In the almost two decades since the U.S. military first deployed them, drones have generally escaped the spotlight, except in alternative media or military-oriented trade publications. However, their use inside the U.S. has opened a debate that has reached into the U.S. Congress.
Up until recently, these pilotless planes, which have brought death in the night to villages on the other side of the world, attracted little attention here in the mass media or government “oversight” bodies. Now, as police agencies and private corporations line up to buy drones, civil liberties and other organizations have demanded more information about how they will be used.
Last February President Barack Obama signed the FAA Reauthorization Act, which broadened the domestic use of drones. At that time, the nonprofit group Public Intelligence released a map showing there were already 64 current and 22 planned military drone bases around the United States.
“Unmanned aerial vehicles,” or drones, have proliferated to the point where the Pentagon is now buying more of them than fighter jets. The military-industrial complex sees them as the cookie jar of the future and has been lobbying to sell ever more — not just to the Pentagon and the CIA but to the Border Patrol, local police agencies and private businesses.
The biggest manufacturer of these drones is General Atomics, which makes the Predator. Originally a division of General Dynamics, GA was sold to Gulf Oil in 1967 and then became a division of Chevron in 1984 when the two oil companies merged. The drones are a perfect example of the marriage between the military and Big Oil. General Atomics gets more than 90 percent of its revenue from government military contracts.
Pentagon fears its own troops
Ever since the Vietnam War, the U.S. ruling class has been looking for ways to expand its imperialist control over coveted areas of the world without the risk of putting “boots on the ground.”
As the military brass learned in that horrendous conflict, ground troops, especially drafted and nonprofessional soldiers, can become rebellious and refuse to accept the role of being the lowest link in the “chain of command.” These young men and women — most of them workers and a large proportion coming from oppressed communities — can break through the psychology of obedience that is the major part of their basic training and begin to think for themselves about why they are being ordered to sacrifice their lives.
In Vietnam and stateside, the war led to rebellion after rebellion by rank-and-file soldiers — and even a few officers — who realized they were being used in an unjust, racist attack on a people who were not their enemy.
In the Pentagon’s desperate search to shake off its fear of another “Vietnam syndrome,” drones are the latest craze promoted by the military-industrial complex. Not only do drones do away with ground troops, they even avoid putting pilots at risk. Pilots, the elite of the military, have seldom been prime candidates for rebellion, but none of them liked getting shot down or captured.
Now pilots can sit behind an Air Force computer in Nevada or at a secret CIA base and guide drones on the other side of the world to unleash deadly missile strikes. Again and again, their “targets” have turned out to be simple family gatherings in Afghanistan or Pakistan or Yemen. Even the Brookings Institution, a U.S. think tank, in July 2009 released a report saying that for every supposed “terrorist” killed by drones in Pakistan, 10 civilians died.
The General Atomics MQ-1 Predator, which has been in use since 1995, has been flown in combat over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bosnia, Serbia, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Somalia.
Destructive but not all powerful
Does this make the U.S. military all powerful? Not in the least. U.S. troops are being pulled out of Afghanistan, one of the poorest and most underdeveloped countries in the world, not because they have defeated the “enemy” but because the war is costing too much. They have destroyed much of Afghanistan in the process, but, just as in Iraq, they have not been able to create a stable puppet government to leave behind.
U.S. imperialism at this decadent stage in its development can destroy, but it cannot build a stable political and social base in oppressed countries to defend its interests, no matter how high tech its weaponry.
It is also in trouble at home because of the ongoing, deep economic crisis that arises from the very metabolism of the profit system and has upended tens of millions of lives. This crisis of intractable unemployment then leads to a second crisis, in which tax revenue drops, and either the government goes deeper into debt or cuts have to be made.
Standing out like a sore thumb is the huge portion of the federal budget that goes to military-related expenses, estimated to be more than half of all “discretionary” spending — that is, expenditures other than Social Security and Medicare, which have their own separate fund.
Even when Robert Gates was secretary of defense under George W. Bush and later Obama, the government outlined a plan to cut $400 billion from military spending by 2023. But that sum, which came out to less than $40 billion a year, is paltry compared to the total cuts demanded. Given that a compromise on income taxes left the rich still paying a lower rate than in any other developed capitalist country, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is expected to have to come up with much bigger cuts, and that has set off alarm bells in the military-industrial complex.
Fighter planes vs. drones
The drone program was originally seen as a rather low-budget way to cut back expenditures on military aircraft. The last conventional fighter plane to win a Pentagon contract, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, was the most expensive military-industrial program in history.
“It is plagued by delays and menaced by budget cuts,” wrote a British business magazine, and that “could be bad news … for its lead contractor, Lockheed-Martin.” While the F-35 was expected to come into service six years late and “wildly over-budget,” the Pentagon “still plans to buy 2,443 F-35s over the next 25 years, at a cost of $382 billion.” (The Economist, July 14, 2011)
Another Lockheed-Martin gold-plated contract features the F-22 Raptor, a stealth fighter that costs $400 million each. But at a 2012 air show it was outperformed by a German plane that cost half as much. (“F-22 Raptor Loses $79 Billion Advantage in Dogfights,” ABC News, July 30)
In addition to selling armed drones to the Pentagon for interventions abroad, the weapons industry has been working overtime cultivating a domestic market for its surveillance vehicles.
Truthout reported on Jan. 31, “The unarmed Predators, produced for border duty by General Atomics, cost $18.5 million to $20.5 million apiece, not counting the hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts for General Atomics to operate and maintain the homeland drones.
“[Customs and Border Protection] boasted in December 2011 that drone operations contributed to 7,500 apprehensions of illegal border crossers and 46,600 pounds of marijuana.
“The 7,500 ‘criminal aliens’ that the Border Patrol detained are small potatoes when compared to CBP’s overall number of detentions since 2005 — 5.7 million immigrants, including the 327,000 detained in 2011. Expressed as a percentage, this amounts to only .001 percent of those detained during that period.
“While categorized by CBP as ‘dangerous people’ because they have crossed the border illegally, mostly they are simply unauthorized immigrants, although a small number are marijuana backpackers.
“To give some perspective to the drug haul attributed to [drone] surveillance over six years … CBP on average seizes 3,500 pounds of marijuana every day in Arizona, making a seizure every 1.7 hours. Drones had a role in the seizure of less than one percent of the Border Patrol’s total marijuana in the past six years — only .003 percent to be precise.”
Hundreds of millions of dollars to “apprehend” marijuana backpackers and undocumented workers. No wonder the government is going broke.
Domestic surveillance system
What gives the U.S. military, the Border Patrol and private corporations the right to control the skies? The U.S. has already violated international law hundreds of times by using drones to assassinate people in at least a dozen countries without any regard to their territorial sovereignty. Now it is extending that to a vast system of surveillance at home with unarmed drones that could easily morph into armed vehicles.
While talking about the “rule of law” and its great commitment to “civilization,” the U.S. ruling class is methodically going about shredding any laws and customs that present obstacles to its insatiable greed for profits.
One final note: The New York Times in a Feb. 13 editorial entitled “A Court for Targeted Killings” argued that a special court should be set up to provide “checks and balances” to the executive branch when it decides to carry out “targeted killings” of U.S. citizens — usually via drones. But don’t get too excited. The newspaper of record that speaks for Wall Street 99 percent of the time doesn’t want to stop the killings. It just wants to make them look better. It compares this “killing court” to an existing “foreign intelligence court” where evidence is presented in secret about a person suspected of being a “terrorist threat.”
The Times says: “The court would not be expected to approve individual drone strikes, and the executive branch would still be empowered to take emergency actions to prevent an impending attack.
“The surveillance court is often considered a rubber stamp; out of 32,000 wiretap applications presented by the government from 1979 to 2011, it rejected only 11. But its presence has helped ensure that the administration’s requests are serious.”
So the best that the liberal Times can suggest is a sugar-coated rubber stamp.
The movement to end imperialist war and domestic repression will have to step up the struggle to demand a stop to the use of drones.