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Filling the Skies with Robot Assassins: The Drone Wars Have Begun

Hunter-killer drones armed with Hellfire missiles are patrolling the Pentagon's expanding global battlefields: It's a scene right out of Terminator.

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We know, for instance, that at least part of the Air Force's Afghan UAV program runs out of Kandahar Air Base in southern Afghanistan. It turns out that, pilotless as the planes may be, a pilot does have to be nearby to guide them into the air and handle landings. As soon as the drone is up, a two-man team, a pilot and a "sensor monitor," backed by intelligence experts and meteorologists, takes over the controls either at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona, or at Creech Air Force Base northwest of Las Vegas, some 7,000-odd miles away. (Other U.S. bases may be involved as well.)

According to Christopher Drew of the New York Times , who visited Davis-Monthan where Air National Guard members handle the controls, the pilots sit unglamorously "at 1990s-style computer banks filled with screens, inside dimly lit trailers." Depending on the needs of the moment, they can find themselves "over" either Afghanistan or Iraq, or even both on the same work shift. All of this is remarkably mundane -- pilot complaints generally run to problems "transitioning" back to wife and children after a day at the joystick over battle zones -- and at the same time, right out of Ali Baba's One Thousand and One Nights .

In those dimly lit trailers, the UAV teams have taken on an almost godlike power. Their job is to survey a place thousands of miles distant (and completely alien to their lives and experiences), assess what they see, and spot "targets" to eliminate -- even if on their somewhat antiquated computer systems it "takes up to 17 steps -- including entering data into pull-down windows -- to fire a missile" and incinerate those below. They only face danger, other than carpal tunnel syndrome, when they leave the job. A sign at Creech warns a pilot to "drive carefully"; "this, it says, is 'the most dangerous part of your day.'" Those involved claim that the fear and thrill of battle do not completely escape them, but the descriptions we now have of their world sound discomfortingly like a cross between the far frontiers of sci-fi and a call center in India.

The most intense of our various drone wars, the one on the other side of the Afghan border in Pakistan, is also the most mysterious. We know that some or all of the drones engaged in it take off from Pakistani airfields; that this "covert war" (which regularly makes front-page news) is run by the CIA out of its headquarters in Langley, Virginia; that its pilots are also located somewhere in the U.S.; and that at least some of them are hired private contractors.

William Saletan of Slate has described our drones as engaged in "a bloodless, all-seeing airborne hunting party." Of course, what was once an elite activity performed in person has been transformed into a 24/7 industrial activity fit for human drones.

Our drone wars also represent a new chapter in the history of assassination. Once upon a time, to be an assassin for a government was a furtive, shameful thing. In those days, of course, an assassin, if successful, took down a single person, not the targeted individual and anyone in the vicinity (or simply, if targeting intelligence proves wrong, anyone in the vicinity). No more poison-dart-tipped umbrellas, as in past KGB operations, or toxic cigars as in CIA ones -- not now that assassination has taken to the skies as an every day, all-year-round activity.

Today, we increasingly display our assassination wares with pride. To us, at least, it seems perfectly normal for assassination aerial operations to be a part of an open discussion in Washington and in the media. Consider this a new definition of "progress" in our world.

 
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