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World of Drones: How Unmanned Aircraft Are Extending American Hegemony

The expanding global net of drones extends into the Pacific, linked to the surveillance operations of the National Security Agency.

Photo Credit: Gwoeii/ Shutterstock.com

Drones were initially developed for surveillance missions. The iconic MQ-1 Predator debuted during the Balkan wars, surveying the operations over Bosnia, tracking the movement of Serbian troops in real time and providing hours of surveillance data by staying in the air for longer than previously possible. The use of drones for offensive operations was only fully realised with the US-led ‘war on terror’, targeting al-Qaida and its associates. ‘Signature strikes’ in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen have generated much controversy, especially covert operations by the Central Intelligence Agency, with many civilians killed, many more feeling targeted and little or no accountability from the authorities.

Governments and human-rights groups have called for greater transparency on the part of the Obama administration. Bear in mind that drones are being used not only as a weapon of war but also to monitor and survey potential threats around the globe—and not only in conflict zones.

In the US, several agencies have been directing millions of dollars into drone programmes. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been using drones to keep surveillance on stationary targets—drones were reportedly used during a hostage situation that lasted six days. The US Customs and Border Protection Agency deploys a variant of the MQ-1 Predator along the US-Mexico border, mainly for anti-narcotic surveillance operations. Other agencies and an increasing number of police forces are working to have their own drones soon.

Most of the offensive and covert drone operations outside the US will remain under the CIA, rather than being transferred to the Department of Defence as was suggested by government and military officials. There is little official information on how the CIA determines who is a target of its  ‘signature strikes’: targets are selected based on patterns and behaviours drawing on various sources of intelligence—including intelligence gathered from drones. The signature constructed from the observation and cataloguing of the patterns of life is known as the ‘disposition matrix’, the coding of the behaviour and geography of individuals. This single evolving database is what the White House uses for selecting its targets.  The documents released by Edward Snowden on the National Security Agency revealed extensive collaboration with the CIA’s drone programme.

While the Obama administration has claimed it will reduce drone strikes, surveillance will be extended, with plans for RQ-4A Global Hawk drones in bases in Japan, South Korea and Niger. The Global Hawk is a high-altitude, unmanned aerial vehicle capable of providing high-resolution and infrared imagery while remaining in the air for up to 42 hours. It can cover up to 40,000 nautical miles square at an altitude of 65,000 feet.

Drone bases in Afghanistan, and the recently established base in Niamey (Niger), have served not only as a launching pad to target suspected members of ‘terrorist’ organisations, but also as a platform for surveillance in central Asia and the Sahel and Sahara.

Pacifying the Pacific?

Further increasing the range of surveillance, in October 2013 an agreement was reached between American and Japanese officials, which will see the deployment of Global Hawk drones to the Misawa airbase in northern Japan. This will drastically increase the reconnaissance capabilities of the US in a critical part of Asia, in particular the East China Sea. In addition to the Global Hawk drones, some of the submarine- and ship-hunting P-8 Poseidon jets being developed by the US Navy will be stationed there.

In its efforts to strengthen Japan’s defences, the US will work with Japan on cyber-security and intelligence—all part of a ‘strategic vision’ which the State Department defines as a reflection of ‘our shared values of democracy, the rule of law, free and open markets, and respect for human rights’ and which ‘will effectively promote peace, security, stability, and economic prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region’.

Increasing surveillance activity in Asia considerably, South Korea plans to procure several Global Hawk drones from Northrop Grumman, through the US Foreign Military Sale programme, and is on the verge of deploying a $22 million surveillance blimp. Officials in Seoul have said they intend to keep watch on North Korea, not to monitor activities in China.

Drones are beginning to become a source of tension in the region. Recently China flew its own drones near the Senkaku islands, giving rise to friction with Japan. The prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has given orders that any drones entering Japanese airspace which fail to exit are to be shot down--something China has declared will be perceived as a provocation and an act of war.

Expanding global surveillance

The growth in drone bases and overseas stationing shows that drones are not exclusively deployed for targeted killings in the ‘war on terror’ but are part of a constantly expanding net of global surveillance . With the recent revelations as to the extent of NSA spying, allied to the CIA drone programme, it is evident that drones play a bigger role in intelligence and surveillance than ‘signature strikes’.

The US is shifting the focus of its attention from the middle east, where the number of its troops is being reduced, to Asia. In fact, the US is deploying the majority of its naval warships to the Asia-Pacific region. This move can be interpreted in many ways—in particular as a move to oppose Chinese interests in the South China Sea, an arena of important shipping lanes and deposits of crude oil. The US denies this motivation, professing instead a reiteration of its commitment to regional allies.

Whatever the motive, the increased presence in the area will heighten US surveillance capabilities. The shift from a strategy of boots on the ground to one of drones in the air is visible in Afghanistan and Pakistan, north Africa and now the Asia-Pacific. There is an ever-increasing state demand for information, monitoring closely not just the battlefield or conflict zone but each geographic region. Drones are but one of the many tools being used—and, if recent trends continue, there will be many more in our skies soon.

Alejandro Garcia De La Garza has an MA in Conflict, Security and Development from the University of Sussex and is an associate area specialist for the Intelligence, Security and International Affairs section of CIMBRE, the Centre for Interdisciplinary Mexican-British Research think tank.