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

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.”

But the lowering financial costs of drones and the possible independence from basing agreements provided by aircraft carriers could come with its own political and strategic costs, especially in those regions where the U.S. drone program is most active.

According to a June 2012 Pew Poll, 74% of poll respondents in Pakistan considered the U.S. “an enemy.” Only 50% of respondents favored U.S. efforts to provide humanitarian aid in areas of high extremist activity, down from 72% in 2009.

A Stanford/NYU report, “Living Under Drones” noted that civilian casualties caused by drones are probably higher than acknowledged by the U.S. government and various forms of emotional and psychological burdens are imposed on civilians in areas where drones are deployed.

In an interview with Reuters, General Stanley McChrystal, the former head of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, raised concerns about the effect of drone attacks on public opinion in Pakistan.

“The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes...is much greater than the average American appreciates,” said McChrystal. “They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one.”

During Brennan’s confirmation hearing, senators mostly shied away from asking him questions about the strategic implications of drone strikes. When questioned by Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), Brennan responded that non-militants in areas where drones operate “have welcomed the work that the U.S. government has done.”

While senators did push for greater transparency in revealing the administration’s legal reasoning behind the program, they mostly fell short of calling for tighter legal frameworks for the use of drone strikes.

The lack of legal rigor in the drone program will only grow more problematic as drones become cheaper and the technology develops, warns Pillar.

“Insofar as costs are dropping, it makes the establishment of a firmer legal regime all the more important. The very cheapness of them makes it politically more difficult to establish such a regime. […] There simply isn't a political constituency clamoring on this issue about a stronger legal regime.”

Secretive overseas military actions that result in the deaths of “high level” targets without compromising the security of U.S. forces or creating a wider military commitment have led to little domestic political blowback for the Obama administration.

But as drone strikes become the cornerstone of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy, U.S. public opinion may be shifting.

A Fairleigh Dickinson University poll released last week revealed that 48% of Americans believe it is illegal for the U.S. government to target its own citizens with overseas drone strikes. Just 24% agreed with the U.S. attorney and the Obama administration that such strikes are legal.

“Every expansion of [drone] capacity should bring with it a greater sense of urgency about secrecy, transparency and the failure so far of Congress, at least publicly, to take a role in overseeing this,” said Naiman.

“The increased range of choices for the executive to conduct war actions without going through the war hoops is very scary. I hope that news [about the technological advancements of the drone program] will push members of Congress to get more vocal and impose some oversight on this technology.”


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