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Tomgram: Todd Miller,

by Todd Miller 

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Thanks to everyone who has already purchased our inaugural DIY publishing effort, Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050, and to all those who made a donation of $75 or more for a signed copy  of the book to help support TomDispatch.  Believe me, it’s much appreciated.  As today’s post indicates, while drones have long policed the Af-Pak borderlands, they’re proliferating and ever more of them will be flying above ever more borderlands all over the planet in the years ahead.  To learn more about where else drones may be headed — and the Pentagon’s futuristic fantasies about them — please consider downloading the ebook of Terminator Planet by clicking here, buying a print-on-demand copy at Amazon’s CreateSpace by clicking here, or making a donation to get a personalized copy signed by Nick Turse and me by clicking here.  TomDispatch exists for and because of you.  Please help us keep providing you with the information and insights you can’t get anywhere else. Tom]

Drones are nothing new.  The first of them took to America’s skies before the Wright Brothers plane lifted off at Kitty Hawk in 1903.  In the years since, “unmanned air systems” (UAS) have played a relatively minor role in domestic aviation.  All that, however, is about to change in a major way.
“UAS have evolved from simple radio controlled model airplanes to sophisticated aircraft that today play a unique role in many public missions such as border surveillance, weather monitoring, military training, wildlife surveys and local law enforcement, and have the potential to do so for many civil missions as well.” So reads part of a research and development “roadmap” put out earlier this year by the U.S. Joint Planning and Development Office (a multiagency initiative that includes the Department of Transportation, Department of Defense, Department of Commerce, Department of Homeland Security, Federal Aviation Administration, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and White House Office of Science and Technology Policy).  “According to industry forecasts,” the report notes, “UAS operations will increase exponentially in a variety of key military and civil areas. About 50 U.S. companies, universities, and government organizations… are developing over 150 different unmanned aircraft designs. Projections for 2010 to 2019 predict more than 20,000 UAS produced in the U.S.”

In the process, count on one thing: increasing numbers of those drones will be patrolling U.S. borders.

It was only in the 1990s that the U.S. Border Patrol first began considering the use of remotely piloted aircraft.  After the attacks of 9/11, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the funding bonanza that followed, the DHS’s Customs and Border Protection Office began experimenting with unmanned planes.  In 2005, it settled on using General Atomics’ Reaper and today a fleet of nine of these drones patrol the northern and southern U.S. borders.  Their brethren in America’s war zones have tended to crash at an alarming rate due to weather, mechanical failures, and computer glitches, have proven vulnerable compared to manned jets, and are susceptible to all manner of electronic attack.  The domestic drones, too, have failed to impress.  As a recent Los Angeles Times article noted: “The border drones require an hour of maintenance for every hour they fly, cost more to operate than anticipated, and are frequently grounded by rain or other bad weather, according to a draft audit of the program last month by the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general.”

But don’t expect such hard truths to have much impact.  After all, as Todd Miller demonstrates in his inaugural TomDispatch post, border security is an arena for true believers.  And despite every indication of their crash-and-burn future, expect ever more overhead, up north and down south and in-between, in the years ahead. Nick Turse


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