Regular readers will not be surprised to hear that I have some disagreements with many of Mr. Obama’s policy decisions but the president currently finds himself in the awkward pre-election position of being simultaneously perceived as both too liberal and too conservative depending upon the voter’s perspective. Our continued role in the eleven year Afghanistan war is no exception.
After heavily campaigning against current policies in 2008, the administration has doubled down on Guantanamo Bay and our ongoing practice of indefinite detention. Civil libertarians remain incensed by the president’s extension of the renditions program (outsourcing torture), targeted assassinations, questionable provisions in the NDAA and the enhancement of the controversial Patriot Act.
Regardless of ideology, nearly all people agree on one thing when it comes to Mr. Obama’s more hawkish endeavors, he’s exceptionally good at destroying both people and property with swarms of unmanned drones currently flying the unfriendly skies throughout the Middle East. To his credit, this is a far more efficient use of America’s technological advantage in the region but many critics are concerned about the effect of dehumanizing modern warfare and the eventual impact this may have on our willingness to pursue non-military solutions in the future.
Despite the conspicuous absence of daily body counts in the press, both the casualty list and the price tag of our Middle Eastern incursion continue to grow. According to CNS News, 70% of the total casualties in Afghanistan have occurred under President Obama’s watch. I can’t help but wonder what happened to that little group of anti-war protesters that used to gather on the parkway in Traverse City?
According to the National Priorities Project, the Bush administration spent a paltry $43.5 billion on the Afghanistan war in 2008 compared to Mr. Obama’s much more respectable $122 billion last year alone. This kinder, gentler and infinitely more nuanced approach, is now pushing a total expenditure of half a trillion dollars with daily spending in the neighborhood of $330 million. Readers who love the National Debt Clock may find the Cost of War website interesting as well.
Given these sobering statistics, the increased use of unmanned drones would be a logical course of action as long as we remain committed to this questionable conflict. At a cost between $4 million and $36.8 million, the average military drone is not a small investment but ultimately they offer many advantages compared to traditional reconnaissance or seek and destroy missions with actual boots on the ground. Under President Bush, the U.S. launched 52 drone strikes in Pakistan. Operating from secret bases throughout the region, the Obama administration has dramatically increased that number to nearly 280 so far, along with dozens more in Yemen and Somalia.
As reported by The Washington Post,
“Other commanders in chief have presided over wars with far higher casualty counts. But no president has ever relied so extensively on the secret killing of individuals to advance the nation’s security goals.
“The rapid expansion of the drone program has blurred long-standing boundaries between the CIA and the military. Lethal operations are increasingly assembled a la carte, piecing together personnel and equipment in ways that allow the White House to toggle between separate legal authorities that govern the use of lethal force.”
The Air Force’s MQ-1 Predator is probably the military’s best known drone, logging over 1,000,000 combat hours, but the new MQ-9 Reaper “Hunter-Killer” surpasses its predecessor in just about every ability with a 50,000 foot operational ceiling, a payload capacity of 1.5 tons and a variety of armaments including laser guided bombs, sidewinder missiles and numerous anti-personnel upgrades.
Drones are not permitted to fly in U.S. Air space without FAA approval but at least 266 active testing permits have already been granted for domestic operations and these UAVs are already in use by law enforcement agencies throughout the country. According to the Washington Times, provisions in the FAA Reauthorization Act, recently signed by the president, could allow as many as 30,000 drones to be patrolling our skies by 2020. The FAA itself predicts 10,000 drones in the air within 5 years.
Steven Aftergood of the Project on Government Secrecy comments,
“There are serious policy questions on the horizon about privacy and surveillance, by both government agencies and commercial entities.”
According to an AP story in The Air Force Times,
“Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of a House Homeland Security subcommittee, complained that no federal agency has been willing to tackle the issue of drones and privacy. He said Department of Homeland Security officials refused a request to testify at the hearing, saying regulating civilian use of drones wasn’t the department’s responsibility.”
Insect drones are currently in use today by military and covert personnel but nothing as sophisticated as the CGI image below (at least that we know of). Future “mosquito drones” may well be capable of taking DNA samples, injecting RFID chips (or poisons) as well transmitting audio and video to remote locations.
Our government does many things that average citizens might disapprove of and there’s probably not enough Prilosec in the world for most of us to stomach the dirty, closed door details of war and espionage, but privacy is something we can all appreciate. In the age of Eschelon and the Patriot Act, with bunkered government servers logging every email and keystroke, it’s often something we take for granted – or at least willingly cede in trade for our “protection”. It’s the cost of freedom in the modern age but this is a slippery slope and we’re currently standing up to our ankles in olive oil.
I have a great deal of respect for Charles Krauthammer and when he comments on such issues, we would do well to at least pay attention. Speaking recently on Fox News about drones flying in U.S. air space, Krauthammer said,
“I’m going to go hard left on you here, I’m going ACLU, I don’t want regulations, I don’t want restrictions, I want a ban on this. Drones are instruments of war. The Founders had a great aversion to any instruments of war, the use of the military inside even the United States. It didn’t like standing armies, it has all kinds of statutes of using the army in the country.
“A drone is a high-tech version of an old army and a musket. It ought to be used in Somalia to hunt bad guys but not in America. I don’t want to see it hovering over anybody’s home. Yes, you can say we have satellites, we’ve got Google Street View and London has a camera on every street corner but that’s not an excuse to cave in on everything else and accept a society where you’re always under — being watched by the government. This is not what we want.
“I would say that you ban it under all circumstances and I would predict, I’m not encouraging, but I am predicting that the first guy who uses a Second Amendment weapon to bring a drone down that’s been hovering over his house is going to be a folk hero in this country.”
It’s clear that this technology will be with us for some time to come and we should be thankful that American lives and initiatives will be saved overseas. As with all great scientific advancements, the potential for misuse often equals or exceeds the benefit to society. Drone on Mr. President, but let’s take the necessary precautions to ensure that the deck remains stacked against our enemies rather than our citizens.
Just love those laser guided bombs
They’re really great
For righting wrongs
You hit the target
And win the game
From bars 3,000 miles away
3,000 miles away
We play the game
With the bravery of being out of range
Roger Waters, The Bravery Of Being Out Of Range