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Drones over Afghanistan controlled from U.S.

Published Dec 23, 2009 12:53 PM

The United States had 167 unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, in 2002 and more than 6,000 in 2008. This jump is due to their military advantages: skilled pilots don't have to take risks; drones can stay airborne for tens of hours; and they cost much less than a fighter plane, so it's less of a loss if they crash or are destroyed. Drones are a major part of a U.S. military initiative to replace and supplement soldiers with computers.

Especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where U.S. opponents don't have any air defenses, drones are particularly effective, cruising around until their target appears and then carrying out the strike.

Drones have another big plus -- they can be controlled from the U.S., even if physically they are based in Pakistan or Afghanistan. The CIA uses U.S. Air Force pilots based at Creech Airfield in Nevada in its drone-focused hunt for al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan. (wired.com)

The Pentagon has picked up on the concept of U.S.-based controllers. In Syracuse, N.Y., the 174th Fighter Wing, an Air National Guard unit based at Hancock Airfield, is controlling Reaper drones targeted against the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. (Syracuse Post-Standard, Dec. 7)

This wing has already had at least one deployment to Iraq, but now its pilots can have a normal home life even though their day job is killing people or providing intelligence for other forces to kill them.

While the Taliban and al-Qaida don't have air-defense systems, they do have SkyGrabber, a $25.95 piece of software that has let them capture video feeds from the U.S. drones in the area. Getting this information caused the U.S. a great deal of worry.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, quickly announced that these transmissions were going to be encrypted. (Christian Science Monitor, Dec. 17) The market for drones amounts to $4.4 billion a year and U.S. corporations control more than 70 percent of it. (Le Monde Diplomatique, Dec 2009)

The Pentagon has also had to worry about growing political protests in the U.S. Code Pink has had protests at Creech and the Syracuse Peace Council has had them at Hancock. As opposition to the war in Afghanistan grows, so will protests at these bases and elsewhere.