no-frills YouTube video looks like it could be the chronicling of an ambitious
science fair project. Inside a spare Indiana warehouse, a young man launches a
thin two and a half foot black cylinder into the air, where its propeller
blades keep it hovering vertically. Then it moves slowly across the warehouse,
past the Purdue University and ROTC signs, before easing its way back into the
waiting hands of the same young man who launched it.
But this is
no schoolboy experiment, and the small flying cylinder is no model airplane. It
is the Voyeur UAV, or unmanned aerial vehicle, also known as a "drone."
According to the website of its manufacturer, West Lafayette-based Lite
Machines, Inc., the Voyeur is designed to allow military and law enforcement to
conduct surveillance and "human or non-human target acquisition." The Voyeur
can travel as far as 50 miles in the air and can hover over and/or touch its
Machines is based in the Purdue Research Park, which promotes the fact that the
company has received a $10.5 million contract from the U.S. Navy. The
multi-million dollar military investment for a small company in Tippecanoe
County represents part of a $4 billion annual Department of Defense budget for
UAV technology, a highly secretive world of warcraft, which is being eagerly
embraced by U.S. military and intelligence agencies. Last year, for the first
time, the U.S. Air Force trained more pilots to operate unmanned vehicles than
it did pilots for traditional fighter planes.
But the U.S.
drone program is also being sharply criticized for its role in targeted killing
in Pakistan and beyond, which has caused significant civilian deaths and which
legal experts and peace activists label as both illegal and counter-productive.
The Voyeur is one of several Indiana connections to robotic technology that is
revolutionizing warfare — for good or for ill.
Hoosier sites of drone support include:
Haute-based Indiana Air National Guard's 181st Intelligence Wing,
which analyzes data collected from drones hovering over Afghanistan and
Pakistan and sends back the results to troops in the field.
Indianapolis plant of Rolls Royce, one of the largest U.S. military
contractors, which manufactures the engine for the drone Global Hawk.
Indiana's Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center, which has received millions of
dollars in military contracts to expand the combat capability of drones.
developments have been touted in elected officials' press releases applauding
the money flowing to Indiana. But some Hoosiers are concerned. "Our state needs
jobs, but I hate the fact that people of good conscience may be sucked into the
military industrial complex process of creating machines that contribute to the
deaths of innocent civilians," says Lori Perdue, an Air Force veteran and local
coordinator for the peace activist group CODEPINK. "If we could create green
jobs instead of war jobs, I bet the guy working the line making jet turbines
would rather be building a wind turbine."
of robot killers
drones equipped with cameras have been used by the U.S. for military
surveillance since the Vietnam War. Drones with names like the Global Hawk and
the Predator conducted reconnaissance over Bosnia, Serbia and Yemen, and now
regularly fly over Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Shortly after the turn of
the century, drones expanded beyond mere surveillance when the Predator was
outfitted with Hellfire missiles.
are operated remotely by computer and video display, often by Air Force
personnel in Nevada or Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) staff in Virginia,
even when the drone is flying several thousand miles away. The lack of an
onboard pilot eliminates direct risk to U.S. personnel, and is part of a
movement toward robot-izing military missions chronicled in Brookings
Institution senior fellow P.W. Singer's widely acclaimed book, Wired for War: The Robotics
Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.
Johnson of the Pentagon's Joint Forces Command told Singer regarding machines
like the drones, "They don't get hungry. They are not afraid. They don't forget
their orders. They don't care if the guy next to them has been shot. Will they
do a better job than humans? Yes."
of the current U.S. use of drones for attack purposes is not completely clear.
The U.S. military and the CIA have resisted requests by Phillip Alston, United
Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, for an explanation of
the program, and a Freedom of Information Act request for similar information
filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has not yet yielded a
response. But it is known that the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command
maintain a list of individuals to kill or capture, many of them located in
Afghanistan or Pakistan, and drone-launched missiles are a preferred method for
conducting the assassinations. The New America Foundation recently conducted an
extensive study of drone attacks and concluded that the U.S. launched 51 drone
missile strikes in Pakistan alone in 2009, with anywhere from 372 to 632 people
killed, about a third of whom were civilians.
of Barack Obama ushered in an era of significant reliance on drone warfare.
Jane Mayer recently reported in The New Yorker that, within three days
of Obama taking office, a U.S. Predator airstrike in Pakistan hit the wrong
target, killing an entire family including a five-year-old child. Despite that
inauspicious beginning, the Obama administration has conducted drone attacks at
a rate that far exceeds that seen during the George W. Bush administration. The
current CIA director Leon Panetta has said of drone attacks, "Very frankly, it
is the only game in town in terms of confronting and disrupting the al Qaeda
At one strategic
level, the attraction is understandable: drone attacks do not put any U.S.
soldiers or pilots at immediate risk, and the strikes are potentially more
precise than traditional aerial bombing. Recent drone-launched missiles
reportedly killed the two top leaders of the Pakistani Taliban. Lack of media
access to the rugged areas of Pakistan where drone attacks occur limit the U.S.
public's exposure to the unintended effects of such attacks, including the
children and civilians killed by Hellfire missiles.
But there is
also substantial evidence that drone attacks carry with them significant
long-term negative impacts for the U.S. David Kilcullen, who served as a chief
counterinsurgency strategist for the U.S. State Department and who helped
design the U.S. military surge in Iraq, has estimated that drone attacks kill
50 non-targeted persons for each intended target. Kilcullen told Congress last
year that robot-launched missiles lead to a groundswell of anger against the
U.S. and spikes of extremism worldwide. New York Times reporter David Rohde
recently emerged from seven months as a Taliban hostage to report that his
captors' hatred for the U.S. was fueled in part by civilians being killed by
drones. "To my captors, they were proof that the United States was a
hypocritical and duplicitous power that flouted international law," Rohde
violence and international law
months, an object lesson in drones' role in perpetuating a cycle of violence
played itself out in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Multiple drone attacks last
summer directed toward Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud reportedly
killed over 80 people — many attending funeral services for previous
drone strike victims — without claiming Mehsud. The CIA finally got its
man in a well-publicized August 2009 missile strike that also killed Mehsud's
wife, physician and in-laws. Then, on December 30th, a CIA informant
conducted a suicide mission at a U.S. base in Khost, Afghanistan, killing
himself and seven CIA agents. The informant, Hamam al-Balawi, left behind a
video stating he intended to avenge Mehsud's death. In response, the U.S.
stepped up its drone attacks in Pakistan in early 2010, killing hundreds,
including the alleged planner of the al-Balawi suicide bombing.
inevitable that the cycle of drone violence will soon include robot attacks on
U.S. targets as well — over 40 countries are reportedly developing UAV
technology, including Iran, Russia and China, and Hezbollah has already
deployed UAV's during its 2006 war with Israel. In P.W. Singer's March 23rd
testimony to the U.S. House Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign
Affairs, he compared the current state of robotics in war to the early 20th
century use of the automobile or the state of computers around 1980. "The point
here is that every so often in history, the emergence of a new technology
changes our world," Singer told Congress. "Like gunpowder, the printing press,
or even the atomic bomb, such 'revolutionary' technologies are game-changers
not merely because of their capabilities, but rather because the ripple effects
that they have outwards onto everything from our wars to our politics."
of Notre Dame law professor Mary Ellen O'Connell, who has conducted a case
study of the use of combat drones in Pakistan, says these ripple effects have
already led to multiple aspects of U.S. drone warfare directly violating
international law. Among the illegal acts O'Connell cites are the CIA's
involvement in aerial killing, the targeting of individuals in Pakistan —
where the U.S. is not at war and does not have explicit permission from
civilian authorities to conduct attacks, and the refusal to provide information
to the U.N. regarding the program's criteria for selecting human targets.
stresses that the large civilian impact of drone attacks violates centuries-old
agreements on the rules of war, which limit military strikes to proportional
responses that do not unnecessarily risk the lives of non-combatants. "The
questions of legality and effectiveness are bound up in each other," says
O'Connell, who advocates for a law enforcement-oriented approach of capture and
trial of alleged terrorists. "Most of the rules of international law,
especially the law on deadly force, are good for us. Not killing people in a way
that foments revenge is a rule that goes back to St. Augustine."
Yet the U.S.
drone program is clearly gaining momentum. Seven thousand drones are operated
by the U.S. currently, the military budget for drones has more than doubled in
just the past four years, and the New America Foundation reports that as many
as 211 people have been killed by U.S. drone missiles in just the first three
months of 2010. The Star Wars-like technology and the remote locations of drone
missile strikes do not seem to suggest an affiliation with Midwest settings,
but it turns out that there are several Hoosier connections to this trend in
warfare. An ongoing investigation by NUVO, including multiple Freedom of
Information Act requests to military agencies, has revealed Indiana-based
activity in drone manufacture, research and operations.
connections to drone warfare
of Defense records indicate that West Lafayette-based Lite Machines received
nearly $2.5 million in U.S. military contracts for fiscal year 2008 alone,
including a $1.5 million contract from U.S. Special Operations Command for
research and development. Lite Machines did not return several messages
requesting an interview for this article, but the company's website touts the
Voyeur's applications for military and law enforcement, including its ability
to locate and detonate improvised explosive devices.
Machines promotes the Voyeur's ability to fly in swarms, and many military
observers say that such mini-drones can carry weapons as well as surveillance
equipment. "Mini-drones can be used for the same purposes as larger ones,"
Notre Dame's O'Connell says. "They can be used like a flying missile with
explosives that can be dropped by the drone or the drone itself can be
triggered to explode. The sky is the limit here."
Air National Guard's 181st Intelligence Wing, based at Terre Haute's
International Airport-Hulman Field, embodies the military's transition to robot
warfare. In 2008, the base switched from a focus on F-16 fighter jets to
processing information gathered by drones. First Lt. Randi Brown, the 181st's
executive staff officer, said that the Guardsmen in Terre Haute are reviewing
information obtained by Predator drones and relaying their analysis back to
troops and aircraft around the world.
near-real time video feeds from UAV's, and intelligence airmen analyze that
information and send it back out," Brown said. "It is like a customer service
job, in that we respond to the requests of the folks in the field, whether it
be for humanitarian or combat purposes." Although Brown could not confirm
whether the 181st has been involved in the planning of controversial
bombings in Pakistan or elsewhere, it has been widely reported that such video
analysis provides information used to plan and conduct drone missile strikes.
Indianapolis plant of Rolls Royce, according to Department of Defense reports,
received over $473 million in government contracts in fiscal year 2008 alone,
in part to pay for the manufacture of the AE 3007H turbofan engine for the
drone Global Hawk. While the Global Hawk does not carry or fire missiles like
the Predator does, it is known for its ability to cover tens of thousands of
square miles in surveillance while staying in the air for up to 35 hours,
gathering data that is used for the planning of drone and other military
southwest Indiana's Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center received $3 million in
2005 to expand the capability of drones in "electronic warfare," according to a
statement by Senator Evan Bayh. Requests for an explanation of Crane drone
activity for this article were not replied to, but Freedom of Information Act
requests remain pending.
impact seems destined to expand beyond the mountains of Pakistan and
Afghanistan toward more domestic uses. Lite Machines, for example, advertises
the Voyeur's law enforcement capacity in addition to its military uses, and
mini-drones are known for their ability to perch and observe via tiny video
cameras in places where humans cannot go. The U.S. Customs and Border
Protection is already flying drones as part of its border security, and the
Miami-Dade Police Department has sought and obtained authorization to create a
program of drone surveillance in urban law enforcement.
Dame's O'Connell, the CIA's drone use in Pakistan is already replacing a
difficult but achievable law enforcement challenge—arresting and putting
to trial suspected terrorists in a country where we are not at war—with
summary executions accompanied by civilian casualties Thus, a slippery slope is
already being descended.
moved from using drones just for data collection to weaponizing them, and we
quickly moved from battlefield use of drones to killing people beyond the lines
of any battlefields," O'Connell says. "So what will keep us from using them
with other crimes and in other locations, including the U.S.? In the civilian
context, that is something we should definitely be concerned about."
Indiana picture is of a state with substantial and varied ties to a robotics
revolution that is already transforming war and may soon do the same for law
enforcement and domestic surveillance. While elected officials like Senator
Bayh and institutions like Purdue University celebrate Indiana's drone
connections as an economic victory in a competition to bring some of the
billions of dollars in robotic combat spending to local communities, activists
like CODEPINK's Perdue see no reason to celebrate. "It breaks my heart to see
what we are doing in Indiana to sustain a form of warfare that both causes
civilian deaths and creates problems for the U.S. in terms of our global
image," she says.
reporting assistance by Jeff Cox