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DRONE WATCH: The Drone Revolution’s Next Phase

As drones continue to proliferate, the technology is behind them is speeding ahead. Wired takes a look at the next generation of drones now in development.

"Today's unmanned robotic planes only seemadvanced. A decade after the CIA and the Air Force tucked a Hellfire missile under the wing of a Predator drone, much hasn't actually changed: pilots in air-conditioned boxes remotely control much of the armed drone fleet; the robo-planes are easy for an enemy to spot; the weapons they fire weigh about the same; as much as they love the skies, they take refuge on dry land; and they're built around traditional airframes like planes and helicopters. Yawn.

Drones are moving out to sea -- above it and below it. They're growing increasingly autonomous, no longer reliant on a pilot with a joystick staring at video feeds from their cameras. They're getting stealthier; the payloads they carry are changing; and they're going global. They're pushing humans out of the gondolas of blimps. And the laboratories of the drones of the future aren't only owned by American defense contractors, they're in Israel and China and elsewhere, too. … Here's a look at the more ambitious ways drones are getting re-imagined."

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DRONE WATCH: When are Drone Killings Illegal?

Efforts to bring the rule of law to killing are not always easy or clear-cut.  Although as an advocate of non-violence, I can condemn all killing; whether killing in a conflict is “legal” or not depends on the circumstances in which it occurs. International law does not prohibit all taking of life.

Mary Ellen O'Connell, a law professor and research professor of international dispute resolution at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, is a specialist on the international law of armed conflict. In a column on CNN, she explains that under international law, killing enemy fighters during an armed conflict – a war – is legal. Outside of war, it generally is not, the human right of life prevails. Although this “dual standard for justifiable killing makes the law protecting the right to life more complicated,” it is how international law assesses violent conflicts.

O’Connell analyzes drone attacks in light of this distinction, posing the central question: Is this killing occurring in war?  She summarizes the history of the Bush and Obama administration’s efforts to defend it as part of a “war on terror,” and the efforts of a committee of the International Law Association to legally define “war.” Her conclusion:

“Targeted killing with drones in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan have generally violated the right to life because the United States is rarely part of any armed conflict in those places. The human right to life that applies is the right that applies in peace.

Today, the United States is engaged in armed conflict only in Afghanistan. To lawfully resort to military force elsewhere requires that the country where the United States is attacking has first attacked the United States (such as Afghanistan in 2001), the U.N. Security Council has authorized the resort to force (Libya in 2011) or a government in effective control credibly requests assistance in a civil war (Afghanistan since 2002).”

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DRONE WATCH: Drones that Capture?

One of the primary criticisms of using drones to kill high-level al Qaeda or Taliban leaders is that they are extra-judicial executions, and that a policy of capturing these militants and putting them on trial would be preferable. In addition, if they were captured, useful intelligence could be gathered. The rejoinder, of course, is how is it possible to capture people living in the remote tribal areas of Pakistan or Yemen?
 

It appears that the technology to answer that question may soon be available. Greg McNeal speculates in Forbes, with a scenario adapted from the Lawfare blog. Someday soon, a drone could launch a non-lethal weapon – something that stuns a person, perhaps a taser – lower a robot to the ground to retrieve the person, then return to the aircraft that returns to its base with the captured prisoner. 

McNeal concludes, Regardless of how you do it, it seems like technology is not the biggest hurdle in developing and perfecting drones that can capture rather than kill.”

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Robin Hood Returns to Europe - France Takes Up the Tax

Support for a Financial Transaction Tax is growingThe global movement to implement a small tax on some financial industry trades has gained its first European partner: France. Religious and economic reform groups have been leading the movement to implement versions of what has been called the "Robin Hood Tax" or the "Tobin Tax" since the 1990s. As global markets falter and national economies are brought to their knees by an unregulated financial industry, this financial transaction tax is one small way to impact global reform. 

With the passage of the new French budget, France becomes the first European country to impose a transaction tax on share purchases, including high-frequency trading and credit default swaps. The transaction tax, aimed at curbing market speculation, will be paid on the purchase of French stocks with market values of more than 1 billion euros ($1.2 billion).The bill’s passage into law marks “the first step toward fiscal reform and a move toward justice,” Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici said in a statement.
 
Here's an excerpt:

>>On 1 August, France became the first European country to introduce a new financial-transaction tax (FTT) on equity sales and high-frequency trading.

The FTT, often called a ‘Robin Hood tax', is a tax on selected products traded by the financial sector, such as equities, bonds, foreign exchange and their derivatives. Where those countries where such a tax has been introduced (in South Korea, South Africa, India, Hong Kong, the UK and Brazil), the tax may have been tiny (ranging between 0.005% and 0.5%), but it has raised substantial amounts of revenue. The FTT discourages high-risk financial operations and makes the financial sector pay its fair share of taxes. This is sensible: a reckless casino culture in parts of the financial sector caused the financial crisis. It is also fair: our governments bailed out the banks but left taxpayers with debts of trillions.<<

Read more here.

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DRONE WATCH: Drones Over North Dakota

While most of our attention is focused on the use of armed drones attacking suspected militants in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, unarmed surveillance drones are taking to the skies across America, as the Toronto Star recently reported. The first known case of a drone assisting in an arrest occurred last year in North Dakota.

“Amid hundreds of hectares of corn and soybeans, far from the closest town, a Predator drone led to the arrests last year of farmer Rodney Brossart and five members of his family. The drone was called in after a dispute over a neighbour’s six lost cows escalated into a 16-hour standoff with police. It is one of the first reported cases where an unmanned drone assisted in the arrest of a U.S. citizen on his own property. It was also a controversial sign of how drones — in all shapes and sizes — are beginning to hover over American skies.”

And, far from being an aberration, drones at home are proliferating.

“But the federal government has been quietly expanding their use. Even as the wars abroad wind to an end, the military has been pleading for funding for more pilots. Drones cannot be flown now in the United States without FAA approval. But with little public scrutiny, the FAA already has issued at least 266 active testing permits for domestic drone operations, amid safety concerns. … While drone use in the rest of the United States has been largely theoretical, in eastern North Dakota it is becoming a way of life.”

Minnesota Public Radio also takes a look at the North Dakota scene, reporting on a drone research project at the University of North Dakota that is about to launch a program that would give sheriffs in 16 North Dakota counties access to two, and perhaps four, drones.

“With law enforcement budgets shrinking, technology is playing a greater role in policing. And for agencies that want air coverage, a camera-equipped drone, at a cost of around $50,000, can be a cheaper alternative to owning and operating a piloted airplane or helicopter. Minnesota law enforcement officials have expressed some interest, but without question, North Dakota is where the action is.”

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DRONE WATCH: Secret Drone War in Africa

David Axe, in Wired, examines America’s secret drone war in Africa.

“More secret bases. More and better unmanned warplanes. More frequent and deadly robotic attacks. Some five years after a U.S. Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle flew the type’s first mission over lawless Somalia, the shadowy American-led drone campaign in the Horn of Africa is targeting Islamic militants more ruthlessly than ever. … It’s part of a broader campaign of jet bombing runs, naval gun bombardment, cruise-missile attacks, raids by Special Operations Forces and assistance to regional armies such as Uganda’s.”

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DRONE WATCH: Bats From Hell

While Predator and Reaper drones are currently in use, the next generation is already underway. The Northrop Grumman corporation and the U.S. Navy are testing what is known as the X-47B, a drone capable of taking off from and landing on aircraft carriers. From Business Insider, here’s an animated promotional video from Grumman showing what its new drone can do.  As a pair of the aircraft take off, swoop over deserts and mountains, firing missiles at targets on the ground; they look like bats from hell.

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DRONE WATCH: Victims of Drones

 

In the news today are two stories of drone victims seeking justice for relatives who have been killed or injured.

The Guardian reports on legal action being taken in the U.K. by an Afghan man who lost five relatives in a missile strike. A letter sent to the Ministry of Defense is demanding details of Britain's role in supplying information to the American military "kill list," including “the compilation, review and execution of the list and what form it takes." Habib Rahman, a bank worker in Kabul, lost two brothers, two uncles and his father-in-law in an alleged case of mistaken identity resulting in a U.S. missile attack on their cars on 2 September 2010.

And in Pakistan’s Dawn, Waris Husain, a Washington, D.C., based attorney and writer for the newspaper, examines the U.S.  failure to compensate Pakistanis who suffer property loss or physical injury due to drone missions. While some survivors of civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan have received payments, none have gone to victims of drone attacks in Pakistan, and no U.S. court has accepted a claim by Pakistani civilians. Mr. Husain concludes: “While the US wishes to stabilise its relationship with Pakistan, the CIA shows no signs of minimising it use of drone strikes in Pakistan’s border region, which means a system of compensation for victims is absolutely necessary.”

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DRONE WATCH: Are Drones “Humane”?

German author and journalist, Dirk Kurbjuweit, in an essay in DER SPIEGEL,reports that the German military is considering whether it should buy armed drones. Given that Germany is relatively scrupulous in matters of war,” he writes, “the unmanned aircraft seems to be the ideal weapon for the country.” But he then notes the questions that raises in regard to pride, humanity and the law, and argues that so-called “humane” drones are, in fact, the most brutal of weapons.

The fundamental question is an ongoing discussion over “whether humane weapons are even feasible. In other words, is it possible to create weapons that somehow protect perpetrators or lessen the damage to victims? In this context, the word humane is not an absolute but a relative concept, referring to a weapon that is less horrific than other weapons.”

One of the arguments for humaneness is the precision of the missiles, that they do not destroy as much of the area surrounding their target and thus produce fewer civilian casualties than bombing attacks from aircraft. They also pose no risk to the force using them, further reducing the casualties of war. On the other hand, their relative humaneness makes their use more likely; and the targeted executions of alleged terrorists are dubious under international law.

Kurbjuweit concludes:

“A humane approach to war is a complex issue. Drones seem relatively humane, but that perception only increases the temptation to use them. They spare one's own troops, which is good, but they pose a great threat to civilians, which is terrible. As a result, the humane approach gives rise to a special form of inhumanity. …

But no one should allow themselves to be seduced by the idea that this weapon is humane or good. A drone armed with missiles exposes the essential nature of war in an especially clear way. Because a drone hunts down an individual, the slaughter loses its anonymity. The victim acquires a name and a face, and it becomes abundantly clear what war is all about: the destruction of human beings.”

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DRONE WATCH: Brennan Defends Drones in Yemen

In a speech yesterday in Washington, administration counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan defended the campaign of drone strikes in Yemen. As reported in the Los Angeles Times:

“In his most explicit comments on Washington's largely hidden military and intelligence operations in Yemen, John Brennan said no evidence indicates that the drone strikes are helping recruit members for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, the Yemen-based group that is Al Qaeda's most active branch. ...

"Brennan said that the drone pilots, who operate the aircraft from remote ground stations, make every effort to avoid civilian casualties. 'And contrary to conventional wisdom, we see little evidence that these actions are generating widespread anti-American sentiment or recruits for AQAP.... In short, targeted strikes against the most senior and most dangerous AQAP terrorists are not the problem, they are part of the solution.' "

Addressing a common concern, Brennan said that the only targets for drones are militants whose goal is to attack the US or its allies, not those fighting against the Yemeni government. He added that U.S. officials do provide intelligence information to Yemeni armed forces fighting against militants.

The report noted that the drone attacks are part of a larger strategy.

“U.S. special operations forces have been advising Yemeni military units, and Washington is providing $337 million in aid to Yemen this year, the largest American aid package ever disbursed to the impoverished nation.”

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