Category Archives: Slightly Larger Arms


The U.S. Army recently discovered $900 million worth of spare Stryker parts, many of which are obsolete or unnecessary, collecting dust in a warehouse. None of the parts appear on the Army’s property books, a $900 million accounting error.

From Stars & Stripes:

Take, for instance, the $57 million worth of obsolete infrared equipment the Army has not installed in Strykers since 2007. It lingered at the Stryker warehouse until the Inspector General called attention to it last year.

Or, the 9,179 small replacement gears called pinions the Army bought as a temporary fix for a Stryker suspension problem that surfaced between 2007 and 2009. The Army took care of the root malfunction in 2010, but kept buying pinions.

It needed only 15 of the gears. The 9,164 extra pinions are worth $572,000, the Inspector General reported.

Dan Goure of the Lexington Institute, thinks it “much ado about nothing” because it’s “essentially miscommunication.” Miscommunication? Apparently, fighting a war and keeping good records are mutually exclusive tasks, never mind the fact that the Stryker Program Management Office wasn’t actually fighting a war, but rather working in an air-conditioned office in Michigan not balancing their books.

I understand that, given the size of DoD’s budget, this is essentially a rounding error. Maybe that’s because it’s too abstract. Using the DoD Comptroller’s FY2013 Program Acquisition Costs by Weapon System report, I calculated the per unit cost for weapon systems. Here’s a list of nicer things we could have had for $900,000,000:

2 Littoral Combat Ships
5 RQ-4 Global Hawks
11 F/A-18E Super Hornets
31 CH-47F Chinook heavy lift helicopters
45 MQ-9 Reapers
150 Strykers
562 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles
600 Tomahawk missiles

Or we can put this accounting error in the context of total military expenditures by country.

1. United States $689 billion
2. China $129 billion
3. Russia $64 billion

72. Serbia $920 million
73. Stryker PMO accounting error $900 million
74. Slovenia $788 million
75. Bahrain $731 million

Goure’s comments are actually insightful in that they show at least some segment of the defense community believes this incident to be completely normal. The lack of accountability will reinforce the business as usual response. The Department receives and spends so much money, and it’s so complex that it’s hard to keep track. And it’s never been audited so it’s nearly impossible to identify how it (mis)spends money except in cases like this where the Inspector General stumbles upon it. Panetta ordered DoD to be audit ready by 2014, which should force some degree of accountability.

So before we follow the recommendations of those who think DoD needs even more money, or that we can’t afford to cut a single dime, perhaps we should ensure the Department knows how to spend the money we already give it.

Posted in Analysis, Defense Acquisition, Military, Slightly Larger Arms | 10 Comments

“I’m Not Dead Yet!”: The UN’s Arms Trade Treaty is Still a Thing

The month of July was an acrimonious one for those on opposite sides of the arms control debate. More so than usual, that is. Hosted by the United Nations, the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) Conference met this summer with the goal of producing a binding document that would regulate the legal sale of arms between states. That didn’t quite happen. But rumors of the Treaty’s death are extremely exaggerated.

In the waning hours of the conference, the ‘final’ text that was under debate satisfied absolutely nobody. NGOs like Oxfam and Amnesty International insisted that it was riddled with too many loopholes that would prevent meaningful implementation. Gun rights advocates in the United States had been on a four-week bender to ensure that it would receive absolutely no domestic support if the text passed. They needn’t have worried; seemingly impervious to the raucous debate going on outside of Turtle Bay, the most drama that emerged on the last day had little to do with the issues being discussed externally. While the United States has taken the heat for ‘torpedoing’ the Treaty and ending the Conference in failure, it wasn’t alone – several other states, from those with questionable motives like Russia to democracies like India, quickly lined up behind the US proposal to delay acceptance.

The key word there is ‘delay’. A Report of the Conference was adopted in lieu of an actual vote, so the document wasn’t actually rejected, pushing the text back to the General Assembly. And that’s where the fun begins anew.

There are six Main Committees of the General Assembly, each composed of the full 193 Member States of the UN. Two of them have a credible mandate to allow for the debate of the text: the First Committee (Disarmament and International Security) and the Sixth Committee (Legal). While either one of them, or potentially both, could have the Arms Trade Treaty on their agenda when the Committees open for business in October, it’s likely that it will stay with GA1, which had the item during the last session.

From there, Member States will determine whether to utilize the GA for editing the draft of the ATT or whether a second round of negotiations would take place at another Conference. The United States would clearly prefer the latter; when the Obama Administration shifted from the Bush years’ opposition to the Treaty talks, it wasn’t without hesitation. In the 2009 General Assembly Resolution that provided the framework for the Conference (A/RES/64/48), it was determined that the talks would proceed by consensus. That provision proved a major stumbling block to adopting the text in July.

This veto ability may have had several delegations grumbling, but it was the smart choice for the United States. Much like Soviet insistence on a veto in the Security Council back in 1945, the United States was covering its flank both on policy and politics. On policy, they could make sure that any treaty wouldn’t necessarily go against US interests. Politically, the Administration could ensure that the US has the power to stop any treaty from being adopted that displeased us. It is certainly in the US’s best interest to push through another GA Resolution that sets a date for a new Conference.

But it’s far from certain that the US will get its way this time. Now that the text of the ATT is with the General Assembly, it is entirely possible that, with a few edits, the Assembly could hold a vote sometime this year. If that happens, a 2/3s vote of the GA could be enough to approve the text and open the Arms Trade Treaty for signature. It’s impossible to do a whip count for a text that may or may not exist yet, but it would definitely be close.

A final vote in November could also serve what could be a lame-duck Obama Administration in poking a victorious Romney in the eye. Rumor around the United Nations is that the acceptance of the Treaty was delayed in the first place to put off the acceptance of a document that would likely be controversial domestically until after the election. It’s highly probable that, should Romney take the White House, the US’s support for the concept of the ATT would be revoked once more. So it may be better to get something in November over certain rejection after January.

Would that really be for the best? A treaty adopted by two-thirds of the Assembly would likely not have the support of the major arms producers, save maybe Germany and France. And until enough states had ratified to put it into force, it would be just another piece of paper. Which isn’t to say that the enforcement mechanisms within the text were at all strong enough to bring violators in line; they most certainly are not. But the process would run far smoother when those actually producing the weapons being regulated are voluntarily cooperating with the laws surrounding them.

In any case, supporters of a stronger Arms Trade Treaty would be well served by accepting this delay and the US urging for a new round of negotiations. More time would allow supporters to draw on lessons learned from what was a very expensive lobbying effort. And now that there’s an initial text, it will be easier to determine what might discussed in a hypothetical ATT Conference II.

It’s also not guaranteed that a push to get the treaty through the General Assembly would work. Among the issues still to be resolved is whether or not ammunition would join Small Arms and Light Weapons and those systems included in the UN Register on Conventional Weapons under the purview of the Treaty. Western Europe and the African Union are an unlikely pair united on this front, and have been urging its inclusion since Day One – to the dismay of many other states.

Less core to the debate, but still notable, the Arab Group spent the last few hours of the conference pressing that the right to sell arms for groups seeking “self-determination” should be included. Israel was less than sold on this idea – and with good reason. The issue of who would be considered a legitimate buyer will come up again, regardless of where the treaty goes – and could potentially delay acceptance further.

For now, this is a lot of inside baseball on what has the potential to be a wide-reaching text, affecting many aspects of the estimated $60B annual arms trade. Both sides of the debate are regrouping in an attempt to sway the outcome more solidly in their favor, but neither Oxfam nor the NRA will actually be casting a vote in the GA Hall. In the end, it will be the States who decide whether the Treaty lives or dies.

Posted in GunsGunsGuns, Slightly Larger Arms, Small Arms | Tagged , , | 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.

Posted in Slightly Larger Arms, War | 1 Comment

It’s What Columbus Would’ve Wanted

On Monday I went to AUSA 2011, the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual meeting and expo. For those who’ve never been, it’s three days and several city blocks’ worth of defense tradeshow, obviously geared towards ground war, with a fair bit of stuff-that-flies sprinkled in (think drones and helicopters). All the major contractors bring out their best toys in hopes of catching official eyes. I guess there are also some people talking about Army stuff, but uh, I have the listening skills of a two year old, so I skipped that in favor of wandering the halls ogling guns and trying to figure out what was making me so uneasy this year.

To back up a bit, I went to AUSA last year and had a great time. I was funemployed and still figuring out what the defense world was all about, so it was a good – if overwhelming – place to start. I flipped a simulated MRAP, outshot some dudes who really should’ve done better, instructed some ROTC guys in how to pop a magazine out of a pistol (I mean, really, what are they teaching kids these days?), and tested some energy-absorbing seat that simulates an IED exploding to, uh, demonstrate how it hurts less it otherwise could? I guess? I don’t really remember; I had to sign a waiver for that one, and I’m pretty sure I had a mild concussion afterwards. Lesson learned: never sign waivers at defense tradeshows.

MRAP, mid-flip. Derp.

But this year… I don’t know. There was this weird vibe all day, as though everybody’s playing musical chairs and really doesn’t want to be the kid left standing when the music stops and the budget cuts come in. The White-Haired Guys In Expensive Suits seemed on edge, particularly at the small arms booths, and they didn’t really have time to talk to peons; they were too busy scanning the room looking for the decision-makers, which I clearly was not. Given the chatter around the budget cut breakdowns, they’re probably right to be nervous, but still, it was frustrating, if only because I had actual questions this year.

FN Herstal, aka Browning. You can't tell, but it was all soft blue glowy light.

The thing about AUSA is that the exhibitions are so carefully engineered that it’s actually creepy. The lighting is high-contrast without glare. The surfaces are polished and shiny, unless they’re sandy (because war only happens in sandy places, of course). If there’s music, it’s dramatic and driving. The HESCO bar makes you forget that HESCOs are not usually bars. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent to make you feel relaxed, safe, powerful – and totally disconnected from war and death even as you browse the racks of rifles. Everything is calibrated to make you want to say Hooah! and forget that on the other end of that gun, somebody’s supposed to die. It’s a little… dehumanizing?

The HESCO Bar. Not shown: the young women serving beer.

And you also forget that these are just weapons systems, or communications equipment, or vehicles, or whatever. They can’t win wars if we don’t know what “winning” actually is, and since it’s not up to the military to define winning, we’re left standing around pretending this is the important part, that this is where our time and money should be spent, rather than on the nebulous political part of war. We discuss the merits of different product lines, because on the micro level it does matter what the individual soldier is carrying, but I can’t help but think that everything in that building can only prolong our wars – not end them.

But not gonna lie, laser marksmanship training systems are pretty badass. Hey L-3, can I have one?

I don’t mean this as an indictment of contractors, or of defense technology, or of procurement writ large. I’m just offering some broad impressions of this particular tradeshow, colored by being slightly under the weather and the company I was keeping (which, I love you all, but… we were not a chipper crowd, team).

So take it with some salt and go read my pals Spencer Ackerman and Paul Mcleary for actual reporting. Or read Carl Prine for the sarcasm I wanted to muster but couldn’t (yeah, I’m disappointed in me too).

At least the wardogs were cute?
Posted in Military, Slightly Larger Arms, War | Comments Off

Amnesty, Cluster Munitions, and Gunfight

 For UN Dispatch, I wrote about Amnesty International’s rather remarkable win last week:

Amnesty International won a remarkable victory last week when the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) agreed to end its dealings with companies known to produce cluster munitions. RBS is primarily taxpayer owned, and as a signatory to the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), the United Kingdom is prohibited from investing in the direct production of cluster munitions, though not from investing in arms manufacturers more generally.

In mid-August, Amnesty International launched an intense campaign to pressure RBS to divest from cluster bomb manufacturers, arguing that the legal gap that permitted companies to invest in manufacturers as long as they did not directly invest in the production of cluster munitions violated the spirit of the cluster bomb treaty.

Pressuring a bank to change its behavior based on the spirit – not the legality, but the spirit - of an international treaty? Impressively done. Read the rest over here.

It’s a good thing I wrote this pre-Oklahoma, because my post-vacation ability to string words together  is at an all-time low. I’ll have more on the evolving international law around cluster munitions later this week, when I can write again.

I also got my copy of Adam Winkler’s Gunfight, which I was plowing through on the plane. It’s fantastic and narrative-busting and I highly recommend you pick up a copy right now. I’ll have a review up as soon as I’m done, but really, you should just read it for yourself. It’s everything you never knew about the Second Amendment and America’s history with guns! What could be better?

Posted in GunsGunsGuns, Slightly Larger Arms | 2 Comments

Cluster Munitions Go Boom.

I have an article up at The Atlantic today on cluster munitions in Libya – how they got there, why that sucks, etc. I’m pretty pleased with how it came out, even as the writing process bore out the E.L. Doctorow quote, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Had no idea where it was going, but I think I got somewhere interesting.

I struggled with a couple thoughts in writing this, most of which didn’t fit the story(ies) I was trying to tell. I’m just going to jot them down here and hopefully come back around to this soon:

  • So what about smart bombs anyway? How well do these actually work at discriminating between various targets? Given that there is no way to protect all civilians in a combat zone, could they be a reasonable alternative, or do they just have some good PR going for them?
  • In a more US-centric discussion, if cluster munitions are militarily necessary, and we recognize the need to protect civilians, and Secretary Gates has said he wants the US to be all-smart-bombs-all-the-time by 2018 … why can’t we sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions? The CCM allows for guided munitions and their development. The CCM does NOT prohibit us from working with countries that aren’t signatories (which would be a problem with Israel). Basically, I’m struggling with why we refusing to give up the stuff that makes our own jobs harder? Well, not my job, obviously, but, y’know, somebody’s.
  • Stephanie Carvin of The Duck of Minerva raises the excellent point  that advocates need better arguments. I wouldn’t call myself an advocate, but as some free advice to those who are: humanitarian pleas aren’t nearly as convincing as national security/national interest arguments. Find ways that the US benefits by banning cluster munitions that go beyond the “but limbless children!” point. Because that’s clearly not cutting it. Find evidence that signing international treaties in the past has bolstered the US’s international standing/national security (note: I haven’t done that research and have no idea if such evidence exists, but if it did, it would be more convincing than the limbless children)
  • There’s a larger point to be made about Europe and the arms trade, but I’m still working that one through, and I don’t want to give away the ending before I’ve had time to think about it and do more research.

While I put these links into the Atlantic article, I’d like to suggest anybody interested in the subject read these two articles in particular:

  • USAToday’s 2003 two part write-up of the US’s use of cluster bombs in Iraq is an excellent primer on the subject and provides a nuanced, non-hysterical exploration of the issues around their use.
Posted in Metablogging, Slightly Larger Arms, Small Arms, The Acronym Game! | Comments Off

In Opposition to Cluster Munitions

Oh, Ex. In Defense of Cluster Munitions? Really? This is just a collection of shaky, unsupportable (and unsupported) arguments.

The first, and primary, argument is that “cluster munitions are just that — munitions. And any weapon or munition, depending on how it is used, can present a threat to civilians.” Okay. I’m with you there. Guns don’t kill people, people do. But, y’know, rocks can present a threat to civilians. Cars can present a threat to civilians. The difference here is that cluster munitions introduce a not-insignificant degree of chance in who gets hit without providing enough benefit to tip the scales in their direction. You said it yourself, “they rarely work as intended.” Nevertheless, it seems that in your calculus, it’s worth preserving the option to use “nasty, nasty” weapons that have a solid track record of killing civilians because… well, actually, I’m not sure. On what grounds do you say they’re “terribly useful” for “defensive, conventional warfare”? Have they proven decisive before? They must be why South Korea hasn’t been attacked… oh wait. So much for that.

I have to assume Ex already knows that the throwaway parenthetical – Also, we’re going to rid ourselves of cluster munitions but keep massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons? – doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The idea that a weapon system should or should not be banned based on whether another weapon system is or is not banned is dubious to begin with, but it’s especially suspect in the case of nuclear weapons. We don’t use our nukes. They’re a deterrent. Are cluster munitions a deterrent? Has anybody not attacked us because we could bring a whole lot of M-26s to bear? No. The size of our nuclear stockpile has exactly nothing to do with whether or not to sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions. It’s a false equivalency.

The argument that other major powers felt free to sign the CCM because they live under the U.S. security umbrella is also not much of a defense of cluster munitions. Rephrased, Ex is saying that the United Kingdom can reject the use of cluster munitions, because the UK has the guarantee of US military might to provide security. What does this have to do with cluster munitions? Cluster munitions are fundamentally different from the other examples provided – sufficient supply of bombs and CAS platforms – in that cluster munitions haven’t proven their use in a way that makes them worth the ongoing risk to civilians.

Ex also makes the point on Twitter that these munitions are now being made with disintegrating parts. That’s wonderful (really – I like the idea of weapons that break down over time), but are those the ones being bought and used? Because I can’t imagine making the decision to buy something that I know has an expiration date if a non-perishable version is available. And are those the ones we’ll use, or will we keep using old stock that don’t break down so neatly? Until everybody’s using cluster munitions with the half-life of your average toaster oven, I say the cost of use is too high.

I’d love to be able to make a purely humanitarian plea for the banning of cluster munitions and landmines, because I believe human life is sufficiently worth protecting that I’m willing to limit our capacities to destroy our enemies. The human toll of UXO is unacceptable, because the primary victims generally aren’t fighters – they’re children who, as Ex so poignantly puts it, pick up shiny objects off the ground and lose limbs. Do we compensate these victims, saying, “Oh, sorry you were in the wrong place at the wrong time and now your life is exponentially more difficult because we weren’t willing to clean up”? UXO stay on battlefields long after they’ve returned to being regular, not-so-battle-y fields.

Essentially, by failing to provide evidence that cluster munitions cannot be safely sworn off, by not proving that they serve some vital purpose that cannot be duplicated through another weapons system, Ex’s arguments fall apart. The onus shouldn’t be on the anti-CM crowd to prove why we don’t need these, but on the pro-CM side to prove why we do. In an era of precision weapons, I can’t see a need for scatter-effect explosives. So the real question here is: Can we live without cluster munitions? I say yes.

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