September 2010
Drones and Autonomous Warfare in the 21st Century
by Loring Wirbel, Citizens for Peace in Space
Wissenschaft und Frieden (German version)

In March 2010, Ronald Arkin of the Georgia Institute of Technology in the U.S. told The Economist magazine his research staff was working on a software “Ethical Architecture” for Unpiloted Aerial Vehicles (UAVs, or “drones”), which would allow a drone to make an ethical decision on armed attack while the drone was in flight. While such a capability may seem macabre at first glance, it represents a greater concern for ethical issues of targeting individuals than the Obama administration has shown since taking office in early 2009.

On May 14, The New York Times revealed that the Obama administration had specifically targeted U.S.-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki for “death by drone.” Even though the U.S. CIA was criticized throughout the 1970s and 1980s for assassination attempts against leaders such as Fidel Castro and Patrice Lumumba, the CIA still targets individuals through drone warfare. When the U.S. National Security Agency wants to listen to the electronic communication traffic of an individual, an elaborate approval process is required. Yet when the CIA wants to kill someone through drone warfare, only a simple National Security Council approval process is necessary.

How did the United States return to the free-wheeling era of the CIA in the mid-20th century? In part, it is due to the desire to cheaply win victories in Iraq and Afghanistan. In part, it is due to a common belief in the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies that drone attacks will cause far less “collateral damage” (death to civilians) than widespread air strikes. When we combine these goals with the new capabilities given to robotic vehicles by microelectronics and space-based navigational systems, it is no surprise that drones have become the centerpiece of war.

The responsibility of drones in armed missions is hard to discern, because the Pentagon and CIA have moved to a complex three-layer method of assigning responsibility for armed attack. At the most open and acknowledged level, the U.S. Air Force manages dozens of daily drone flights over conflict zones. Most of these are unarmed reconnaissance flights, but the Air Force can sponsor armed attack missions, in which the drone uses Hellfire missiles or JDAM gravity bombs, when these missions are part of large, integrated offensive missions. What the Pentagon learned early in the October 2001 assaults in Afghanistan, however, is that traditional Pentagon rules of engagement make it difficult for drones to target individuals, since approval must be sought along a complex chain of command.

Beginning in 2002, the CIA managed many armed drone missions from bases in Djibouti and Qatar. It was easier for the intelligence community to sponsor flights that sought to eliminate groups of Islamic militants, because rules on the use of missiles were much less stringent when the agency that sponsored the flights did not publicly admit its role.

But since Obama entered the White House, a new level of drone management has emerged, allowing national leaders to claim that certain drone flights do not exist – a means of obscuring command authority that the CIA often calls “plausible deniability”. According to author Jeremy Scahill and several other sources, the Joint Special Operations Command manages unacknowledged armed UAV missions in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. These missions are run directly by Blackwater/Xe through two of the company’s subsidiaries – Blackwater Select Inc. and Total Intelligence Solutions Inc. The bases from which these drones are launched are located directly in Pakistan and Afghanistan, yet their existence is denied at every level of military command.

Drone attacks and related civilian deaths have escalated virtually every month since CIA Director Leon Panetta proposed new drone missions with President Obama in February 2009. Some analysts who only recently became aware of the power of drones have thus called Obama “the drone president.” Certainly, this has led to a broad critique in the U.S. on the use of drones, one which unites progressive opponents of war with conservative opponents of the president. But does Obama deserve the dubious distinction of being the inventor of drone warfare? A brief analysis of UAV history will show that drones have a long history in the Clinton and Bush administrations. The difference in 2009-2010 is that Obama has made drones his “chosen instrument” for Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Robot Vehicles and Automated War

UAVs are used worldwide, by all major military states. They can trace a lineage back to the German V-1 “buzz bomb”, but were used largely for training fighter-jets through the period of the Vietnam War. Occasionally, they were used to augment U-2 and SR-71 spy flights in China and Vietnam, but they were not seen as cost-effective until the 1990s, when developments in microelectronics allowed full radar, image processing, and intelligence-collection chips to be placed on a platform smaller than a compact car.

At the same time in the 1990s, advances in “smart” bombs allowed Hellfire missiles and JDAM gravity bombs to be used on unmanned platforms, and display a certain degree of intelligent targeting after being released from the drone. As these technologies came to fruition in the late 1990s, the Pentagon developed two designations for UAVs – the RQ series referred to unarmed reconnaissance aircraft, while the MQ series referred to armed drones. The normalization of drone commands in warfare began with the 1999 Kosovo bombings, when U.S. drones were sent to Taszar in Hungary, Gjader in Albania, and Tuzla in Bosnia, to effectively surround Serbia with a network of constantly patrolling drones. These UAVs were used almost solely for reconnaissance, however, as armed drones were not developed until 2000.
Today, drones can range in size from something as small as a dragonfly, launched by hand; to the Global Hawk, a drone as large as a corporate jet, costing as much as $60 million each. Drones are used by over 40 nations, with about 60 percent of drone use accounted for by the United States. Global sale of drones to all nations now exceeds $5 billion a year. The number of flight hours logged by U.S. drones over Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan has escalated from 35,000 flight hours in 2003, to close to 1 billion flight hours anticipated for 2010.

The earliest small UAVs of the 1990s, including the TRW Hunter, TRW Pioneer, and Bombardier/Dornier QL-289, could not be flown in autonomous fashion, and required significant guidance from ground-based pilots. The two primary platforms of earlier Afghanistan and Iraq days were the high-altitude RQ-4 Global Hawk, manufactured by Northrop Grumman and used solely for reconnaissance; and the low-altitude Predator, manufactured by General Atomics and used in both RQ intelligence and MQ armed missions. These systems used ground-based pilots whose talents more closely resembled an expert video-game player than a traditional airplane pilot. The training schools established at locations such as Creech AFB in Nevada and Holloman AFB in New Mexico resembled video arcades – in fact, Air Force and even Army recruiters began scouting arcades in the early 2000s to find teenagers with fast eye-hand coordination to pilot these drones.

By the time the war expanded to Pakistan at the end of the decade, the armed version of the Predator had gone through three generations – the MQ-1 Predator A, the MQ-9 Predator B or “Reaper”, and the Predator C “Avenger”, still in prototype stage. Armed drone missions can require as many as 30 support people in ground staff, and even reconnaissance drones can require a dozen to 20 people. The targeting software for such systems is transitioning from standalone joystick applications on a laptop, to small touchscreen applications on platforms as small as an iPhone. Training, however, still requires a dedicated military staff familiar with using GPS-based navigational tools, which is why wholesale reliance on drones requires a “space cadre” of officers familiar with military space.

General Atomics’ dedicated work for the CIA began with a reconnaissance-only UAV called the Gnat, used by some of the first CIA teams to go into Afghanistan post-9/11. The CIA made its first attempt to kill Taliban official Mullah Muhammad Omar on Oct. 7, 2001, the first day of coordinated air strikes across Afghanistan, but the delays experienced in gaining approval through the Pentagon chain of command allowed Omar to escape. Consequently, the CIA demanded new loosened rules of engagement, which led to a successful Predator assault on Mohammed Atef, who died Nov. 15, 2001, and a broad armed UAV assault on al-Qaeda in November 2002. As new CIA bases were established in Djibouti and Qatar for the buildup prior to the Iraq invasion, the CIA gained its own dedicated arsenal of Predator drones, which were billed and inventoried in segmented fashion from those belonging to the Pentagon. However, this expansion also pointed out the lack of accountability in such assaults – on Nov. 3, 2002, a Predator launched from the Djibouti CIA base shot a Hellfire missile at a car in Yemen with six alleged al-Qaeda activists, killing all six. The Bush administration claimed the CIA did not need to seek pre-launch verification of identities. Since the importance of Yemen and the Djibouti CIA base escalated significantly in 2009-10, it is fair to ask where the accountability for future Yemen attacks may lie.

While the first Predator was useful as a direct-assault drone, the new Predator B “Reaper” is the first true “hunter-killer,” which can dwell over an area in a reconnaissance mission, and then shift to attack. The number of weapons that could be carried in the 27-ft-long Reaper expanded to up to 14 missiles and two 2500-lb. gravity bombs on one aircraft. Two years ago, the first-generation Predator started making way for Reaper, which could fly up to 250 mph while transmitting up to 10 full-motion video images. The armed version of Reaper does not have to eliminate any of its surveillance capability for the addition of missiles – one system can serve both ends. By 2009, the Air Education and Training Command announced that more pilots were being trained for ground-based UAV control than for actual airborne flying missions.

It is important to recognize the support role in robotic assault that can be played by unarmed drones, or by ground-based electronics that help drones find their targets. The high-altitude Global Hawk, for example, is often considered a system meant only for spying, since it flies at altitudes greater than 18,000 meters. But Global Hawk also is used to provide targets for later Predator attacks. Global Hawk is being deployed in other regions, such as North Korea, with this hidden aspect in mind.

A new follow-on drone, RQ-170 Sentinel (nicknamed the “Beast of Kandahar”) was developed at the Lockheed Martin skunk works, and applies stealth technology so that this drone is similar to a B-2 bomber – essentially a flying wing with no radar cross-section. Since neither Afghan Taliban forces, nor even the Pakistan armed forces, have significant radar assets, the primary reason for using the Sentinel seems to be to allow a drone to be flown in Pakistan without Pakistani military authorities being aware of it. Rumors persist that an armed MQ version of the Sentinel exists, and may already have been deployed.

This is why the role of the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command is important. According to Jeremy Scahill’s article in the Dec. 21/28,2009 The Nation magazine, JSOC established a deniable operation in Karachi, Pakistan, staffed exclusively by employees of Blackwater Select and Total Intelligence Solutions Inc. The teams at this office are involved in both extraordinary renditions of individuals, and UAV bombing missions in the frontier areas of the Pakistan/Afghanistan border. The Scahill article coincided with back-to-back articles in The New York Times in August 2009, claiming that Blackwater was responsible for both an earlier “hit squad” team organized out of then-Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, and a later armed UAV effort to augment the CIA’s own UAVs. In essence, the expansion of drone assaults by CIA and JSOC have made ground-based assassination squads largely unnecessary.

The CIA itself launches UAVs out of Shamsi and Jalalabad in Pakistan, but its operations have come under growing criticism in Pakistan, particularly since Obama and Panetta agreed to expand the program last January. Since that time, JSOC and Blackwater have taken over some managerial functions, and they launch some drones independently from the CIA bases at Shamsi and Jalalabad, while using dedicated JSOC sites in or near Waziristan and other border provinces.
This drone management structure must be seen in the light of the Prompt Global Strike conventional weapon plans, leaked by the Obama administration at the time of the nuclear treaty talks in May. Global Strike is nothing new. The idea of building an arsenal of precision, prompt delivery conventional weapons was first discussed at length in August 2003 at Strategic Command in Omaha, when military leaders talked about uniting drones with conventionally-armed Minuteman III missiles. Since that time, Strategic Command gained a dedicated sub-command called “Global Strike,” one which the Obama administration has seen as critical, even in a world with reduced reliance on nuclear weapons.

The role of space as a theater and Strategic Command as a management source for drones came about because of a change promoted by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in the nation’s “Strategic Triad.” The old triad involved only nuclear weapons, and divided strategic weapons into the three categories of land-based missiles, sea-based missiles, and nuclear bombers. The new triad had three components: Offensive weapons, including drones, planes, ships, and missiles (nuclear and conventional were no longer considered separately); Defensive weapons, including missile defense; and Infrastructure, including global intelligence and communication networks. Strategic Command plays a central role in all three operations.

Thanks to an Internet portal from Lockheed Martin delivered to Strategic Command in the spring of 2009, the Integrated Strategic Planning and Analysis Network Collaborative Information Environment (ISPAN-CIE), the Global Strike and Air Force Space Commands, as well as the component commands, have a central role in planning the missions and targeting of all unarmed and armed UAVs – these include JSOC UAVs, and some indirect oversight, if not control, of CIA UAVs. Access to these tools gives the StratCom authorities the illusion of still having a human in the command loop. Strategic Command Commander Gen. Kevin Chilton says this “command loop” has been reduced to microseconds. But many critics, even within the military, worry that the existence of three levels of armed UAV rules of engagement, alongside the ability of hunter-killer drones to decide at will when to strike a particular target, may allow many UAVs to make the decision to attack without any human intervention.

This is why Ronald Arkin’s software work on a “drone conscience” attracted such news in early 2010. The Pentagon has built a network of drones, manned aircraft, and satellites for intelligence, navigation, and communication, into what it calls a “unified aerospace environment.” Under the terms of Global Strike, this environment must operate with nearly instantaneous response in times of crisis. The network requires the use of space, and virtually requires the unilateralist vision of space use which was first described in the Bush Administration’s National Space Policy of 2006. Although Obama assigned Peter Marquez of the National Security Council the mission of developing a new multilateral space policy in 2009, little has been heard about Marquez’s mission. When Prompt Global Strike replaces nuclear weapons and drone use in Pakistan and Afghanistan become commonplace, unilateral space use is virtually required.

The issue of armed drones will come to a head during 2010, as President Obama adds another 35,000 troops to Afghanistan, and an armed version of the Sentinel UAV comes to Pakistan, perhaps adding stealth capability to a platform that has little human oversight. We already are experiencing a war run by robots.

Global Network