Less than a month after a group of U.S. Air Force whistleblowers spoke out against "the devastating effects the drone program has overseas and at home," the branch announced its desire for a vast expansion of the drone war.
The Air Force announced its recommendations, which include doubling the number of drone pilots, Thursday.
Reporting on the development Friday for the Tribune News Service, W.J. Hennigan writes that it's a "$3 billion plan, which must be approved by Congress," and that it "comes as the Pentagon has intensified airstrikes on Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria."
Those strikes, according to transparency group Airwars, have killed as many as 996 civilians.
The development also comes as the military arm is facing a shortage of drone operators and weapons.
USA Today reported last week that the Air Force is "depleting its stocks of munitions" in its fight against ISIS, having dropped so many bombs in its campaign that it's scrambling to find more.
And as Hennigan reported last month, the military has addressed the dearth of drone pilots by turning to civilian contractors:
"The Air Force has hired civilian defense contractors to fly MQ-9 Reaper drones to help track suspected militants and other targets in global hot spots, a previously undisclosed expansion in the privatization of once-exclusively military functions."
Civilians are not allowed to pinpoint targets with lasers or fire missiles. They operate only Reapers that provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, known as ISR, said Air Force Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, head of Air Combat Command.
"There are limitations on it," he said. The contractors "are not combatants."
But that appears to contradict another statement by Carlisle reported by Hennigan Friday.
"Right now, 100 percent of the time, when a MQ-1 or MQ-9 crew goes in, all they do is combat," Carlisle said.
Hennigan's reporting from November adds:
Critics, including some military lawyers, contend that civilians are now part of what the Air Force calls the "kill chain," a process that starts with surveillance and ends with a missile launch. That could violate laws barring civilians from taking part in armed conflict.
In an article entitled "A Booming Business in Drone Pilot Training," Sandra Erwin wrote in National Defense Magazine Thursday that the move to private companies for the training can be a lucrative opportunity.
With fewer operators available to fly missions, let alone serve as instructors, the demand for private-sector services is on the rise.
The big money in this sector is in the training of Predator and Reaper aircraft pilots and sensor operators, not only in the United States but also internationally as more countries are eyeing purchases of the aircraft.
The consequences of the drone war, however, are often ignored by corporate media, as John Hanrahan wrote at ExposeFacts last week:
[M]ainstream news organizations make only occasional forays once or twice a year into reporting that is critical of the drone program (for example, this New York Times article from 2012 and one earlier this year).
What many Americans see or hear most of the time from the self-censoring mainstream media is superficial reporting on the latest drone strike that killed a certain number of what are almost always described in sketchy news stories as militants of one type or another. They also get frequent doses of propaganda and soothing assurances from the President and other Obama administration officials that the program of drones and other aerial bombardments is precise, takes special precaution not to kill civilians, but most importantly is making America safer by killing militants while keeping U.S. troops out of harm’s way.
As long as major U.S. news organizations continue to ignore, downplay or under-report drone stories, much of the American public will remain under-informed or ill-informed about what our drone strikes are doing to the citizens of many other countries, while at the same time turning ever more people against the United States.
Hanrahan points to one such omission in particular—the lack of coverage of a letter addressed to U.S. President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, and CIA Chief John Brennan last month by four former U.S. Air Force drone operators who warned that the United States' ongoing targeted killing program "is one of the most devastating driving forces for terrorism and destabilization around the world." They also accused the administration of "lying publicly about the effectiveness of the drone program."
Also largely ignored, Hanrahan noted, was the October publication by The Intercept of a series of articles called The Drone Papers based on documents leaked by a whistleblower. Amnesty International USA said that the documents "reveal the startling human costs of armed drone use and highlight chronic flaws in the decision-making process behind the strikes carried out in multiple countries," and showed that the program warrants an "immediate congressional inquiry."
The Air Force request this week comes as the Pentagon says the fight against ISIS has underscored the necessity of a buildup of new bases across Africa, Southwest Asia, and the Middle East to help its counterterrorism efforts. The New York Times reported Thursday that
senior military officials have told the White House that the network of bases would serve as hubs for Special Operations troops and intelligence operatives who would conduct counterterrorism missions for the foreseeable future. The plan would all but ensure what Pentagon officials call an “enduring” American military presence in some of the world’s most volatile regions.