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The setup is familiar by now, if only because the image has long-since bled into pop culture ubiquity. A four-wheel-drive races across the desert floor somewhere in the badlands of eastern Yemen, a long wake of dust trailing behind in the baking air.

Unbeknownst to the five occupants of the vehicle, this scene exists also in cyberspace. The car’s precise location, its speed and bearing, a detailed dossier on one of the passengers and considered speculation on the others. A pixelated image of the tiny glittering speck is routed through a small constellation of satellites, through a ground station in central Australia, parsed through an operations centre in the United States, and bounced back again to the reaper drone wheeling two miles above. The feedback loop is seamless, conducted at the speed of light.

Time’s up. An anti-tank missile howls out of the sky. The vehicle detonates.

It will later be alleged that one of the dead is a member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a group who shares its political lineage with the network that flew passenger aircraft into the Pentagon and the World Trade Centre in September 2001. Two things about terrorism were burned into the western collective consciousness on that bleak morning: terrorists kill indiscriminately, and they have casual regard for international law. The fiery catastrophe in downtown Manhattan casts long shadows even today.

Australia is a long way from Yemen. It is also well-insulated from the fierce debates that rage in the United States and halls of the United Nations about the wisdom and legality of US president Barack Obama’s radical expansion of drone warfare into half a dozen countries. So when it was revealed in April 2014 that one of the casualties of the drone strike in back-country Yemen was Australian and another a dual Australian–New Zealand citizen, we paused.

Journalists from the Australian press tried to piece the story together. They didn’t have much to go on: a terse statement from the Australian and New Zealand governments, and some brief comments from an unnamed intelligence source. The two Australians were alleged to have been placed on an Australian Federal Police watch list because of their associations with AQAP, and Julie Bishop, the foreign minister, sharply denied any prior knowledge of the operation that killed them.

Then… nothing. Over the horizon, the war on terror continues, and in wars, people are killed. Christopher Havard, formerly of Townsville, Queensland. Muslim bin John, formerly of Christchurch, New Zealand.

Australia got on with the business of the early 21st century. An unreasonably warm summer. A royal visit to Uluru, not far from the Pine Gap joint defence facility that probably transacted the extrajudicial death sentence last November. The harshest, most ideologically unhinged budget in modern history. The State of Origin came and went.

The time for Havard’s family to raise $30,000 to repatriate his remains ran out, and now the drone strike that killed two Australians is buried under the accumulated strata of news, gossip and sport laid down in successive months.

That is how our attorney-general would like it to remain: forgotten and inconsequential. In two estimates hearings in late May he took a brief respite from the doomed defence of his racial vilification amendments to address my questions on the killing of the Australians last summer. In six years of sharing a workplace with senator George Brandis, I’ve developed personal strategies to deal with his pompous blend of condescension and inadequacy. I must admit, they failed me the other night.

I asked whether the government was confident that such strikes are in fact legal at international law. The attorney-general replied “I am not aware that the Australian government has a view of legality of these matters in any event,” and later, “this has nothing to do with Australia”.

The rest of the conversation was the usual smug invocation of national security, the great blindfold through which the country shall not be permitted to see – for our own safety of course. That this is “nothing to do with Australia” demonstrates Brandis’ calculated ignorance: jointly operated installations like Pine Gap almost certainly play a central role in drone warfare in the Middle East and Africa, supposedly with the “full knowledge and concurrence” of Australian authorities.

The fact that finding yourself on an AFP watchlist – not charged with any crime in particular – can result in a death penalty meted out on the other side of the world, is bad enough. The US bureau of investigative journalism estimated more than a thousand civilians have been killed in drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, including dozens of children. The real number of civilians killed in these assassinations is likely to be much higher, as the US military considers any male of fighting age who happens to be in the blast radius of a listed target to be a combatant, unless post-strike evaluation shows otherwise.

For targeted communities on the ground, being killed in a drone strike is indistinguishable from being killed by a cruise missile or a piloted warplane. Nothing exempts the operators of remote-piloted vehicles from either human rights law or the laws of war just because the technology is novel. In a speech in Pakistan in 2013, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon noted:

[T]he use of armed drones, like any other weapon, should be subject to long-standing rules of international law, including international humanitarian law … Every effort should be made to avoid mistakes and civilian casualties…

The framers of the UN Charter, working after the trauma of the second world war, laid down the modern legal foundation for non-aggression between states. We can hardly blame them for failing to foresee the emergence of stateless terror networks like Al Qaeda, the privatisation of war, or the relentless development of ever-more autonomous weapons systems.

The US government has relied on a combination of secrecy, remoteness, legal ambiguity and the overriding imperatives of the war on terror to insist that their drone strikes are lawful, do not amount to extrajudicial killings, and minimise civilian harm in all instances. The question for us is twofold.

First, the legal standard we accept from our ally is the standard we will be stuck with when unregulated swarms of weaponised Russian, Chinese, Iranian and Indonesian drones begin incinerating people in the name of their own legally dubious wars on “terror”.

Second, the march of technology is removing human agency further from the decision to strike. Serious civil society debates are now underway on the best path to formally ban fully-autonomous weapons, using some of the same legal tools applied to chemical and biological weapons.

The first step is to acknowledge that turning a blind eye to this conduct, on behalf of our ally the US – or anyone else – is wrong. Superpowers kill with little regard for international law. In the age of the drone, an increasingly porous and borderless world, what constitutes genuine human security is now an open question.

Originally posted in The Guardian

China’s military spending exceeded $145 billion last year as it advanced a program modernizing an arsenal of drones, warships, jets, missiles and cyber weapons, the Pentagon said on Thursday, offering a far higher figure than Beijing’s official tally.

The Pentagon’s estimate, using 2013 prices and exchange rates, was 21 percent above the $119.5 billion figure announced by China. It was detailed in an annual report to Congress that cited steady progress in Chinese defense capabilities.

It acknowledged that estimating Chinese spending can be difficult, in part because of “poor accounting transparency and incomplete transition from a command economy.”

China’s Defense Ministry, in a statement on its website, said it was “resolutely opposed” to the Pentagon report.

“Year after year the United States issues this so-called report on ‘Military and Security Developments in China,’ making preposterous criticisms of China’s normal defense and military building, exaggerating the ‘China military threat’, which is totally wrong,” it said.

“As for the detailed contents of this year’s U.S. report, we are currently assessing it, and will react further, depending on the situation.”

The report came just days after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, using unusually strong language, accused Beijing of destabilizing the region in pursuit of territorial claims.

China claims almost the entire oil- and gas-rich South China Sea and dismisses competing claims from Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. Japan also has a territorial dispute with China over islands in the East China Sea.

The 96-page report said China was placing emphasis on preparing for potential contingencies in the South and East China Seas, noting an October drill named Maneuver 5 in the Philippine Sea.

The drill, the Pentagon said, was the largest Chinese Navy open-ocean exercise seen to date.

“China’s military investments provide it with a growing ability to project power at increasingly longer ranges,” the report said.

The United States last month charged five Chinese military officers and accused them of hacking into American nuclear, metal and solar companies to steal trade secrets, ratcheting up tensions between the two world powers over cyber espionage.

The Pentagon report renewed warnings over cyber intrusions.

“China is using its … capability to support intelligence collection against the U.S. diplomatic, economic, and defense industrial base sectors that support U.S. national defense program,” it said.

The Pentagon also cited advances in Chinese drone technology. It pointed to a Defense Science Board report cautioning Beijing’s push “combines unlimited resources with technological awareness that might allow China to match or even outpace U.S. spending on unmanned systems in the future.”

It noted that in September 2013, a “probable” Chinese drone was noted for the first time conducting reconnaissance over the East China Sea. China also unveiled details of four drones under development in 2013, including the Lijian, China’s first stealth drone, it said.

Originally posted on Reuters. The article mostly takes a US point of view but its still interesting.

Note: Lawmakers seem to be criticizing it for being NOT perfect enough & precise enough. Still, its an interesting art even.though it doesn’t really question the growing amount of drones (which it calls the “robotic revolution”).

A U.S. Navy plan for aircraft carrier-based drones has launched a dogfight in Washington over the role of the robotic planes in combat.

The Navy has asked contractors for reconnaissance drones — essentially spy planes, with only limited ability to carry out bombing missions behind enemy lines.

But key congressional leaders want cutting-edge warplanes, stealthy drones that can attack key targets in contested areas with little more than a mouse click. If they get their way, the program, which would produce the military’s first carrier-based drones, could end aviation as the Navy has known it, observers say.

“It could usher in a new era in which major strike missions are turned over to a machine. That will be difficult for many carrier aviators to swallow,” said Samuel D. Brannen, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former Pentagon strategist.

The Navy’s plans to deploy the drones within the next decade came to an abrupt halt this month when key members of Congress said the program is shortsighted. Lawmakers halted all funding until the secretary of Defense can complete a top-to-bottom review.

Four of the nation’s largest military weapons makers are waiting to see how the skirmish plays out: Northrop Grumman Corp., Boeing Co., Lockheed Martin Corp. and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. Much of these companies’ drone operations are based in Southern California, and they would welcome the work at a time when defense spending on weapons is expected to shrink.

The controversy heated up when the Navy first sent classified proposals for the drone program to four contractors. The industry was expecting a bold plan to build radar-evading aircraft capable of challenging bombing missions. But it was apparently not what they received.

Upon seeing the Navy’s conservative request for spy planes, leaders on the House Armed Services Committee questioned whether the Navy is being too restrictive.

“I feel very strongly that we can’t make a mistake on this program,” said Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), chairman of a subcommittee that oversees Navy programs. “It’s going to be critical for decades to come.”

He believes Navy brass is hesitant to turn over strategic bombing missions in contested areas of the world — now carried out by seasoned fighter pilots — to drones.

Forbes said the Navy needs a next-generation drone that will overwhelm potential adversaries — such as China, South Korea and Russia — that have made multibillion-dollar investments in advanced missiles and radar detection.

Now, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel must assess the requirements before funding of the drone program resumes. Under a provision tucked into the annual defense policy bill, Hagel will either sign off on the current plans or force the Navy to move closer to the stealthy, long-range strike drone that many in Congress desire. It’s a debate that has raged in Washington since the advent of drone technology: How much responsibility will be taken from pilots and given to machines?

“There’s a cultural issue there,” Forbes said. “We’ve had to have these arguments with the Pentagon before.”

He recalled having to push the Air Force to buy remotely piloted Predator drones in the 1990s. The Air Force was at first reluctant, but the program was fueled by pressure from local lawmakers, such as Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Santa Clarita) and now retired Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands).

The technology is now a centerpiece in the Obama administration’s national security strategy.

Although drones have been a major part of Air Force operations for more than a decade, the Navy has yet to experience such a robotic revolution.

Navy spokesman Joe Gradisher said drone aircraft, which probably would be controlled remotely from the carriers, would eventually perform many missions currently performed by manned aircraft, including bombing missions. But drones will have a secondary role.

“Unmanned enhances manned strike aircraft,” he said, “but doesn’t replace them as the primary strike force as part of the carrier air wing.”

The dispute over carrier drones can be traced to an industry demonstration last year of a drone performing crucial maneuvers with pilot-like precision.

The X-47B, a stealthy bat-winged drone built by Northrop Grumman, was catapulted off an aircraft carrier’s flight deck and soared above the Atlantic before returning for a landing. The historic feat was compared to the Navy’s first catapult of a manned aircraft, which occurred in 1915.

“It isn’t very often you get a glimpse of the future,” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said at the time. “The operational unmanned aircraft soon to be developed have the opportunity to radically change the way presence and combat power are delivered from our aircraft carriers.”

Now, there are questions about whether the Navy is going to deliver on that promise.

The cost of the program, known as Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike, is estimated at as much as $5.9 billion through 2020, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Plans for the Navy’s drone program come as Congress and the Pentagon are coping with budget uncertainty and expensive weapons systems already in the works.

The Navy has spent more than a decade preparing for its latest generation of manned warplane: the controversial F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The radar-evading jet, built by Lockheed, is scheduled to be a fixture on carrier decks when it becomes operational in 2019.

It’s only about halfway through its development plan and plagued by billions of dollars in cost overruns. There has also been a string of technical problems, including a redesign of its arresting hook, which is essential to landing on a carrier deck.

A deep-penetrating stealthy drone that could fly farther and longer could be seen as a potential challenger to the nearly $400-billion F-35 program. And the program has sweeping congressional support because it provides 127,000 direct and indirect jobs in 47 states and Puerto Rico.

“This could turn into a political food fight,” said Robert C. Martinage, formerly acting undersecretary of the Navy and now at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “Drones have disrupted the military’s usual way of doing things. And there’s a lot of pressure to get this program right.”

————
FOR THE RECORD:
This article lists South Korea as a potential adversary of the United States. It should have said North Korea.
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Originally posted by the LA Times

Jon Boone | The Guardian

Anti-drone protest in Pakistan

The political party led by the former cricket star Imran Khan claims to have blown the cover of the CIA‘s most senior officer in Pakistan as part of an increasingly high-stakes campaign against US drone strikes.

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party named a man it claimed was head of the CIA station in Islamabad in a letter to police demanding he be nominated as one of the people responsible for a drone strike on 21 November, which killed five militants including senior commanders of the Haqqani Network.

John Brennan, the CIA director, was also nominated as an “accused person” for murder and “waging war against Pakistan”.

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Joe Scarry | Scarry Thoughts

I’ve written about how the United States is embarking on a whole new chapter in its history of waging perpetual war -this time in Africa. So I wasn’t surprised to be reminded about some of the African countries that have seen U.S. drone use (Somalia, Libya, Mali, Sudan) at the drones conference this past weekend.

What I was surprised by is the central role of Germany in all this.

At the conference, filmmaker and journalist Elsa Rassbach from Drohnen-Kampagne: Keine Kampfrohnen (Drone Campaign Germany: NO COMBAT DRONES) brought us up to speed on key facts, including the following:

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Chris Cole | Drone Wars UK

It was a joy to meet many readers of this blog at Code Pink’s Drone Summit in Washington DC this weekend.  Over 400 drone campaigners and researchers gathered together to learn, strategize and build the movement to challenge the growing use of armed drone.  Cornell Westkicked off the summit with an uncompromising, angry and forward-looking keynote speech that set the tone for the weekend.

The first day focused on information sharing with the an excellent panel sessions on the legality of drone warfare featuring Pardiss Kebriaeli of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), Marjorie Cohn (who wrote about the gathering on Huffington Post) and the wonderful Mary Ellen O’Connell. I spoke on a panel about proliferation issues along with Israeli researcher Dalit Baum of Who Profits?, German drone campaigner Elsa Rassbach and Noel Sharkey of ICRAC and the Killer Robots campaign.  Video of that session and others is available here

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