Unpiloted Aerial Vehicles (or drones) more and more are becoming the weapon of choice for America's international War on Terror. The Predator and the Reaper models, in particular, have become so popular that, in its 2011 budget, the Air Force is requesting more drones than piloted combat aircraft.
Capable of staying aloft unobserved for 24 hours at time and conducting surveillance with spy cameras, at a moment's notice, these hunter/killer drones abruptly can launch their Hellfire guided missiles and smart bombs at suspected terrorists. The missions for these robot warriors now range from standard military operations in Afghanistan, to targeted assassinations of al-Qaida and Taliban leaders in Pakistan coordinated by the CIA and even the notorious private security firm, Blackwater (now called Xe).
And though its name is almost never mentioned, U.S. Strategic Command here in Nebraska is an active accomplice in each and every one of these drone flights.
StratCom, with its Space, Intelligence/Surveillance/Reconnaissance and Global Strike missions, is integrally involved at every stage of these missions-from the intelligence-gathering to the targeting to the actual ‘flying' of these satellite-controlled aircraft.
Before our very eyes, these airborne robots are changing the art and rules of warfare.
But the butchery that their space-directed missiles and bombs wreak down on the ground is as grisly and hideous ever.
In 2009, the CIA's almost weekly clandestine drone attacks in Pakistan were credited with killing anywhere from 350 to 550 people-many of them innocent civilians, including children. The non-combatant death toll has fed anti-American sentiment in that country, threatening the stability of the 1-year-old elected government and its stockpile of nuclear weapons.
No less problematic is the fact that these deaths of innocent bystanders have served as a recruiting tool for both al-Qaida and the Taliban. As David Kilcullen, a counter-insurgency warfare expert who advised Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq, bluntly puts it, "Every one of these non-combatants represents an alienated family, a new revenge feud, and more recruits for a militant movement that has grown exponentially even as drone strikes have increased."
War by robot may be reducing U.S. fatalities, which the folks here at home undoubtedly appreciate. The message it is sending to the developing world, though-of an imperial power that kills brutally, indiscriminately and impersonally-is arriving with the force of a Hellfire missile. And it's creating serious political blowback for the Obama administration.
The ramifications of this drone warfare policy go even deeper, however-right to the core of our democratic system of governance. With the CIA and even mercenary outfits like Blackwater/Xe now regularly assassinating so-called high-value targets on the U.S. government's behalf, where's the accountability? Who exactly is drawing up these hit lists and on whose authority? Covert entities like the CIA whose disregard for legislative oversight is legendary? Soldiers for hire like Blackwater who kill in America's name? Can our senators and representatives in Washington tell us? Do they even know?
And let's not forget StratCom. With eight different military missions in its quiver (including combating weapons of mass destruction and cyberwarfare), StratCom today-in the words of its current commander, Gen. Kevin Chilton-is "the most responsive combatant command in the U.S. arsenal." Now charged with split second authority to engage and defeat terrorism, StratCom is routinely skating on the edges of national and international law, practicing what's beginning to look worrisomely like vigilante justice.
Drone warfare is inhuman, inherently undemocratic and based right in Nebraskans' backyard at U.S. Strategic Command. Our democratic system of checks and balances, however, was never designed to deal with a phenomenon like robot war and this dangerous drift in our nation's military policy.
Legally and militarily, this is a spooky new world we are blundering into. And our elected officials need to know that we're worried and we're watching to see what they plan to do about it.
Tim Rinner is state coordinator for Nebraskans for Peace.