CodePink's Head-Scratching War on Drones

CodePink serves a useful function in American politics: If you want to know what the sensible political position is on any topic, just look at what CodePink opposes and that's what you should support. It operates as a sort of all-purpose antipodal political indicator, invariably occupying the point exactly opposite the sweet spot on the political sphere.

It is therefore noteworthy that over the last couple of months CodePink has turned its rosy attentions to something unexpected: drones. Not the stingless little honeybee kind of drones, but the pilotless aircraft the military uses -- and these can carry quite a nasty sting indeed.

Though it has received very little (if any) attention from the media, since November CodePink has waged an all-out anti-drone campaign, embarking on protest caravans to drone control centers, staging hunger strikes outside Creech Air Force Base in the Nevada desert from which many drones are remotely piloted, and hanging anti-drone banners off freeway overpasses in Berkeley and elsewhere.

And in one way CodePink's assessment is correct: The U.S. military has indeed taken to using drones with ever greater frequency -- and efficacy. Just this week, two American drones attacked and killed 13 Islamic militants in Pakistan, possibly in retaliation for the suicide bomber who killed several CIA agents in Afghanistan last week.

Of course when I say the drones "attacked and killed" the militants, it wasn't really the drones doing it autonomously; an Air Force pilot was undoubtedly controlling each drone, with our military command structure giving the go-ahead for each strike. The drones are just the weapon; it's still people who are pulling the trigger.

And this recent attack is no fluke -- exactly as CodePink fears, the military is amping up its development and use of drones. As reported here at the Belmont Club and at Wired, the Air Force has recently completed development of and has possibly already started deploying a tiny drone that's straight out of a futuristic novel:

The Air Force Research Laboratory set out in 2008 to build the ultimate assassination robot: a tiny, armed drone for U.S. special forces to employ in terminating “high-value targets.” The military won’t say exactly what happened to this Project Anubis, named after a jackal-headed god of the dead in Egyptian mythology. But military budget documents note that Air Force engineers were successful in “develop[ing] a Micro-Air Vehicle (MAV) with innovative seeker/tracking sensor algorithms that can engage maneuvering high-value targets.”

...

Special Forces already make extensive use of the Wasp drone made by AeroVironment. This is the smallest drone in service, weighing less than a pound. It has an endurance of around 45 minutes, and line-of-sight control extends to 3 miles.

It might seem limited compared to larger craft, but the Wasp excels at close-in reconnaissance. Its quiet electric motor means it can get near to targets without their ever being aware of its presence.

The Air Force’s 2008 budget plans described the planned Project Anubis as “a small UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] that carries sensors, data links, and a munitions payload to engage time-sensitive fleeting targets in complex environments.” It noted that after it was developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory, Anubis would be used by Air Force Special Operations Command. The total cost was to be just over half a million dollars.

No official announcements have been made since then, and the Air Force did not return a request to comment on this story (hardly surprising for a weapon so likely to be used covertly). But the current Air Force R&D budget does mention the effort, briefly. This newer document refers to Project Anubis as a development that has already been carried out. According to the budget, $1.75 million was spent to reach the goal.

The current state of Project Anubis is unknown. It could be one of tens of thousands of military research efforts that started, made some progress and ended without a conclusion. Or Anubis could now be in the hands of Air Force Special Operations Command.

Currently, most if not all drones are controlled by pilots safely ensconced in bases on the other side of the world, but one can easily visualize the day not far in the future when each soldier or Marine deployed in a hostile environment will have a MAV (micro-drone) kit included as part of his or her standard-issue equipment for deployment in the field. Instead of lobbing mortars at random in the general direction of enemy positions, or firing blindly, soldiers could launch MAVs and control them in the field, targeting and taking out enemy positions with unerring accuracy -- at no risk to our side.

So what, pray tell, is CodePink so upset about? The ever-smaller and ever-more-accurate new drones not only eliminate risk for U.S. forces, but they also prevent any accidental "collateral damage" on the battlefield -- something which one would think would be good news to the anti-war crowd. In fact, that's the whole reason these drones exist: So we can carefully target just the bad guys and leave innocent bystanders unharmed. Isn't that commendable?