Our Drone Planet: Interview with Tom Engelhardt and Nick Turse on the Past, Present, and Future of Drones

News Abroad

David Austin Walsh is the editor of the History News Network.

Tom Engelhardt is the founder of TomDispatch.com, which has been one of the web's premier sources for critical commentary and news on the War on Terror since 2001. Formerly an editor for the Pacific News Service and senior editor at Pantheon Books, he is the author of numerous books on U.S. foreign policy, including The United States of Fear and The End of Victory Culture. His latest ebook, co-authored with Nick Turse, is entitled Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050, and is drawn from a series of articles originally published on TomDispatch.

Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com.  An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. Formerly a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, he holds a PhD in socio-medical sciences from Columbia University.

I recently spoke with the authors on the telephone on the past, present, and future of America's drone program, its ethical challenges, and its potentially dangerous precedent.

Your new ebook is a collection of essays from TomDispatch. Why put them together in this format?

Tom Engelhardt: Well, I think we were very early on the drone story -- Nick and I, the both of us. We started really focusing on drones a few years back, and we just felt that the material we had put together, our perspective -- and particularly Nick's reporting -- was something that you couldn't find anywhere else. We looked into the possibility of putting something together in an ebook format, and, as you know now, it's become suddenly possible to do something like that very quickly. Once upon a time this would have taken nine months or a year and we'd have had to have found a publisher, but an ebook is basically a DIY operation. I mean, it took time and effort, but it didn't tak a whole lot of money, so there was that advantage as well.

Nick, a question for you.

Nick Turse: Yes.

I can't imagine in your reporting that you have a particularly close relationship with the Pentagon -- meaning, for example, I don't imagine that you've ever been granted access to a drone base or been embedded, although please do correct me if I'm wrong. So, how do you do the research on your drone stories?

NT: Well, you know, in some ways I do have a surprisingly close relationship with the Pentagon, in that I am on the phone with them on a fairly regular basis. I talk to a lot of public affairs people. It's been my experience that if you ask enough questions eventually you're able to get some information out. You will find in the book that the head of robot acquisitions, Dyke Weatherington, consented after a long time, and a lot of asking, to answer questions about the sweep of the drone program over its course -- where it was ten years ago, where it is today, and where he sees it going in the future. So, I do have a relationship, even if it's fraught, with folks at the Pentagon.

I do rely on Pentagon material a lot. I do a lot of data mining. The military puts out a lot of information, you know. There's just reams of it that comes out on a daily basis. And I spent a lot of time going through Pentagon reports and news releases, and the Pentagon has its own media apparatus where it puts out these stories/press releases all the time. Those releases are ignored by a lot of people, but I find that you can find nuggets in there, and sometimes I use that and go to the Pentagon to see if I can get a little more information.

Let's get to the main topic of the book: drones. How many people have actually been killed by drones?

NT: Well, I don't think anyone really knows how many people have been killed by drones, because the program by its nature is so secret. We have some bare outlines of the number of militants or supposed insurgents who were killed. We have some numbers from the British Bureau of Investigative Journalism has looked into civilian deaths in Pakistan, but --

TE: The people at the New America Foundation....

NT: Yes.

TE: They've been doing, you know, counting casualities. But all of this stuff is happening in, for us, the distant backlands of the planet. I mean it's not like there's a bunch of reporters there [in Afghanistan or Pakistan]. I tend to think that, as with more general war casualty figures in Iraq and Afganistan, I think these all turn out to be minimal figures. I mean, there's no way to count up the dead. There's no efficient or reliable method for counting up the dead.

NT: We just can't know.


TE: I mean, the numbers are certainly -- I think the minimal numbers are up in the 2,000-3,000 range. Don't you think, Nick?

NT: Yes, the strikes on insurgents come up to those levels, and then of course civilians are the big question mark. Yeah.

TE: And we know, for instance, from the recent New York Times piece about the kill list, that the numbers that have been coming out have been jiggered with -- that the White House fiddled with the numbers in a very specific way, by counting all males of military age who died in drone strikes as insurgent deaths. So, if you're a 27-year-old who gets killed in a strike, it doesn't matter if you just happen to be the baker and the target happened to be in your shop, you're an insurgent in our figures.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London has counted, I think, up to 175 kids -- this is in the Pakistani tribal areas -- who have been killed by drone strikes. So we know something, but what we know is limited.

What we know, which is probably more important, is that every area where drones are being used, things are getting worse.

There have been increasing deaths in southern Yemen, where we're in what's basically a war. U.S. drones are being used regularly there, and significant numbers of civilians seem to be dying, and the area's getting radicalized. There's an increasing amount of information coming out about it in the mainstream media, in this case. There was a piece on the Times op-ed page the other day, there was a piece on the radicalization of southern Yemenis from drone strikes in the Washington Post recently. It's clear that, though drones may look to some in the environs of the White House as a super-practical way to knock off peopel we don't like, they are, in the long term, a potentially deeply destabilizing factor wherever they're used.

Nick, another question for you. One of the consistent themes of your writing has been the massive number of military bases the U.S. maintains overseas. How reliant are the drone campaigns on these military bases?

NT: Extremely reliant. A lot of people talk about how drones are remotely flown out of stateside Air Force bases, but these small bases or airports around the world that they're flying drones out of are critical to the program because you need them based somewhere near the area of operations. These drones have a finite range -- they call them orbits -- so you have to have these orbits interlocking, a big circular orbit, where drones can overlap to operate in a specific area of operations. Right now, there's an increase of drone bases in Africa, so that drones can cover the Horn of Africa region, specifically Yemen and Somalia.

In order to do that, the U.S. military needs these small little bases. Sometimes they're nothing more than a runway in a civilian airport -- and, you know, there'll be a small operations center at the airport. These bases are critical to the drone program. It's a much lighter footprint than the U.S. used to utilize for air bases, but it still requires a significant number of bases around the world.

Let's talk a little bit about the military applications of drones. Based on your writings, you're obviously both deeply disturbed by drones and the potential they have to create a survelliance society in the United States and the actuality of the drone campaigns abroad. But is there an ethical way to use this technology?

TE: [Laughs] WE have to come up with an ethical way to use this technology??? [Laughs]

I guess what I would say is that there's nothing particularly less ethical about a drone as a weapon than an F-15. The question is, how have drones been used? You can decide that it either is or it is not ethical to use any kind of airplane anywhere, but in that sense a drone -- it appears over a target, it fires a missile or drops a bomb -- is no more or less ethical than a plane doing that per se; however --

NT: Drones seem sinister in that they're remotely-operated robots, and that there's no longer a pilot that's facing some sort of a threat themselves, and the fact that drones can buzz around an area for a long period of time and can conduct surveillance longer than, say, a manned aircraft, so there's there's that. But as Tom's saying, they're very similar -- in many ways, not different at all -- from the applications of the air power the U.S. has used over the years.

So is the difference then...

TE: Let me just add one thing before we go on -- another similarity before we get to the differences. In fact, if you look back at America's wars, the last American plane to go down due to enemy anything was an A-10 -- an attack plane -- shot down by a missile over Iraq in 2003 (that doesn't count the several U.S. and British aircraft that were accidently shot down by U.S. missiles). The time before that was, I believe, in Serbia, two planes. It's striking that robot planes make possible a form of war in which nobody on one side is in even theoretical danger, but to some extent this has been true of American air power since Vietnam, where we have fought no wars in which there has been any real threat to U.S. aircraft.

What's different about the drones is the way in which they've been used, and that's what really brings up the ethical questions. Drones are being used now as part of a so-called "secret" program -- which everybody knows about -- that's functionally being used to break the very idea of national sovereignty wherever the United States thinks it needs to be broken. All this is done to establish the idea that there is only one overruling sovereignty on the planet, and that's American sovereignty. Leon Panetta literally said this the other day -- he said what's at stake in Pakistan is our sovereignty. And that's a different principle -- the possibility that you would have a president capable of operations in what he considers our interest anywhere in the world literally choosing targets to kill himself. He is literally the assassin-in-chief.

So, is a further difference between drones and older forms of air power because drones require a smaller footprint, they're cheaper, and it's easier to target someone using a drone?

NT: On the surface of it, I think that's correct. At least, that's how drones been sold. Now, we've started to see the bare outlines of a much more secret air campaign run out of East Africa by manned jets, F-15Es, which are probably cheaper to operate than drones. That runs counter to what we've been led to believe, that drones are cheaper. It's also important to remember that manned planes are much more sophisticated technology on the face of it, which is also something that runs counter to the current [drone] narrative we have.

For the last ten years, we've been sold on drones and the ways in which they're able to change the warfare, but as I've continued to look at the drone phenomenon, I've really become skeptical of most of what we've supposedly learned about drones in the last decade.

So who is the drone lobby, then? You mentioned in one of the chapters in the book and it seems to be what you're alluding to now.

NT: Well, certainly the drone manufacturers -- people like General Atomics -- they've certainly been touting drones and have the financial incentive to do so, and the Pentagon has really bought into this and sold the public on it.

TE: And there are a set of congressional figures -- southern Californians and Texans and so on -- who are grouped together as the drone lobby.

But you'd probably have to go back to dreadnaughts, tanks and atomic bombs to find a weapon that's been so overhyped. It has been sold to us -- the drone -- as the latest wonder weapon, and it's been sold to us by the Pentagon, it's been sold to us by the media, it's been sold to us by the U.S. Air Force. It's been sold as the sexy weaponry equivalent of the iPhone or the iPad -- the sleekest thing around.

The history of wonder weapons is always the same, that they're sold as the thing that's going to bring us victory, peace, and security. And, of course, such weapons never deliver, but by the time they haven't delivered, they're embedded in our world and they don't go away! They embed and they proliferate, and we're about to see the massive proliferation of drones.

We're creating the rules of the road for them, and they're pretty ugly rules.

You mentioned in the book that the Israel was one of the first countries to develop a drone fleet.

TE: Yes, they were very early. They've been pioneers of drones.

So, how do the Israelis use their drones? Are there significant differences from the U.S.?

NT: Well, I've never delved deeply into the Israeli drone program, but I believe the U.S. has patterned its mission, in some way, on the Israelis because they were the pioneers in this, and they've used them for targeting and for offensive operations.

TE: And surveillance, obviously.

NT: Certainly, and for surveillance, which is how all these started. Before they were armed, they were surveillance platforms.

TE: And they developed the -- Israel has a strong high-tech sector to its economy, and drones are a significant part of that.

NT: And some of the first U.S. drones were purchased from Israel, because they were out ahead. But I think that the major difference between these programs is how the U.S. program has proliferated. They've overtaken the Israeli drone program and they've ... while the Israelis were beginning the rules for how you conduct drone warfare, it's been the U.S. who has now taken the lead on drone production and also the operational aspects of it. We've pretty much written the book on drones.

How will great power conflicts -- the U.S. and China for example -- be influenced by drones? Will it mean more proxy wars by drones in the hinterlands of the world, for example in Central Asia, where there are competing spheres of influence between major powers?

NT: Well, if there are to be "drone wars," this is certainly how they will be conducted -- the types of wars we're seeing now. If great powers square off, drones will be marginalized almost immediately. These are basically model airplanes -- big model airplanes, but still model airplanes -- that are clunky and not maneuverable, and if any drone goes up against any vaguely sophisticated anti-air system, it's basically a sitting duck in the sky. I mean, drones are a kind of a bucket of bolts in the air. It's nowhere near comparable to, you know, the fighter jets that any country fields today. Nor are they a match for ground-based anti-air defenses.

TE: Where this makes a difference -- where the proliferation will matter and where we kind of set the rules of the road at this point -- is against insurgencies, rebellions, etc.

Say the Iranians decide they want to attack Balochi rebels. They can simply send a drone over Balochistan and missile some group of suspected terrorists. The Chinese can do it to the Uighars in Central Asia; the Russians can to it to the Chechens. America more or less set up this idea. Once this starts happening to not what we would consider bad guys, the world is going to look a little different. And I think it's going to be very ugly.

NT: I think that's the great danger.

What happens if and when drones become assets of non-state actors, and I'm not just talking about terrorists or, you know, guerrila groups or whatever, but also corporations -- or even organized crime?

TE: [Laughs] You tell me!

NT: Good guestion.

TE: I think that's one step beyond what I've even considered!

NT: There are so many possibilities for the use and abuse of this technology. Organized crime is one I really hadn't thought of.

TE: Hadn't crossed my mind. But why shouldn't the Mexican drug cartels have the equivalent of suicide drones?

NT: It's a cheap technology and it's relatively easy to use, so, uh, yeah. The implications are certainly scary!

TE: I mean, you can go online and create your own DIY drones now. They're basically model airplanes.

NT: Yeah. You don't have to do much creating. You just buy them as is. Attach an iPhone to a model plane and you can create your own surveillance helicopter. They're out there.

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