U.S. signals weakness to the world’s growing ranks of predators
That is why Washington’s confused handling of the Chen affair is so disturbing. At a time of potentially enormous upheaval within China, America’s current foreign-policy leaders had no strategy to advance our interests and support those of like mind inside China. Instead, we find ourselves more vulnerable to China and other present and potential adversaries exploiting our weaknesses and inattention.
U.S. vulnerability and failure are comforting signs to autocrats and dictators worldwide. The Chen affair should warn us that a continued uncertain trumpet by the United States means only greater dangers to America in the coming decades.
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Get ready to shrink the drone war. The Army and Marine Corps’ medium-sized spy drones may soon become killers, thanks to a successful flight test by a mini-drone strapped with a 12-pound bomb.
Raytheon, the defense giant, has been working since 2009 on what it calls a Small Tactical Munition — as the name suggests, it’s a bomb tiny enough to attach onto the military’s fleet of small to medium drones like the Shadow. Weighing 12 pounds and standing 22 inches, the guided munition has the potential to expand the drone war dramatically, giving battalion-sized units that fly small drones the ability to kill people, like the remote pilots who fly the iconic Predators and Reapers do.
In the world of weaponry, they are the sexiest things around. Others countries are desperate to have them. Almost anyone who writes about them becomes a groupie. Reporters exploring their onrushing future swoon at their potentially wondrous techno-talents. They are, of course, the pilotless drones, our grimly named Predators and Reapers.
As CIA director, Leon Panetta called them “the only game in town”. As secretary of defence, Robert Gates pushed hard to up their numbers and increase their funding drastically. The US Air Force is already training more personnel to become drone “pilots” than to pilot actual planes. You don’t need it in skywriting to know that, as icons of American-style war, they are clearly in our future – and they’re even heading for the homeland as police departments clamor for them.
For drone freaks (and these days Washington seems full of them), here’s the good news: Drones are hot! Not long ago — 2006 to be exact — the Air Force could barely get a few armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the air at once; now, the number is 38; by 2011, it will reputedly be 50, and beyond that, in every sense, the sky’s the limit.
Better yet, for the latest generation of armed surveillance drones — the ones with the chill-you-to-your-bones sci-fi names of Predators and Reapers (as in Grim) — whole new surveillance capabilities will soon be available.
But the huge demand for the Predators’ eyes in the sky over the battlefield — reconnaissance that can’t be provided by manned aircraft — has muted such criticism. While it took 12 years, from 1995 to 2007, for the Predator fleet to rack up 250,000 flight hours, it reached the 500,000-hour mark just 20 months later. The Air Force currently runs 37 Predator “orbits” 24/7 over Afghanistan and Iraq, which requires about 150 personnel, as many as 10 pairs of pilots and sensor operators and four Predators. While their most important mission is to provide ground troops with real-time video for hours on end, the Predator crews can also fire missiles when high-value targets are identified.
All these attitudes began to change in 2001, when the CIA and the Air Force rigged a few Predators with Hellfire air-to-ground missiles. Suddenly, a UAV could do more than just float over a target for 20 hours at a time, watching and taking pictures, already a significant asset. It could also be a killer.
What a difference a missile makes. Nowadays, drone pilots get treated better. Predator flight time counts the same and pays the same as time in a fighter. When Major Rogers got the chance to command a squadron after four years at the Air Force Academy and a dozen years behind the stick of F-15s and other jets, he didn’t care at all that his planes would be thousands of miles away, or that he wouldn’t be able to feel turbulence or smell a burning engine. “Most of the time, I get to fight the war, and go home and see the wife and kids at night,” he says.