For many Americans, drones seem like a distant concern. However, their potential for blowback as their technology becomes available to other nations – and likely terrorist groups — may have a profound impact on making the planet less secure in the coming years. Tom Engelhardt and Nick Turse of TomDispatch.com expose this startling and ominous account of drone warfare in “Terminator Planet.” To get a copy, just click here. Make a minimum donation and support progressive writers and Truthout.
Mark Karlin interviewed co-author Nick Turse about this ominous threat.
Mark Karlin: Recent news reports reveal that the Pentagon has approved drone sales to 66 nations. What implications does this have for the year 2050 as you foresee in “Terminator Planet”?
Nick Turse: Well, provided that sales are not blocked through export controls, this likely means we’ll see many more countries flying many more drones.
This also likely means that more countries will adopt the U.S. mindset that the world is their free-fire zone; that they can declare someone a “terrorist” and use a drone as a judge, jury, and executioner weapon —even across international borders. If China, Russia or Iran should begin using drones in this way, expect outrage from the U.S. government over a playbook they’ve written day after day since 9/11.
Mark Karlin: One article (cited above) notes that “A Congressional Research Service report released last month said that the US made more arms transfer agreements worldwide in 2011 than did any other country, with the deals amounting to $66.3 billion.” To what extent does the drone phenomenon represent a military-industrial complex that is out of control in pursuit of profits?
Nick Turse: Drones certainly represent a real growth industry for the military-corporate complex. Last year, the U.S. tripled its arms sales, cornering almost 78% of the global arms trade. One-time rival Russia, by comparison, sold a paltry $4.8 billion or about 6% of the world market. Staggering, right?
Foreign arms sales not only benefit the big arms dealers, like General Atomics and Lockheed, but they’re beneficial for the Pentagon because they keep these big, bloated defense giants flush with cash even in times of slower defense spending in the U.S. This means factories stay open, production lines continue operating and the firms will be in business for the next big American order for tanks or planes or, of course, drones. This explains why the US has been brokering big weapons deals between top arms dealers and repressive Middle East states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
So there’s lots of opportunities for foreign drone sales. Countries around the world want the technology. And arms dealers and the Pentagon want them to have it.
Get your copy of “Terminator Planet.” Click here.
Mark Karlin: The interest of drone use by local police forces in the US is growing dramatically. Now, it appears to be catching on as a law enforcement tool internationally. For instance, the police minister of the United Kingdom is advocating for their use.
Nick Turse: Police departments always want more gear and gadgets. And the more militarized, the better. Drones are a great new toy, a new avenue of social control, a new ploy with which to seek funding from local governments. And, of course, the drone-makers are salivating over new markets. There’s lots of money to be made all around, so expect to see ever more drones in the hands of civilian law enforcement in the US and around the world.
Mark Karlin: Why does your book with Tom Engelhardt refer to the drone as “the perfect American weapon”?
Nick Turse: I can’t take credit for that line. It was the title of one of Tom’s 2010 articles. Back then, he wrote: “drone warfare fits America… tighter than a glove. With its consoles, chat rooms, and ‘single shooter’ death machines, it certainly fits the skills of a generation raised on the computer, Facebook, and video games. That our valorous warriors, their day of battle done, can increasingly leave war behind and head home to the barbecue… also fits an American mood of the moment.”
We know that most Americans ignore their wars abroad. They aren’t interested in serving in the military; they don’t have much stomach for American troop losse; and they try not to pay much attention to our wars and they don’t if they can at all help it. The drone is a perfect weapon for such a population.
Drone warfare implies less troops on the ground and less Americans in harm’s way. It seems like worry-free warfare. Allegedly the marketing narrative has it that a guy sits in a room somewhere, sees a terrorist, fires a missile, kills said terrorist and that’s the end. Just throw technology at the problem and poof, it’s solved. It’s an outsourced form of warfare. But just like the airplane, the tank and nukes – wonder weapons of their respective days – the promise of the drone has run smack into hard realities. Drone warfare has, like so many actual drones, crashed and burned.
Mark Karlin: You have a chapter on “America’s secret empire of drone bases.” How did you find out about them?
Nick Turse: Mainly from the US military itself. While the Air Force is tight-lipped if you ask them directly about bases, much of the information is available on public military websites. It’s a matter of sifting through hundreds and hundreds of webpages and searching thousands of military news stories. Finding out about more secret facilities requires deeper digging and, of course, assistance from other national security reporters who have looked into discrete aspects of the empire of bases.
Mark Karlin: Is the US bent on reducing combat casualties by killing alleged enemies via remote control, with drones currently taking the lead? Drone technology appears to have little opposition among the US public at large because it appears so sanitized and remote.
Nick Turse: It’s a testament to more than a decade of extremely effective PR. Americans have been sold — through newspaper articles, magazine pieces and TV reports – on a sanitized, error-free, high-tech, no-fuss-no-muss war fought by sleek and sexy robots. The military traded on secrecy and high-tech dreams. It gave selected reporters a rare window into this “high-tech” brand of warfare and basked in the glow of stories about the wonders of drones. As with many issues, Americans were never given the whole truth. We hope this book helps in some small way to correct the existing narrative.
Mark Karlin: Speaking of that, what is your moral take on the president of the United States, Barack Obama, authorizing an ongoing drone “kill list”?
Nick Turse: Don’t you know that you’re not supposed to raise moral issues in regard to war-making? It simply isn’t done, as they say. Morality exists in one realm. Drone strikes in another. Recently, touting his faith, President Obama said “my main responsibility is to love God with all of my heart, soul, and mind, and to love my neighbor as myself.” I’m not sure how any of that’s possible when you’re also quarterbacking a targeted killing campaign. And yet, he’s never pressed on this point, on the notion of turning the other cheek, “thou shall not kill,” and all those other Judeo-Christian values he’s supposedly espousing.
At Tomdispatch, we’ve written about America being viewed as a post-legal society. You can certainly make a case for it being a post-moral one, too.
Mark Karlin: The US military and government would have us think that a drone strike is like shooting an individual “enemy.” But isn’t this another way of firing rockets with bombs that also kill many people as “collateral damage”?
Nick Turse: I’ve talked to people who’ve endured carpet bombing from massive B-52s, so drones are, on some level, an improvement. They carry relatively small payloads and do “target” people as opposed to engage in wide area bombing. Who they’re targeting and why, however, has never been clear. The Obama administration claims that its CIA drone program has killed either none or just a handful of innocents. Of course, they also consider all men in the strike zone to be, functionally, guilty by association – convenient if you want to turn everyone into a legitimate combatant. Their contentions, of course, are wholly unbelievable.
The Bureau of Journalism in the UK has done an admirable job of trying to uncover the true toll of drone strikes in Pakistan, but the range of their estimates is wide. Until the government starts leveling with the American people — and I’m not holding my breath on that one — how can we even begin to judge the extent of “collateral damage” let alone faulty targeting, mistaken identity and other problems inherent to these targeted assassinations?
Mark Karlin: I’m struck by how footage I’ve seen of drone strike operators that looks like someone playing a “to kill” video game. Can you describe briefly how a drone attack is carried out?
Nick Turse: I think there’s only a passing resemblance to the video games that I played as a kid in the 1980s and 1990s, but perhaps a closer relationship to the multiplayer online gaming of the present.
I’m not sure that most Americans appreciate that drone strikes are highly collaborative efforts involving teams of people on various bases across the world. To give you an example, a ground team in Afghanistan will ready a drone for a mission, top off the fluid levels, fuel it up, arm it, etc. A locally-based pilot and sensor operator – the guy who operates the camera – will manage the take off and begin flying the aircraft, then they’ll hand off the airborne drone to a pilot and sensor operator in the U.S., say at Creech Air Force Base outside of Las Vegas.
These two Airmen sit in front of multiple computer screens, watching footage and conversing by radio and through chat room conversations with “screeners” – video analysts — at a Florida base, as well as troops on the ground in Afghanistan, a safety observer, a mission intelligence coordinator, pilots in manned aircraft that may also be on-station, and possibly other military personnel. All of this is overseen by a hush-hush command and control center that we’re not supposed to know or talk about, located at Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar.
Eventually, the sensor operator and pilot come up with a plan, run it by the whole crew, a commander makes the call on whether or not to carry out the airstrike, and once the order is given, the drone fires its missile or missiles, if it’s the larger Reaper.
Let’s assume a flying drone isn’t needed any longer for some surveillance mission or is low on fuel. The US-based controller directs the drone back toward the Afghan base. He then hands the aircraft back off to the local crew who takes control and lands the drone. The local maintenance crew the gets to work to service, fuel and re-arm the drone for its next mission. And this is just a thumbnail sketch. In reality, it’s an even more involved process. Most people have the idea that drones are a lean, cheap way of warfare; a guy in a room playing Space Invaders. It’s really anything but.
Mark Karlin: What can we expect in the future from what you call the “terminators of tomorrow,” enhanced drone technology?
Nick Turse: There are a lot of drone dreams still dancing in the heads of Pentagon officials – autonomous drones that fly on their own and those that also undertake targeting and attacks on their own; drones that mimic satellites and loiter over regions for weeks or months or even years; long-lived nuclear powered zones; super-fast, highly maneuverable drones; tiny swarming drones that mimic insects. These are all possibilities, but I think in the near term you’re going to see a lot more in the way of modest improvements to the current generation of drones. Sci-fi is going to remain just that for a while until the technology crosses a threshold, which is inevitable.
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