aviation Administration has statutory authority to keep people on the ground safe from aircraft, they must also have the authority to safeguard the Fourth Amendment rights of the same people. The problem is, they don’t. FAA is a safety regulator, plain and simple. When they got into making grants and doing aviation industry promotion, the NTSB linked confusion over that ancillary mission to the ValuJet crash and Congress shut it down. Just look at FAA’s mission statement; it is “to provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system.” No mention of privacy. In fact, FAA’s singleminded pursuit of that mission extended to flagrantly violating privacy laws by publicizing the HIV status of pilots as part of a safety push. And they haven’t even been able to write coherent safety rules for integrating UAVs into the National Airspace System; that effort has been plagued with delays for years.

The real question here is using UAVs to gather evidence, not safely flying or maintaining them. Aviation safety belongs in the hands of the FAA; rules of evidence collection are a question for state and federal legislators. And since we’re talking drone safety, one of the ACLU study’s authors mentioned that the drone crash rate for DHS’s Predators is 353 times higher than commercial aviation. First, that figure was distorted by a tiny sample size and a rash of accidents clustered around the first few years of operations, attributable primarily to inexperienced human flight crews. And by the way, the crash rate for general aviation (think little Cessnas and Piper Cubs) happens to be 82 times higher than commercial aviation, so let’s not go thinking that having a human pilot onboard is some kind of magic bullet.

Don’t say goodbye to helicopters just yet. The ACLU report, and a lot of conventional wisdom, expect drones to replace manned police helicopters. Why not? Drones are cheaper, less expensive to maintain, and can “hover and stare” longer and more surreptitiously than whirlybirds. But drones can only fulfill one of the many roles of a domestic law enforcement helicopter. Try dropping off a SWAT team, transporting a VIP, carrying firefighting equipment or conducting an extended-range pursuit with ANY drone, let alone the small ones available on a police budget. For now, police drones will supplement police aircraft and take over some missions, not supplant them wholesale. And many of the same “natural limits” that constrain manned flight affect unmanned flight too; crew availability, maintenance downtime and budgetary constraints spring to mind. Maybe in 25 years we’ll see true multi-role UAVs that can completely replace police helicopters, but for now, Detective McNulty will still be calling for Foxtrot, not for me.

Sophisticated we ain’t. The ACLU cites the limited body of Supreme Court case law relevant to drone surveillance, but in doing so they badly undercut their own argument. The Supreme Court only requires law enforcement to get a warrant for aerial evidence-gathering if they plan to use “highly-sophisticated surveillance equipment not generally available to the public.” And a vast community of hobbyists, using open-source hardware and off-the-shelf electronics, have created all manner of do-it-yourself drones (for examples of their ingenuity, check out These home-brewed UAVs boast capabilities comparable, or in some cases superior to those purchased by law enforcement. A cop can buy a small drone to track bad guys, but that drone may never get over the mountain of bureaucracy necessary to obtain an FAA Certificate of Authorization. Yet the same cop can buy the same UAV off the shelf and fly it on her personal time, as a hobbyist, with only the barest of restrictions. Police officers are waiting for months or years for clearance to deploy the most basic of UAVs while high school kids build them for the damn science fair.

Reasonable expectations. The ACLU is concerned that the “reasonable expectation of privacy” commonly derived from the Fourth Amendment would be further eroded by a proliferation of drones “fill[ing] the skies over a town.” Ignoring the fact that hardly any police agency has the people or the IT architecture to monitor such a sewer pipe-load of data, the ACLU points to a case in New York City. In 2004, a police helicopter crew used their cameras to watch a couple having sex on a rooftop balcony, and the ACLU’s report claims the couple had “every expectation” of privacy. Seriously, ACLU?! There was no privacy there whatsoever! THAT’S WHY PEOPLE HAVE SEX ON ROOFTOPS.

In a less scandalous example, most people carry cell phones with GPS locators. Cops need a warrant to follow that data, but on the other hand, we willingly publicize it on FourSquare so we can become Mayor of our local Starbuck’s and get thirty cents off our next coffee. Whether it’s rooftop exhibitionism or sharing more personal information online, the line between the public and private spheres grows increasingly blurry based on our personal choices. Hamstringing law enforcement from lawfully using modern technology, solely on the basis of vague “if current trends continue” extrapolations is unwise. It’s time to stop pretending that this technology is magical, unique or new.

But that’s my gripe. The ACLU doesn’t advocate wide-ranging restrictions on police drone usage. It doesn’t encourage us to roll back the clock, pass new laws or bury our heads in the sand. Instead, it advocates reasonable checks and balances on a potentially transformational new technology, the kind of measures that could do real good for both people and robots like me. But in the process, the ACLU muddies the waters of a legitimate policy debate with hyperbole, incomplete information and unrealistic extrapolations of future trends. This drives me nuts; it’s like they showed up at my doorstep with pizza and beer, but they ran over my dog and parked on my front lawn while doing so.

There’s plenty of room in American public discourse for us to decide how best to use disruptive technologies while preserving our values and liberties. We can have that discussion without the kind of hyperbole one would expect from a merger of Skynet and Big Brother.

Besides, Skynet’s got things covered all on its own.

Trust me.

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