Rise of the bomber robots: The UK-backed Predator is just one of a booming arsenal of missile-laden spies. They kill indiscriminately, warns top expert, and now even the terrorists have them
- Global drones arms race, spurred by the US, is in full cry
- In 2000 Pentagon had 50 drones – a decade later that had soared to 7,500
- Some 76 countries have drones, many in process of weaponising them
PUBLISHED: 16:12 EST, 20 April 2013 | UPDATED: 06:20 EST, 21 April 2013
Seek and destroy: The lethal Predator drone is 27ft long and comes armed with Hellfire missiles
Drones are used for lethal and non-lethal purposes: they can track drug smugglers, monitor borders and search for earthquake victims, and environmentalists use them to catch illegal whalers and loggers.
But the driving force behind the most sophisticated drones remains the military, who use them for spying and killing.
Their proliferation has led to thousands of deaths, the disruption of entire communities and increased political instability.
The US example of sending drones wherever it wants and killing whoever it wants on the basis of secret information is leading to a world of lawlessness.
Innocent lives are snuffed out without a trace of accountability. Drones don’t give their targets a chance to surrender. They simply pulverise them.
This technology extends god-like powers to democratically elected leaders – and potentially to dictators and terrorists.
Those with armed drones include the US, UK, Israel, Iran and China. Some 76 countries all told have drones, with many in the process of weaponising them.
Iran is supplying drones to Hezbollah in Lebanon; South Africa is selling lethal drones to Saudi Arabia; Israel is selling drones all over Africa and Latin America.
The global drones arms race, spurred on by the US, is in full cry. And there are terrifying reasons why we should think very carefully about a world left to their unblinking mercy .
Following the 9/11 attacks on New York in 2001, the US military filled its shopping trolleys with every robot it could find: tiny ones that climb walls and stairs, snake-like ones that slither, and robots to carry soldiers’ heavy loads. They also snatched up every type of drone on the production line and commissioned new ones.
They bought the 38in-long Raven which fits in a rucksack and can be launched by throwing it into the air. They invested in the 27ft-long Predator with its Hellfire missiles, and later the more powerful Reaper version.
The Predator’s infrared camera can identify the heat of a human from 10,000ft in the air, so from 8,000 miles away in Nevada a drone ‘pilot’ or operator can watch an Afghan as he lights a cigarette or talks to friends.
Then the US bought the 40ft-long Global Hawk with its long-range surveillance capability of 40,000 square miles a day. Drones can fly low and slow over hostile terrain, and hover for hours, or all day if need be. The Reaper can linger in the air for about 18 hours. Others have an endurance of weeks.
Then there is the Vulture. Solar panels cover its massive 400ft wingspan and enable it to stay in the air for up to five years.
Boeing has already produced a prototype for its Phantom Ray drone, roughly the size of a fighter jet, which flies itself.
VIDEO See a predator drone being tested at a US Air Force base
Lockheed’s drones include the RQ-170 Sentinel, better known as the Beast of Kandahar, which has a wingspan of roughly 40ft and is said to have provided surveillance for the operation to execute Osama Bin Laden.
In 2000, the Pentagon had fewer than 50 drones. A decade later, that number had soared to nearly 7,500. Most were used for surveillance, but the number of weapons strikes kept increasing, from 74 in 2007 to 839 by 2012.
The RAF has been piloting Reaper drones from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada since late 2007, and they will soon be flown remotely by pilots at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire.
The most extensive drone programme outside a war zone is run by the CIA. Between 2004 and 2012, it conducted more than 350 drone strikes in Pakistan, with a spike of 118 attacks in 2010, killing somewhere between 2,600 and 3,400 people.
Local councils, police and security agencies, private companies and even our neighbours will soon be able to pilot drones over our homes. A former Second World War airfield in Aberporth in Wales is being used as a centre for testing military and civilian drones, including the Watchkeeper surveillance aircraft.
Four police forces have tried them out, and they are used regularly for surveying crops and in the offshore oil industry.
In war zones, It has been claimed that of more than 600 Hellfire missiles fired by Predator drones, 95 per cent hit their targets, with failures attributed to mechanical fault or a target moving at the last instant. But some question this.
In July 2011, British drone operators made a mistake that killed four civilians in Afghanistan with missiles fired from Reaper drones piloted out of Nevada. Even when they do hit their target, there is no guarantee that the victim really is a terrorist and apparently no way of avoiding ‘collateral’ damage.
Also undermining communities is the horrendous US practice of striking one area multiple times, a tactic known as ‘double taps’. With rescuers having been killed for their efforts, people are now afraid to assist the injured.
Drone attacks are stoking an endless fire of violence and revenge.
- Drone Warfare: Killing By Remote Control, by Medea Benjamin and Barbara Ehrenreich, is published by Verso at £10.99.
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