Drones, Drones Everywhere, and now we’ve given them to Iran

The American deployment of its thousands of drones or unmanned aircraft is one dimension of the breakdown of the rule of law. The US sends the spy craft over other countries without permission and in the teeth of ardent protests, violating their sovereignty. There are now plans to fly drones over US towns, as part of our descent into an Orwellian surveillance society.

It is bad enough that the US has all those drones. Now the technology is spreading to anti-American powers in the Middle East. Iran has announced that it is reverse-engineering a US spy drone that crashed on Iranian territory. Rumors are swirling that Russia and China also want a peek at the specs. The Iranian authorities maintain that they have broken the software encryption of the drone, and have been able to verify its past missions and history of repair.

If Iran has these new kinds of sophisticated radar-defying American-style drones, how long will it be before Hizbullah, the Shiite party of south Lebanon, has them and uses them over Israel? (The old Hizbullah drones will have been quite primitive in comparison.)

The drones are also a big sticking point for the relationship of the US with its ally, Pakistan.

In a development most Americans won’t have paid much attention to, the elected Pakistani parliament has injected itself into foreign policy. After the US killed 24 Pakistani troops on the border with Afghanistan last winter, Pakistan stopped the NATO truck traffic that went up from the port of Karachi to the Khyber Pass, and which provisioned US and NATO troops. The parliament then launched an overview of the relationship, and recommended the banning of US drones over Pakistani soil.

The US has insisted that it will pay no attention to the Pakistani parliament, and will continue to deploy the drones in violation of Pakistani sovereignty. This, despite the argument that the drone strikes actually drive Pakistanis into anti-Americanism.

Then there are the ongoing drone strikes by the US in Yemen. Initially these attacks had been secretly authorized by then President Ali Abdullah Saleh. But Saleh has been deposed and Yemenis have become more active politically, and it is not clear what the legal status of the US drone strikes in Yemen is. Now it transpires that CIA director David Petraeus is seeking the authority to launch drone strikes on Yemenis even when their identity is unknown.

The drones are perfect for the imperial presidency. They don’t talk back, don’t have rogue cells, and they are outside that pesky international law. The potential here for blowback is enormous (when a covert operation creates of a foe of new potency instead). The news that Iran might have drones, courtesy the US, won’t set anyone’s mind at ease.

14 Responses

  1. Dear Professor Cole

    “If Iran has drones, how long will it be before Hizbullah, the Shiite party of south Lebanon, has them and uses them over Israel? ”

    Probably quite a time.

    The aircraft itself is only the platform. The drone seems to be designed for substantial lift and not high speed.

    It is therefore vulnerable to conventional fighter aircraft and a decent radar system.

    The drone captured was only a reconaissance drone so to use it as an offensive weapon there is also a requirement for missiles to be added, requiring further delivery of identifiable weapons systems.

    To make sucessful use of drones there is a requirement for a satellite system to pass the signals and for very substantial encryption and error correction to compensate for the low signal strength.

    Finally there is also a requirement for a ground station to fly the things from. This ground station will be easily identifiable to aerial reconaissance due to the emitted radiation on the satellite uplink which will make it vulnerable to an Anti Radiation Missile. link to en.wikipedia.org

    Ground stations are also vulnerable to commando or special forces raids, which is why much US drone activity is flown from Virginia.

    This last obstacle can of course be overcome by basing the ground station in another country

  2. What a great article.

    Hmmm…

    A foreign power’s drone cruises over the Pentagon…why not?

    Wouldn’t be long before there would be explicit international laws prohibiting this…how long can the party last…

  3. Drones also provide the Administration’s with the imagery of “surgical” strikes in which technology is harnessed to limit the potential damage of warfare while simultaneously expanding the War on Terror. It doesn’t matter if this isn’t the case — and it most certainly is not, given the amount of non-combatants killed in these strikes. What matters is that it provides this President a way to distinguish his from the previous regime (“We’re smarter in our war-making”) while allowing him to boast of his militarism (“Look how many terrorist I kill”). Abetted by a compliant media and a public that both doesn’t care (drones kill “terrorists,” after all) and takes pride in this presumed technological superiority, it’s the perfect narrative devise for the “good” War on Terror.

  4. Further, the drones are an admission of defeat. Drones may be a valuable weapon for an attacking army like bombers and conventional missiles. But once the invading army has been defeated and is withdrawing, drones will not turn a defeat into a victory. They are no more effective than booby traps and land mines left behind, nothing more that pot shots as you head for the door.

    Drones also say something else; the defeated army has lost the will to fight. The leadership is no longer willing to shed their own blood for victory. The “enemy” clearly sees this even if we don’t.

  5. So Iran The Evil One, the Great Reification of the Moment, has a back-engineerable drone to work from. It ain’t like the Experienced people in Iran who play the Great Game can’t go out and buy drones, and missiles, and Nukular Weapons Technology, from Chinese or NKor or Paki or Israeli fronts or a dozen other sources, including nominal “American” war toy makers and bidnesses “just trying to make a buck.”

    The drone thing is just one tiny piece in the jigsaw of little consumptive technologisticalisms and initiatives and opportunities that we humans at one scale think are just so peachy and profit-centering and advantageous, but at another scale, well… Put the pieces together, if you can, and the puzzle looks ever more strongly like Armageddon, or near enough that the survivors might envy the dead…

  6. I agree with the last comment – drones are like Tamerlane’s raids – they hurt, but they don’t change anything, and they focus the other side on getting even. Iraq showed the US Army as hollow, so it would be better to concentrate on making friends rather than irritating people who know you can’t really afford to go to war with them.

  7. Drones like other military technology must be seen at least in part — though I’d say primarily — as a means for the manufacturer to induce the USA (or other warrior) to spend lots of money with that particular manufacturer.

    Of course, guided missiles and aircraft are far more expensive and make for more money for their mfrs per item, but the USA buys fewer of them (I’d suppose).

    NOTE: the mfr doesn’t care if the use of the drones is legal or useful or even helps USA-imperialist aims, and the military folks who plump for using them have an eye on lucrative post-military employment.

  8. Prosecution of war is contingent upon dehumanizing the ‘enemy’. Using a non-human combatant removes the face of the ‘liberator’, thus making modern warfare a mirror of video games, albeit a distorted, ‘circus’ mirror image.

  9. The concept of translating a captured drone into a technological boon for Iran is not automatic.

    North Vietnam shot down dozens of B-52, F-111, F-4 and F-5 aircraft over its territory during the Vietnam War, but that did not translate to North Vietnam or its allies in the Communist world becoming equals to the U.S. in air power.

    The U.S. however should be honoring the air space of its allies.

    Also, to the extent that drones are deployed for targeted extrajudicial killings on foreign soil, Americans should be outraged. One CIA drone targeting and killing an alleged Al-Qaeda leader had killed many additional civilians as “collateral damage”. Even some U.S. military leaders have condemned this use as drones as incompatible with American legal obligations. The British have claimed that it could never get away with the targeted killings employed by Israel; America should not get involved in the bathos of morality that Israel does by involvving itself in targeted extrajudicial assassinations.

  10. The points made in the comments are very good. I would like to add that capturing an American drone may not even be the right way to get into the drone biz; we live in a golden age of dirt-cheap, Chinese-built RC planes and helicopters. All of these, like their fairly expensive Pentagon cousins, are practically 1930s technology from an airframe and propulsion standpoint. The advanced stuff is in the software and communications, but by that token if Iran were to copy a drone down to its software, that risks it being hijacked or deceived by American countersignals. Beter to develop a completely different approach to control and force our guys to figure it out.

    I do think we will see everyone use drones in the future, because of the simple facts of global capitalism: in order to crush our own working wages while continuing to sell us goodies, our oligarchy has shipped almost all high-tech manufacturing overseas. The drone is as compatible with a Chinese circuit or toy factory as a bomber or a tank was with the great American car factories of the 1940s. For every mil-spec one we build, they will build a hundred crappy ones. Not just flying drones, but tiny wheeled drones, undersea drones, and crawling drones will make all our lives miserable in future wars. Just because a 12-year-old guerrilla’s life is cheap doesn’t mean he can’t enthusiastically exploit these technologies.

    But this blindingly obvious idea simply doesn’t occur to us in rich countries who are driving this process, just as it never occurred to them when they were using Maxim guns to slaughter and enslave the 3rd World that one day their victims would have cheap Kalashnikovs to turn the tables on them. We’re just too racist to believe that poor non-whites are as smart as we are and can master technology.

  11. “This, despite the argument that the drone strikes actually drive Pakistanis into anti-Americanism.”

    No surprise here. U.S. foreign policy has a history of disregarding long-term effects of their policies – especially as it relates to the Middle East. The real wonder is that Americans don’t understand why so many countries have such deep-seated hatred toward us.

  12. The Air Force is finding that drones have limitations.

    For one, they have an atrocious accident rate. Bad enough when it’s a $4.5 million Predator, but completely unacceptable when it’s a $35 million Global Hawk.

    The Global Hawk was originally intended to replace the U-2, but they’ve decided to keep the U-2 and ditch the Global Hawk.

  13. We’ve now got about a dozen of ‘em patrolling the Canadian-US border. Harper recently gave the US permission to patrol right up to the border (there used to be a limit to how close the US could come for the purpose of spying, but Harper drools all over the US when it’s being its most paranoid).

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