Tag Archives: drones

Loitering With Intent: An Excerpt From Unmanned in Harper’s Magazine June 2015 Issue

This month’s issue of Harper’s Magazine features an exclusive excerpt from my book, Unmanned: Drones, Data, and the Illusion of Perfect Warfare, from Little, Brown and Company, out next month. A brief intro from the essay has been included below; for the full version, visit Harper’s website.


By William M. Arkin

If you have spent any time thinking about the exponential increase in the use of unmanned vehicles over the past decade, you have probably thought about the Predator drone. Every second of every day, about fifty Predators are airborne. Each weighs more than a ton and has wings that extend the length of four automobiles. They fly at altitudes of 15,000 to 25,000 feet and can stay aloft for more than forty hours. They conduct deadly missions in Afghanistan and Pakistan, fly quietly over Yemen and Syria, assist law enforcement in Africa and Latin America, patrol borders, monitor oceans, and do civilian and scientific work of all kinds.

Government propaganda, the news media, and Hollywood movies characterize drones almost exclusively as high-flying hunterkillers and all-seeing information machines. In fact, more than 90  percent of the world’s drones are small, short-range, and unarmed. Only about 5 percent of the drones operated by the U.S. government are as large as manned airplanes. Predators, which garner so much of the public’s attention, make up an even smaller subset—there are just a few hundred worldwide. Most U.S. military drones belong to a single type—a 4.2-pound spy machine called the Raven. These and other human-portable devices are all but standard government issue for soldiers these days, like binoculars or radios. They are remarkable, to be sure, but they are remarkable mostly in the way of smartphones: omnipresent, ultraconvenient, annoying, distancing, and subtly threatening to privacy and security. There’s no doubt that they exert an influence on our society, even if the ultimate nature of that influence is unclear.

The civilian market for unmanned vehicles has expanded to serve scientific, industrial, consumer, educational, and entertainment purposes. Drones play an increasing role in industries as diverse as real estate and journalism, weather forecasting and agriculture. They identify forest fires and pipeline leaks, relay radio signals, and assist in archaeological and environmental research. They have also, of course, become popular with local, state, and federal law enforcement. Border agencies and police departments, emulating their military counterparts, have acquired unmanned vehicles not just for bomb disposal and other dangerous missions but also for intelligence collection and surveillance. Advances in information technology, nanotechnology, and even genetics, together with the continued miniaturization of nearly everything, are propelling an astonishing acceleration of drone capabilities. The future promises personal drones of amazing sophistication that weigh just a gram.


The Destruction of Gilgamesh at the Mosul Museum and Why It’s about so Much More than Artifacts

The sad part of this story is that neither ISIS nor anyone in the West really understands the importance of Gilgamesh. I ruminate about this extensively in my upcoming book, Unmanned: Drones, Data, and the Illusion of Perfect Warfare. As I say in conclusion:

“The Epic of Gilgamesh is about what it means to be human. In the original Sumerian version, laid down before Babylonian times, the king finds Utanapishti and receives not just the story of the flood but also long-lost information on practices and rituals that had fallen out of use after the deluge. Gilgamesh returns to Uruk to restore the old ways and be more civilized, which means, amongst other things, ruling wisely and caring for a human community. A hero who at the beginning of the Epic is clearly closer to the gods than to ordinary mortals, a bumbling superpower labeled a “wild bull on the rampage,” grows and learns that he is not all-powerful or all-knowing, that he will not live forever. He is a man, after all, even if he is divine. Beginning and ending with stanzas that emphasize the magnificence of the walls of Uruk, the whole narrative exudes the message that what man leaves behind is his only hope for immortality.”

Gilgamesh is also a crucial black box on American drones. One of those magic devices that has convinced us that what we are doing in the war on terrorism is logical and precise. We are all-seeing; they are all-seeing. No wonder we are in an era of perpetual warfare.

Click here to pre-order your copy.

Cash Jamboree Continues at the Pentagon

What with President Obama feting Iraqi war veterans at the White House last night, you’d think the war was over.  But over at the war profiteer banquet, it’s still a cash-engorged jamboree, the spigot still delivering Enron-sized billions.

Two weapons developed under emergency circumstances to support the troops for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have done their part in breaking the bank: unmanned drones and counter-improvised explosive devices.  Despite budget pressures and cutbacks though, they just can’t make their own transition to peacetime.  They hide behind the troops, whom everyone is afraid to short-change or put on a spending diet.

One’s gotta ask whether the future threat justifies the activity and the level-of-effort is still required.  Ironically if the answer is yes, perhaps we should be taking much more seriously the long war advocates so lovingly eying the future and licking their chops for more.

The problem in assessing these two weapons is that they are not big identifiable pieces of hardware in a conventional sense, not ships or fighter planes or tanks.  They are more systems (or even processes), demanding pockets of hardware spending, enormous information technology and software spending, communications demands, and various analysis efforts.

Take the effort to counter-IEDs.  In the latest General Accountability Office report Opportunities to Reduce Duplication, Overlap and Fragmentation, Achieve Savings, and Enhance Revenue, the grotesque billion dollar levels of duplication and waste are handled in that sort of gentile way that the GAO is famous for: not enough life rafts on the Titanic (the audit of the sinking ship approach) or too many entities working on the same efforts, no matter how asinine (the do we need three ray guns to shoot down UFOs approach).

The GAO reminds us, that “The threat of improvised explosive devices (IED) continues to be a major concern in Afghanistan, as well as to other areas throughout the world with over 500 reported IED events per month worldwide outside of Southwest Asia according to Department of Defense (DOD) officials.”  I won’t even go into the definitional shenanigans that go into making up that 500 number, but suffice it to say everything and anything that goes bang in the world is now labeled an IED, inflating the ‘threat’ to the U.S. military.

Congress has appropriated over $18 billion to the Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), created in 2006.  Not only are there several “examples of duplication,” the GAO says, but outside of the JIEDDO, the DOD agencies and military services are all spending our money on their own on the problem and no one has full visibility over all of the program or knows how much.  The report says that six different directed energy systems – laser, high-powered microwave – are being developed to neutralize IEDs.  The GAO never says WTF with regard to whether any are really needed, but does say that none have actually been deployed to the war zone, the war profiteers in their third decade of research, attaching their programs to whatever problem of the day justifies more money.  Multiple efforts of duplication are also noted in the development of a ground-based jammer to counter-IEDs.  Despite the fact that the Navy was assigned responsibility to develop the main jammer, the Army went ahead and developed its own, called DUKE, which the GAO says, will cost $1.062 billion when completed and installed.   The situation with some 70 electronic data collection and analysis tools that are being developed for counter-IED intelligence work is just as bad.  Even when the JIEDDO canceled development of one system, the Defense Intelligence Agency decided to continue to fund the same system.

The situation with unmanned aircraft systems is even more chaotic and expensive.  The GAO estimates that the cost of current unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) acquisition programs and related systems will exceed $37.5 billion in fiscal years 2012 through 2016.  While most attention is focused on Predator and its up-powered cousin Reaper, these systems represent only about two percent of the 6,000 plus unmanned systems the services have purchased since 9/11. And like counter-IED work, the money doesn’t just go into the airframes.  The GAO found 29 different sensor types being developed to put on various systems.  In just one case, the GAO found that if the Army and Air Force had joined development for one system that was identical, $1.2 billion could have been saved.

There’s always some reason why common approaches weren’t pursued, why consolidation efforts faltered, why management devices floundered.  Maybe it would be useful for the vets themselves to speak out on this cash-laden travesty, but then, that’s not going to happen when so many go to work for the very companies who make the cash.