Drone wars

The unmanned aerial vehicle or drone found off the waters of Masbate last weekend raises serious questions, not only about the scope of US military activity in the Philippines but also about the grave threat the expanded American use of drones poses to the community of nations.

On the face of it, the explanation issued by the US Embassy in Manila seemed to be on the level—at least the first half of it. The “unarmed target drone that washed ashore off the coast of Masbate Island is an expended BQM-74E Aerial Target drone … launched from the USS Chafee during exercise Valiant Shield 2012 on Sept. 19, 2012, off the coast of Guam,” the embassy statement read. “It appears that ocean currents brought the drone to where it washed ashore last week off Masbate Island.”

As the various photos taken of the drone after it was recovered by fishermen show, it was in fact a BQM-74E, and Northrop Grumman BQM-74E drones are in fact primarily used as aerial targets, with (according to the Northrop Grumman website) “emulation of enemy anti-ship cruise missiles [as] the primary mission.” (The website as well as various press releases also describe the drone as “supporting more than 80 percent of the US Navy’s target missions.”)

The second half of the explanation seems less likely. That the eight-meter-long drone floated 2,200 or so kilometers west from Guam is a possibility, of course, but a skeptical public will need more proof. Occam’s Razor applies just as much to public opinion; the simpler explanation is the better explanation. To many Filipinos, a US Navy drone launched from within the Philippines just makes more sense.

The drone’s serial and other numbers visible on some of the photos should help clear up this particular mystery, but whatever the final explanation, serious questions have already been raised.

In the first place, and as Sen. Loren Legarda, chair of the Senate committee on foreign relations, correctly said, the presence of a used US Navy drone in Philippine territory “raises a serious concern of national security.”

It is an open secret that, since the Visiting Forces Agreement was reached with the United States in 1999, American military forces have been stationed in the country on a quasi-permanent basis. Quasi, because the troops are regularly rotated and the regularly scheduled war games or military exercises act as a turnstile for deployment. Permanent, because since the VFA took effect a sizable contingent of American troops has been stationed in the country.

This special arrangement has been welcomed by the Armed Forces of the Philippines, because of the obvious benefits that came its way even before US President Barack Obama’s strategic “pivot to Asia,” but the true costs of this winking compliance with the letter but not the spirit of the Constitution, especially on the country’s sovereignty, have not been fully weighed. The recovered drone reminds all of us of the basic imbalance between former colony and former colonial master, a dynamic reflected in the VFA itself.

But the recovery should also serve to remind us of a larger issue: American over-reliance on drones, especially as surveillance vehicles and as attack craft, has started a new and terrifying arms race. More and more countries are now scrambling to build fleets of drones; Israel, one of the pioneers in UAV development, is the main exporter; it has sold drones to Russia, Azerbaijan and about a dozen other countries. (According to Chris Cole’s Drone War UK, a leading source on information on the proliferation of drones, even the Philippines has at least two UAVs in service, both of them Blue Horizon 2 aerial surveillance drones.)

The United States enjoys clear and massive superiority in all classes of drones; its armed UAVs, such as the famous Predator, are usually launched in conflict zones but are then directly controlled, according to Cole, by “controllers at video screens in specially designed trailers in the Nevada desert” [the site of a major air base]. Part of this superiority is explained by constant use. In Pakistan alone, America’s undeclared war has inflicted over 350 drone strikes since 2002, including about 50 in 2012. A study by the middle-of-the-road Brookings Institution found that for every terrorist targeted in Pakistan and killed, 10 civilians also died.

This is the kind of bleak future American military reliance on long-distance drone strikes is creating—and the future is already here.

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Tags: Balikatan , drone , news , Northrop Grumman BQM-74E drones , opinion , Visiting Forces Agreement

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