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What the John Brennan Hearing Didn't Tell You: Aircraft Carrier-Based Drones Could Expand Covert War Around Globe

Kill lists and basing agreements have dominated the debate, but advances in drone technology may have a transformative effect on U.S. drone strike policy.

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Between the nomination of John Brennan as CIA director and media outlets reporting the existence of a secret U.S. drone base in Saudi Arabia, the Obama administration’s drone program received some of its most intensive public scrutiny over the past week. Kill lists and basing agreements dominated the public debate, but largely overlooked advances in drone technology may have a transformative effect on U.S. drone strike policy.

Reports of drone testing on aircraft carriers have rarely entered into the discussion of the U.S.’ future drone policy. But foreign policy analysts tell AlterNet that the introduction of aircraft carrier-based drones is likely to result in a reduced dependence on basing agreements in the Middle East and North Africa and a growing reliance on drone aircraft for military missions. That could create new urgency to bring the program under a more cohesive legal framework.

Aircraft carrier-based drones could remove challenges to quickly deploying armed drones in hotspots around the world. At the same time, efforts to establish greater legal oversight over the drone program have made little progress.

Carrier-based deployments are likely to further lower the political and military costs of drone strikes just as Congress and the national press are beginning to more fully debate the role of drones in the Obama administration’s counterterrorism policy. Critics argue that the program is too secretive and endangers the long-term strategic interests of the United States.

This past November, the Navy’s X-47B drone aircraft began onboard tests on the nuclear-powered USS Harry S. Truman. The first at-sea takeoff is expected to occur sometime this year.

“A carrier-based [Unmanned Combat Air System] with an unrefueled combat radius of 1,500 nautical miles or more and unconstrained by pilot physiology offers a significant boost in carrier combat capability. […] With multiple aerial refuelings, a UCAS could establish persistent surveillance-strike combat air patrols at ranges well beyond 3,000 nm, and could strike fixed targets at even longer ranges,” wrote the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in a 2008 study.

Such capability could remove the difficulties involved in establishing clandestine drone bases, such as the recently reported facility in Saudi Arabia, or in accepting restrictive basing agreements.

Niger’s ambassador to the U.S. told CNN last week that U.S. drones will be based in his country but will only carry out surveillance missions. The agreement expands the U.S. drone presence near Mali, where French and Malian forces have been battling rebels, but provides yet another example of how U.S. allies are slow to publicly accept basing agreements for armed drones.

Paul Pillar, a retired CIA officer and nonresident senior fellow at Georgetown University's Center for Security Studies, told AlterNet that “lessening the dependence on bases on foreign soil is a significant implication.”

“One argument I've heard is that if we're doing counterterrorism [in Afghanistan] the drones need bases and you need people to guard the bases. So if you could operate drones off of carriers […] it reduces the presence needed after 2014, assuming we're only doing counterterrorism.”

Robert Naiman, policy director at Just Foreign Policy, observed that the offshoring of drones could allow the U.S. to conduct its drone program in Pakistan with greater independence from Washington’s tumultuous relationship with Hamid Karzai’s government in Kabul.

“If you look at Afghanistan and Pakistan, the U.S. is conducting drone strikes in Pakistan from bases in Afghanistan. Obviously the U.S.’ ability to do that is dependent on the U.S. relationship with Afghanistan and Pakistan,” said Naiman. “Most people believe that if the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan its ability to use Afghanistan as a base for drone strikes in Pakistan will be severely curtailed.”

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