As Drones Evolve, More Countries Want Their Own

Guests

David Sanger, chief Washington Correspondent, The New York Times

John Villasenor, senior fellow, Brookings Institution

The Obama Administration has dramatically ramped up its use of drones as military and foreign policy tools. But many other countries want drones of their own, and advances in technology will soon allow for smaller, more powerful and cheaper models.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. From time to time, new technology transforms warfare. Once Britain developed the tank, every major power scrambled to catch up. The same held true for machine guns, battleships, submarines, aircraft, nuclear weapons. The first arms race of the 21st century is the unmanned aircraft, the drone.

Drones are relatively cheap, much less intrusive than manned airplanes, and highly effective for reconnaissance and pinpoint attacks. The U.S. currently fires missiles from drones in Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan and in Pakistan. Manufacturers can't keep up with demand. New types with new capabilities continue to arrive, and new questions too.

What countries are willing to house a U.S. drone base? At what price? Who should we sell them to? And what happens when our enemies get them? How do drones change warfare? We'd especially like to hear from those of you with direct experience. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, journalist Rhonda Cook on The Opinion Page on why she watched Troy Davis's execution. But we begin with drones. New York Times chief Washington correspondent David Sanger joins us here in 3A, and nice to have you back on the program.

DAVID SANGER: Great to be back with you, Neal.

CONAN: And we most associate drone warfare with Pakistan, where U.S. drones attack al-Qaeda, the Taliban and their associates, including a group called the Haqqani Network, which the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan's intelligence. That's just what he said last week.

We've heard reports of an ultimatum to Pakistan: You deal with the Haqqanis, or we will.

SANGER: That's exactly what we're hearing, and I think one of the most surprising elements of Admiral Mullen's statement - of course, he retires in less than a week, so he was a little freer to speak than he might have been previously - was that he not only named the Haqqanis, who have been the targets of American forces and drones before, but that he explicitly linked them as a surrogate for the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence service.

And so we're in the odd position now of having accused a country that is called a major non-NATO ally, the status they were given during the Bush administration, of helping, indirectly, an attack on the American embassy in Kabul and threatening a response on Pakistani territory after the bin Laden raid, where of course the Pakistanis said it will never again be tolerated, a breach of their sovereignty.

CONAN: Using soldiers, but drone attacks continue in Pakistan - indeed some of them done in cooperation with the Pakistanis.

SANGER: Some have been. The Pakistanis publicly, of course, complain about them and privately go along with them, and some of the most interesting of the cables in the WikiLeaks trove last year were from national leaders, including the embattled president of Yemen, saying it's fine if you do the drone strikes, as long as we can claim that these were ours, basically.

The Pakistanis have gone along with that in the past, but they've gotten increasingly nervous about doing so. Every account of a drone strike, you know, ostensibly covert program, appears the next day in every newspaper in Pakistan and around the world.

CONAN: These weapons, and at first they were thought of as new weapons, they have revolutionized warfare.

SANGER: They really have, in 10 years, and it's a remarkable story because the first armed drones happened soon after 9/11, when the Air Force came along and said, you know, by matching up a Hellfire missile on these reconnaissance drones, we can create a weapon. And they did, and it was done rather crudely at first, sort of reminds you of the early days of airplanes, right?

CONAN: Dropping bombs off the side.

SANGER: Right, right. And in 10 years have moved to the point where there are now about 5,000 drones, not all of them armed, in fact most of them just for reconnaissance. But what's happened over time is that what became an instrument of a previous strategy has come to shape the new strategy.

And I think you could argue that President Obama would not have been able to enunciate the withdrawal from Afghanistan, first with the surge forces and by 2014 by most of the combat forces, had he not had the drones available, because the American image of the future of the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan is to keep just enough forces around that they can have a large drone base and a base for commandos in Afghanistan that could operate both in Afghanistan and of course across the border in Pakistan.

So the drones have become the centerpiece of the counterterrorism strategy.

CONAN: But even a large drone base is a lot smaller than a small Air Force base.

SANGER: And a lot harder for people to find and with a lot fewer a lot fewer personnel. I mean, it takes people to maintain and fix up these drones, but, you know, the advantages of drones are obvious. Not only are they stealthy, but if one of them does go down, you have not lost a pilot, you don't have a missing in action report, you don't have a hostage situation.

CONAN: And as this tactic has proved so successful in Afghanistan and Pakistan, obviously in Iraq as well, it has been exported. Now the United States is making, we're told, stepping up attacks in Yemen. It's made attacks in Somalia, and of course - that's now five countries that we know about and bases reported as far away as the Seychelles, the island kingdom in the Indian Ocean.

SANGER: And a sixth, Iraq, which is really where they were using them the most. In fact, one of the reasons they weren't being used heavily in Afghanistan during the Bush administration is that most of the drones were tied up in Iraq. Now, they've been able to produce a lot more since.

I think one of the biggest surprises of the Obama administration has been how quickly the administration has adopted and accelerated this program. In President Obama's first year in office, 2009, there were double the number of drone strikes that there had been I think during the previous four years of the Bush administration.

CONAN: And it has also become an instrument of foreign policy. As the United States withdraws from Iraq, for example, it would like to keep a drone base in Turkey to watch things in Iraq. Yet the Turks, they say yes, that would be fine, if you sell us some drones and keep - so we can keep track of the Kurdish breakaway group, the PKK.

SANGER: That's right, and so there are two big issues here. One is how quickly do you want to sell this technology, and of course that's driven some by competitive concerns. It's not like the United States is the only country designing and building drones. Certainly the U.S. is well ahead, but the Chinese have caught on that there's something going on here, and so have a lot of other countries. And while the U.S. technology is advanced, the fundamental technology of building drones is pretty widely available.

And then the second question, as with any arms shipment comes, what happens when your ally that you've sold this to is using it for some other purpose? So you know, in Pakistan's case, there's always concern they would use it to deal with India; Turkey, as you say, the PKK.

These issues are rampant, and they will only grow more complicated, and then as you hinted at the beginning, the next big concern is what happens when someone turns this technology on an American city.

CONAN: And it is - you say all right, one drone firing one missile, it would be a terrible thing, but it's not 9/11. However, this technology is just in the cradle still. It's developing by leaps and bounds.

SANGER: In both drone technology and cyberwarfare, I think it's fair to say that we're sort of at the equivalent point that we were at in the mid to late 1940s, when the U.S. had set off the first atomic attacks and knew the technology was going to spread, and the Soviets would get it, as they did by the late '40s. But it was not a widespread technology.

But everybody knew that the bomb was going to spread, and in fact it has, and drones will probably faster than nuclear technology did.

CONAN: And as it proliferates, then what happens if it falls into the hands of, as we say, sub-state actors, terrorist groups?

SANGER: Well, you know, there's a little bit of this that was in the run-up to the Iraq war. There was a speech that President Bush gave in the Cincinnati train station, where he was trying to lay out the threat that Saddam Hussein posed. And he briefly talked about a drone technology that the Iraqis might be able to put on ships, get near to American shores and launch.

It seemed pretty far-fetched then, and we learned later that they were no place near that capability, but the moment will come, and especially as the drones get smaller and easier to transport. And you know, what's really remarkable is that a lot of the American drones, including some of the unarmed ones, are pretty small.

There's one called the Raven that troops use right now just to launch by hand, and it can sort of go over a hill and send back an image of what's on the other side of the hill, and then it's supposed to return like a boomerang. Some days it does, and some days it doesn't.

That's the other problem here, which is that, you know, like any software-driven device, it can have a mind of its own at times.

CONAN: We're talking with David Sanger of the New York Times. How are drones changing warfare? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Randall's on the line calling from Portland, Oregon.

RANDALL: Hi. In decades past, before any politicians decided to use any military force, they always had the check and balance of weighing public reaction to American servicemen's loss of life. With the use of drones, you know, and cruise missiles, which have been around for a little bit longer, now politicians have an easier time engaging in military acts because they no longer have the deterrence of American loss of life. How do you see this changing in the future?

CONAN: David Sanger?

SANGER: Well, that can have good effects and bad. I mean, look at Libya, which was a place where the U.S., in fact, lent some drone technology, not many, but drones were used...

CONAN: And plenty of cruise missiles.

SANGER: And plenty of cruise missiles, but there came a moment where the precision of the cruise missiles was a concern, and they were working in tight urban areas and brought in some drones instead. This issue of making war an easier thing to happen has come up every time there has been a standoff weapon system, whether it's missiles or bombers or cruise missiles or whatever.

And it can make it - reduce the impediment because you're not worried about casualties. On the other hand, the other way to look at it is that you may be able to stop an incipient war, and that's, I think, what the Obama administration would argue that they did in Libya, that they stopped a much larger loss of life.

CONAN: Randall, thanks for the question.

RANDALL: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking about drone with David Sanger of the New York Times. When we come back, the future of drone technology. How do we keep smaller, cheaper models out of the hands of our enemies? And your calls. How do drones change warfare? We'd especially like to hear from those of you with direct experience. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking about the growing use of military drones and the likely spread of the technology behind these unmanned aerial vehicles. That proliferation raises any number of questions, many of which we've discussed on previous programs.

Can unmanned robots follow the rules of war? What moral issues and ethical issues do drone strikes raise? If you'd like to listen to those conversations, go to our website. That's at npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest on this program is David Sanger, chief Washington Correspondent for the New York Times. How do drones change warfare? And we'd especially like to hear from those of you with direct experience. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now from member station KQED in San Francisco is John Villasenor, a professor of electrical engineering at UCLA and a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings. Nice of you to be with us today.

JOHN VILLASENOR: Well, thank you very much.

CONAN: And drones were first created for spoofing and then later for surveillance. Missiles were added later. What next?

VILLASENOR: Well, I think a couple of things. The weaponization of drones is proceeding down the size scale. So whereas today most of the weaponized drones are these very large, almost business-jet-sized devices, what you have now is more and more attention being focused on the weaponization of smaller drones, which raises any number of significant security concerns.

And in addition, what you have is much of the discussion, much of the national dialogue about drones has often been focused on our use and our manufacture of drones. But what has happened is that's becoming a very international market. Israel is a major player, has been really for quite some time.

China is being very visible with their efforts in drones and also with selling them internationally. So I think the dynamics of the global, the international market in drones is going to shift the consequences that they'll have and conflicts in the future.

CONAN: I think Israel initiated the use of drones in warfare over the Bekaa Valley, and the Syrian air force thought those were Israeli jets and flew up, and Syria lost most of its air force in an afternoon.

VILLASENOR: Right, exactly. Israel has been always a major player and has unveiled larger and larger and more sophisticated and longer-range drones, in large part to counter the threat from Iran. And of course, China has been, just in the last year or two, very - has exhibited an increasing array of drones. I believe they had several dozen different types of drones exhibited at the Zhuhai air show in 2010. And so they've been very visible, as well.

CONAN: And David Sanger, the Air Force I think initially slow to adapt to this, has adapted more quickly in recent years. The majority of aircraft in the Air Force are going to be drones.

SANGER: That's right. You know, it's interesting. It really gets to the culture of different organizations. So this was sort of more inventive in the Air Force territory. But it was the CIA that picked it up as a covert program. And there's an interesting debate underway within the government now, about whether, since this is the least well-hidden covert program in America, it should in fact just be moved back to the military. And it's got all kinds of legal and transparency implications to it.

But the initial resistance in the Air Force, which former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates talked about a lot at the beginning of his tenure, was that the whole role to - the run-up to promotion in the Air Force, was all about being a pilot.

CONAN: Being a fighter pilot in particular.

SANGER: Being a fighter pilot or being a bomber pilot, but basically being in an airplane. And there were all kinds of derisive terms, most of which we can't use on the air, that those pilots had for the people who were sitting with joysticks in a van in Nevada running drones over Iraq.

But over time, it's become clear to the Air Force that this is their future, and suddenly, you know, there has been a significant cultural change to the point that there are probably more drone pilots being trained now, than there are fighter pilots.

CONAN: Here's an email question from Chris(ph): Could the guests comment on the development of autonomous drones, aka Skynet that, of course, referring to the robot bad guy in the "Terminator" movies. But John Villasenor, what do you think?

VILLASENOR: I think autonomous is a term that can - it's an umbrella term that can mean a lot of things. I think we're a long way away from drones that will complete entire missions, including, potentially, decisions to use lethal force, without any human being in the loop. But autonomous to the extent that it means drones being automatically fly to certain locations without somebody literally at the joystick, that's here already.

And one of the great debates that's going on right now is how far do you turn that dial, and, you know, how much decision power do you allow to rest within the brains - the computer brains - inside a drone. And the other aspect of autonomy which is very interesting, is how that might enable drones to act in concert with each other.

So instead of having one or two or three, how you might have a swarm of dozens of drones controlled potentially by one person and with the assistance of an enormous amount of autonomous processing.

CONAN: We have an email from that, from retired first sergeant in the U.S. Army: I fear the day terrorists discover the power of small, cheap, R/C airplanes - that's remote-controlled airplane - packed with a few pounds of explosive. Imagine a small fleet of those attacking Wall Street during rush hour. The damage to our psyche would far outweigh the physical damage.

And I think that's technology that's - well, that's available today, David.

SANGER: It is, you know, and some of it in hobby shops, right. I mean, small, remote-controlled planes have been around for a long time. This is a big concern of people in the Homeland Security world. And their first concern after - in the years after 9/11 was what would happen if a private plane was loaded with explosives, since there are a lot of private planes that come in there.

CONAN: Anthrax, or...

SANGER: Or anthrax or whatever. But the remote control adds just another level of concern and a question of how fast one could scramble to go stop that. On this question that came up before, the autonomous weapons, you know, this is one of the reasons that understanding the legal chain of command of the decisions that are made here is so important, because you don't want to have a plane making life and death decisions or software making life and death decisions, any more than you would want that happening on the ground battlefield.

VILLASENOR: I guess, perhaps I could add a couple of points to that. So first of all, one thing to keep in mind I think on the autonomous aspect, is that it's not a new technology, but anti-personnel landmines have of course been around for the entire - essentially the entire 20th century. And they don't make any intelligent analysis at all before they, you know, kill whoever happens to step on them next.

And so, you know, unfortunately we have a long history of machines essentially engaging in killing, and so I think when people are designing - figuring out how to use drones, we have to keep in mind that, you know, there's already been a precedent of these things and try to improve upon that.

SANGER: And there's also a treaty to ban them, which the U.S. has been reluctant to sign onto because of their use in the Korean peninsula. But you're absolutely right.

VILLASENOR: Right, and then the other point, I guess, to be made about the gentleman's email regarding terrorist groups is unfortunately, it's not in the future, it has already happened that terrorist groups are well aware of drones. The Aum Shinrikyo sect, which was behind the Japanese subway bombings a number of years ago, was widely reported to have considered but then rejected the use of drones in their attacks.

There's evidence that the Colombian revolutionary FARC group has also looked at drones. Al-Qaeda is known to have looked at drones, as are some of the groups in the Gaza Strip. And so, you know, those folks read the newspapers just like the rest of us, and I think, unfortunately, an aspect of anti-terror, of concerns in the future, is going to be how do we protect against the inevitable attempts by terror groups to get their hands on and potentially use drones.

CONAN: And that raises a question. We'll get to more calls in just a second. There have been all kinds of concerns over the past decades about terrorists getting their hands on shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. Indeed, some have. And some attempts have been made. But David Sanger, these have never turned out to be the bugaboo that a lot of people thought.

SANGER: That's right. And there's a new concern about this because there were a lot of these in Libya. And some have gone missing, and people are not entirely sure who's in their hands. Fortunately in those cases, if they're old, they misfire a good deal of the time.

But it does raise the question, as any new technology would, do you want to build a clock into these things so that they are not useful later on.

CONAN: Expiration date.

SANGER: Expiration date, which is what you see happening in cyber in some cases, where offensive programs have an expiration date built in them.

CONAN: Let's go next to Brad(ph), and Brad's with us from Minneapolis.

BRAD: Hi, thanks for taking my call. I had a couple questions related to the domestic implications of drone usage. And for example, we're all talking about military applications overseas, but what about military applications on continental United States and other agencies that would be allowed to use them? And I'm just curious about any ideas whether drones have been used currently already in the United States, and if they have not, are there plans or ideas of what agencies would be involved to have a mandate to utilize those in the United States?

CONAN: I know there's been discussion of using them to monitor the border with Mexico. I don't know that they have been used as yet. And I guess, John Villasenor, is there any reason they couldn't be used to monitor traffic?

VILLASENOR: Well, I think they are being used, I don't think, by - to the best of my knowledge, not by the military. But certainly, the folks in charge of protecting the border have used what are sometimes considered drones, these large, you know, balloons that'll sit up there, that'll - with - that can survey huge amounts of area at one time. Those are being used, as well as other drones. And it...

CONAN: Aerostats, yeah.

VILLASENOR: Yeah. Aerostats, I believe, is a company, made in South Dakota, that's a very - Aerostar International, I believe, which is a major player in that industry. In addition, drones are genuinely extremely valuable for law enforcement. So, for example, if you think of a police force that may not have the budget to have a helicopter, if you can put a drone up over a hostage situation, you might be able to gather some genuine lifesaving information. So there are lots of very, very legitimate - and they're also used for surveys, agricultural surveys, oil pipeline monitoring.

There's enormous number of completely very good domestic, nonmilitary applications of drones, and I believe they are being used - but, again, to my knowledge, not by the U.S. military, but by other organizations.

CONAN: Brad, thanks very much. Here's an email from Hans in Kirkland, Ohio: For drones to be effective, don't you need complete air superiority in the area where they're being used? Yes, ours fly high enough to avoid small-arms fire from the ground and are fairly stealthy. However, for instance, if the Pakistani air force wanted to shoot down our Predators, they could do so easily. This is a requirement of Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan. These are places where they're not facing integrated air defense systems.

SANGER: Well, the Pakistanis might be able to shoot them down. First of all, they run pretty high. Second, you have to be able to see them. And so what was the most remarkable thing that really struck the Pakistanis and angered them about the bin Laden raid? It wasn't simply that the raid happened. It's that a drone, called the RQ-170, that was coated in stealth material, was hovering over the bin Laden compound and providing photographs of it, and the Pakistanis never saw it.

And that was a very big issue within the ISI and the Pakistani military - still is. And, of course, they all wonder, gee, are the Americans using that same system to go survey the Pakistani nuclear sites?

VILLASENOR: And I would just add to that that I would respectfully disagree that it's necessarily easier to shoot these things down. Back - not very long ago, about six weeks ago, there was a report in the press that the U.S. Marine Corps is now experimenting with arming a drone called the Shadow, which is a drone which - I believe it's about 11 feet long, with a wingspan of around 14 feet. It's carried by a soldier in a backpack. I'm sorry. It's - I'm getting them confused. They're arming the Shadow, and that's actually much smaller than that. And it's carried. It can be launched and controlled at a very low altitude. And so I think it would come in low and fast and would be very, very difficult to shoot down.

CONAN: That's John Villasenor, a professor of electrical engineering at UCLA and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Also with us, David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And let's get Bob on the line-, Bob with us from Aspen, in Colorado.

BOB: Hi. I was - it occurred to me that in, you know, in 2000, around that time, people were, you know, the idea of the drone was a great idea, but the idea of arming one was just out of the question. And in about eight year - about three years ago, I started asking my friends: What changed? What - how come the attitude of the American people is so different now compared to what it was just 10 years ago?

CONAN: David Sanger?

SANGER: What changed was 9/11. And right after 9/11 is when an exploration began of new and different ways to go after al-Qaida in mountainous areas where you couldn't send troops and where the risk of sending a manned aircraft was pretty high. And suddenly, what began out of small experiment that the Air Force, and then the CIA were running, mushroomed into a fairly good-size industry. And because the program has really flourished under the CIA, there really has not been much public discussion by politicians or intelligence personnel or even the Air Force about the conditions under which it's used. That's one of the arguments in favor of actually moving this over to the military, so that discussion...

BOB: Well, that seems to suggest to me that the CIA is now fighting our wars instead of the military.

CONAN: Indeed. And that's a question that's been raised at many levels, and you've hit on something that's been the subject of other programs, too. But, Bob, thanks very much for the phone call.

BOB: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Anne, and Anne's on the line with us from Las Vegas.

ANNE: Hi. My - sorry, my kids are screaming. My comment is just that my husband flies the MQ-9 Reaper. And it - what (unintelligible) referred to as RPAs, remotely piloted aircraft - I'm used to the term drone - is really seen as a negative in the RPA community, because it suggests that there's no human accountability, when, in fact, they're extremely highly trained, very professional people that are flying these (unintelligible) these RPAs.

CONAN: When did it change from UAV to RPA?

ANNE: UAV isn't a negative, I guess. They don't see that as a negative term, and some of them still used that.

CONAN: Unmanned aerial vehicle.

ANNE: Yes.

CONAN: David Sanger?

SANGER: Well, the phrase drone comes, you know, evokes images from lots of movies, including lots of bad movies that one has seen. But I think your caller is just right, that these are run by very professional pilots. The question is: Who is doing the targeting? And some of the issues that have come up in the past have come from questions about whether or not the initial targeting information was polluted, incorrect, didn't have a full understanding of what civilians were around.

Interestingly, John Brennan, the president's chief counterterrorism adviser, made the argument in a speech he gave a few months ago that the number of civilian causalities from these drones have gone down to near zero. And, in fact, I think he claimed that in recent times, there have been none. That's a quite disputed claim.

CONAN: Anne, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it, and for the clarification.

ANNE: Thank you.

CONAN: And, David Sanger, we're going to have to leave it there. Thank you very much for your time today.

SANGER: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times. John Villasenor joined us from KQED, our member station in San Francisco. Appreciate your time, as well, sir.

VILLASENOR: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Coming up, Rhonda Cook has witnessed a dozen executions. We'll talk with her about why last week's execution of Troy Davis felt different. Plus, we remember Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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