The Stampede Toward Domestic Drones - and StratCom's Role

by Loring Wirbel
Citizens for Peace in Space
Colorado Springs, Colorado

Municipal government leaders who have recently been installing surveillance cameras in downtown areas and acquiring surplus military equipment for police forces, now are turning a lustful eye to drones, or unpiloted aerial vehicles (UAVs). The same is true for county and state officials who would like to use drones for border enforcement and drug network monitoring in areas ranging from tens to hundreds of square miles.

The procedural hurdle preventing drones on every street corner has been the need to update flight rules from the Federal Aviation Administration. Once FAA gives the green light, federal efforts are in place to assist drone use on a state or local basis, using funds from the Justice, Commerce, and Defense Departments. U.S. Northern Command, based in Colorado Springs, also will play a key role in this technology transfer.

Under its missions for Space, Intelligence/Surveillance/Reconnaissance, Prompt Global Strike and Combating Terrorism, U.S. Strategic Command is playing a leading role in the military use of drones overseas. Should we expect StratCom to be on the front line of this new domestic application of drone technology as well?

The chances appear likely.

Government critics like the American Civil Liberties Union are paying close attention to the FAA “Modernization and Reform Act,” recently passed by Congress. While the bulk of the act deals with FAA system modernization, the parts dealing with expanded use of domestic airspace by drones attracted heavy criticism. ACLU and “Electronic Privacy Information Center” were among several groups outraged that the Senate held hearings without accepting testimony from NGOs prepared to talk about the civil liberties dangers of unrestricted use of drones in U.S. airspace. There is even talk of allowing drones managed by local police forces to carry nonlethal weapons for crowd control—similar in a milder sense to the armed drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen that carry “Hellfire” missiles used for targeted assassination.

But don’t think the federal government waited for President Obama’s February 14 signing of the FAA act into law. Agencies like Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Northern Command, Drug Enforcement Administration and Strategic Command have worked behind the scenes the last two years to get the FAA to issue 285 active certificates for 85 users, relying on 82 different types of drones, according to an article in the March/April 2012 Foreign Policy magazine. According to a Forbes magazine blog in mid-April, the “Customs and Border Protection” service of DHS already uses eight Predator B drones on the U.S./Mexico border, with at least two additional drones to be sent to the border this spring. These drones have been ‘borrowed’ by FBI and DEA on a case-by-case basis. And in one of the first announced domestic uses of such drones, a local sheriff in North Dakota used an “MQ-9 Reaper” drone to track cattle rustling.

It’s natural to envision such drones being used for short-term missions such as the monitoring of protests or public events like concerts and football games. But the range in size of modern drones, which can scale from the size of a dragonfly to the size of an SUV, allows the regular use of drones in longer-term domestic surveillance. Using normal batteries and fuel sources, handheld drones can dwell for hours and even days in domestic airspace. Contractor Northrop-Grumman has worked with Sandia Labs to develop drones that can dwell over one location for weeks using lithium battery packs—or even months using a radioisotope thermal generator (a miniature nuclear power source). Thankfully, Northrop and Sandia have admitted that the last design may not be feasible for “political sensibilities.”

John Villasenor of the Brookings Institution recently told National Public Radio that it would be perfectly reasonable to think there soon might be 30,000 drones operating in domestic airspace. But that’s because the word ‘drone’ could cover everything from a solar-powered robot operating in the stratosphere for years on end, to a tiny hummingbird-sized drone operating on a city block. Many predict that private companies and individuals may wish to operate drones for their own purposes—a ‘paparazzi drone’ for celebrity photography, perhaps.

Before we look at the drive to encourage domestic drone use at the federal level, it’s important to mention how receptive local officials have been to accepting such federal largesse. Since the “Occupy Movement” emerged late in 2011, municipal, county and state officials have demonstrated an unusual lack of tolerance for organized protest—and this intolerance is just as prevalent among Democrats as Republicans. The most visible sign of this is the overt disruption of Occupy encampments and the widespread use of pepper spray by local police at the end of 2011. But it extends much further than that. In city after city, government officials are militarizing police forces by issuing tortoise-shell riot gear to hundreds of their officers. They are expanding ground-based camera networks to systems as large as Chicago’s 10,000-camera “Operation Virtual Shield.” And they are gladly taking advantage of a Defense Department program to donate surplus military equipment to municipal governments at no cost to the local government. The city of Tampa has even purchased two tanks (that’s right, tanks) for use at this summer’s Republican National Convention.

In such an environment, few outside the ACLU and a handful of police-monitoring groups are raising any complaints about the virtual demise of the “Posse Comitatus” law, which restricts the U.S. military from being involved in domestic law enforcement. Indeed, cities, counties and states are clamoring for aid from DHS and Defense Department agencies in coordinating drone use. It is in such an environment that Strategic Command and Northern Command will be expanding domestic technology missions.

Northern Command took the lead two years ago, at a conference in Colorado Springs in March 2009, when it invited ten federal agencies to talk about collaborative use of drones in the domestic arena. Northern Command had experience in this hemisphere beyond U.S. border, since it had helped Mexican President Felipe Calderon fly drones over contested areas at the height of the border drug wars. As a result of the 2009 conference, Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA) and other members of Congress formed the “UAV Caucus”—not a lobbying group, but a Congressional group that made it easier for drone manufacturers to find a unified audience promoting domestic use of drones.

This is big-ticket business. When global warfare, domestic law enforcement and civilian commercial use of drones are considered as an aggregate, the drone market is expected to exceed $20 billion by 2020. It is expected to displace much military and law-enforcement use of piloted planes by that time.

From a traditional management perspective, drones (both intelligence and armed combat drones) used in global operations ultimately come under the auspices of Strategic Command—through regional commands such as Pacific Command and Africa Command, or through functional commands such as Intelligence/Surveillance/Reconnaissance, or Joint Special Operations Command. When drones are used domestically, the ultimate Defense Department authority resides with Northern Command. Northern Command works closely with agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department.

In reality, the situation has become a little more complex since the ‘War on Terror’ rhetoric of the post-9/11 environment has expanded the use of collaborative groups such as the “Joint Terrorism Task Forces.” JTTFs, nominally headed by the FBI, now have a heavy presence from Northern Command, Strategic Command and national intelligence agencies. The number of such task forces has increased from a dozen or so in the 1990s to hundreds today. The military commands alerted local governments to a surplus program created under the “National Defense Assistance Act” (collectively known as the “1033 Program”) that allowed local law enforcement to receive military surplus equipment virtually for free. According to the “Law Enforcement Support Office of the Defense Logistics Agency,” more than $500 million worth of equipment was ‘donated’ to local police forces from the Pentagon in Fiscal 2011.

No one is suggesting that the Pentagon or contractors will be willing to donate surplus drones to law enforcement in the near future, but the military commands have ‘greased the skids’ for local governments to get law-enforcement equipment. They are helping contractors such as Boeing and General Atomics outfit drones with non-lethal crowd control weapons to substitute for the lethal missiles and bombs used in international missions. And as soon as FAA waivers become commonplace, it is likely that both Northern Command and Strategic Command will aid such efforts through JTTFs and other collaborative efforts created in the name of fighting terror.

Often, the degree of federal assistance depends on the size of the drone. The “Predator B” used in border monitoring is the size of a small plane, requiring a rudimentary airfield for takeoff. Thus, an agency like DHS or Northern Command will almost certainly be involved in aiding the local authorities. While regular procedures have yet to be established, it is likely that local governments may rely on training and flight-control services from bases like Creech Air Force Base in Nevada and Holloman AFB in New Mexico.

Other local governments are turning to hand-launched, miniature and even micro-miniature drones such as Honeywell’s “T-Hawk,” AeroVironment’s “Wasp” and Dragan Innovations’ “DraganFlyer X6.” The smaller the drone, the less a municipal government will need to rely on either funds or support services from federal agencies.

While military involvement in drone planning may represent a civil threat by blurring the restrictions put in place by Posse Comitatus laws, there may be instances where a federal oversight role is preferable to state and local governments managing ‘rogue drones’ on their own. The Pentagon or DHS may refer to Justice Department guidelines that would limit the role of dozens of micro-drones in urban areas, where local authorities acting on their own, after receiving FAA approval, might consider it an unlimited field day for drone surveillance.

This underscores an important point that needs to be made. Activists often look at a problem from a ‘top-down’ perspective, with federal involvement in surveillance perceived to be the worst of all possible worlds. But often, the biggest civil liberties threat in the post-Occupy environment has come from local authorities that encourage militarization of law enforcement. In events as diverse as tuition hike protests at the University of California schools, Tucson School Board protests to stop the ending of Mexican-American studies, and raids on Occupy camps nationwide, government officials and school administrators often have called out dozens to hundreds of riot-squad troops, using pepper spray and stun guns, where a half-dozen officers on the beat may have sufficed to keep dissent under control. All too often in the last six to nine months, liberal Democrat community leaders have been in the forefront of encouraging such overkill in law enforcement.

One reason for seeing levels of surveillance and police brutality often exceeding that of the 1960s may be that, in a 100-percent networked, surveillance society, local government officials feel that there is zero room for error and zero room for tolerance of dissent. If something goes awry, all blame will stop at their desks. Thus, conservative and liberal administrators alike see a need for enforcement overkill and surveillance overkill.

The current fascination with airborne robotic vehicles soon will be augmented with robotic ground vehicles and even robotic water-surface and underwater devices. All of these drone types are being used by Pentagon commands today, and many will be offered to local officials within the next few years. The Pentagon and Justice Department are excited about offering local authorities the perfect-surveillance, perfect-enforcement state. Most local authorities seem all too willing to accept the help. Who will speak for civil liberties in such an environment, other than the protesters out on the street who are the targets of such technology advances?

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