The Drone of Permanent War

On Valentine’s Day, President Obama signed into law the decidedly unromantic FAA Modernization and Reform Act, providing $63.6 billion dollars for the agency through 2015. This is no doubt a relief for FAA management, as the organization has been without long-term budgeting for the last five years, receiving instead a series of twenty-three short-term budget extensions, but the news is much worse for travel industry employees. No, it wouldn’t be a spending bill passing through the 112th Congress if it didn’t include some kind of union busting, and indeed, it will now be significantly harder for airline and railway workers to form unions and hold union elections, while it will be easier for employers to delay bargaining and hire non-union contractors.

But the real game-changer embedded in the law is the opening of U.S. airspace to unmanned drones. Although Predator drones already patrol our border with Mexico, and some police forces have obtained smaller drones of their own, the legal ability of federal agencies to fly unmanned missions over civil space was unclear, unwritten. Now they’ve got a big green light, and “the only barrier to the routine use of drones for persistent surveillance are the procedural requirements imposed by the FAA for the issuance of certificates,” says Amie Stepanovich of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Eerily, the law also makes way for the use of commercial drones: it’s not clear what Google, GE, or General Motors would do with a drone, but it’s hard to imagine something benevolent. The FAA projects that there could be 30,000 drones in American skies by 2020.

Which dystopian novel is it where thousands of surveillance robots constantly monitor us from the stratosphere? The chilling effects this could have on protest, not to mention acts of more militant resistance, should be obvious. And it’s hard to imagine that, in terms of day-to-day policing, this will mean less police violence and fewer arrests. Add the Department of Justice’s secret memoranda giving the president power to declare U.S. citizens enemies of the state and have them assassinated, and the legal framework now exists to make all U.S. citizens Awlakis, which is to say, blown up by missiles fired from an invisible robot by executive fiat. Is there a moment when the transition to police state actually occurs, or if you’re asking that question has it already happened?

It’s important to remember that the drones’ capacity for total surveillance is not always shared by the government that deploys them. When the widespread use of drones had just begun, in 2010, the amount of footage was already overwhelming analysts. As the number of drones and locations of their use increase, this problem will grow as well, although facial recognition and video-searching algorithms are improving at a rate that may make this negligible. In any case, a federal government capable of filming any space at any time, and potentially firing missiles at that space, is not exactly a boon to democracy.

But the drones do more than just provide sky-bound surveillance cameras, they fundamentally alter the state’s ability to police and make war. Traditionally, the state’s capacity for military action has been limited by the physical, psychic, and social limits of the soldier. Exhaustion and depression, madness and injury, political opposition and death: though hardly sufficient to keep the state from waging war, these factors, much more than cost (which, when it comes to overseas military adventurism, is no object) or the moral qualms of state leaders, do mean that war cannot go on in perpetuity.

One of the major advantages of the drone is, we are told, the reduction of soldier casualties. But in the current paradigm of war, the United States rarely faces a strong state with an effective air force. Predator drones replace the functionality of fighter jets, doing intelligence gathering and high-altitude bombing runs, missions run by the Air Force and the Navy that have had low levels of casualty since Vietnam. Furthermore, it has been shown that remote Predator pilots suffer similar levels of combat stress as soldiers in a war zone, which gives lie to certain claims about drones (though it might point to something noble and beautiful in the human mind: that it is the despair of forced killing, not the fear of instant death, that breaks it.)

No, the major innovation of the drone is not the reduction of U.S. soldier suffering, but removing that suffering from the political calculus and ending the limits that suffering places on the capacity of military force. The United States has already used drones to pursue operations in Pakistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and Syria: while wartime violations of air space are hardly new (Cambodia, Rwanda), the scope and ease with which new (pseudo-)battlegrounds are opened via the operational instantaneity of the drone is disturbing. The drone provides for an almost infinitely scalable, instantly deployable global air force, obliterating the meaning of borders in a way that globalization could never fully actualize.

And while soldiers are still required to fly the drones, their work has become (traumatic) knowledge labor: the flying of Predators is done with a joystick and a screen in air-conditioned cubicles in the United States, more akin, physically at least, to working at a web start-up than flying a helicopter over enemy territory. Without sending masses of soldiers overseas (the ship that houses, repairs, fuels, and launches the drones is still required) we can begin police or military operations anywhere in the world. But unlike the NATO pilots of the 1990s who completed “humanitarian” bombing runs, drones don’t have families or communities at home that miss them or advocate for them, can’t become exhausted by flying constant missions or deterred by warning shots or counter-violence. And while it’s much cheaper, socially, emotionally, and politically, to feed, train, house, and replace a pilot working in Kansas than in Kandahar, it costs much more economically (drones require “two or three times as much backup manpower as a jet fighter“), a win-win for the military industrial complex.

In short, drones provide the technological impetus and the military capacity to turn the entire world into one giant, permanent theater of war and a subject of total surveillance. The United States opening its own air space to drones merely follows this logic, which is already on display in the Middle East. Though bombing can never achieve the tactical victories of a full-fledged military campaign, America has not won a war in a long time. Perhaps there are Drone advocates within the Pentagon who truly believe they will make war more winnable, but surveillance and bombing from the air alone are incapable of successfully combatting guerilla warfare: think “Vietnamization” (or the rampant destruction called “success” in Kuwait and Kosovo). But one of the major goals of war under a profitable mercenary or contractor army becomes its continual propagation, irrespective of results. For the massive funneling of taxpayer dollars into a privatized military sector tasked with justifying itself through constant engagement, each drone’s ticket price, from $4.5 million for Predators up to $200 million for “Global Hawks,” only sweetens the deal. Drones will not make war easier, or more humane, or more accurate, or more successful. They will, however, make it last longer. For a military that functions more and more like a global police force, and an American police apparatus that acts more and more like an occupying military force, for turning the entire world into a field for constant low-level violent confrontation, the drone is a perfect tool.

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