National Guard Seeks More Drones For Domestic Missions A dozen Guard units now pilot drones for missions here and abroad. Some are lobbying for increased use of the unmanned aircraft in the U.S., but critics have raised privacy concerns.

National Guard Seeks More Drones For Domestic Missions

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now let's talk about a change in the security climate. The people who want to use drones more widely inside the United States include the Air National Guard. It's building up a fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles. And military drones over U.S. territory are making some Americans uneasy. Here's Blake Farmer of our member station WPLN in Nashville.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: To understand why the National Guard would push to use drones domestically, remember that the guard is a collection of state-based militias.

COLONEL KEITH ALBRITTEN: Most of the time, I work for the governor. How can I help the governor? How can I help him, in his state, with the problems that he has?

FARMER: That's Colonel Keith Albritten of the Tennessee Air Guard. Up until a few years ago, his unit flew C-130s. But those nonthreatening cargo planes, often used to ferry supplies during disasters, have replaced by something a bit more ominous, the MQ-9 Reaper. It's a high-altitude, high-speed drone with a wingspan of more than 60 feet. It can carry Hellfire missiles and stay airborne for 24 hours without refueling. I took a tour of the hanger expecting an up-close look.

All right, so where are the Reaper UAVs?

ALBRITTEN: (Laughter) keep looking, my friend. Keep looking. They are not here.

FARMER: A dozen guard units have drone missions. Five of them can take off and land in American bases. The rest, like this Tennessee unit, pilot drones that live overseas, taking off from foreign bases, controlled from here via satellites. The work is so secretive, Albritten won't even point out the building his pilots are in.

ALBRITTEN: I can't really say.

FARMER: Really?

ALBRITTEN: Operational security - I can't really talk about that.

FARMER: And that's the answer to a lot of questions about this.

ALBRITTEN: It is. It is. I agree, but that part is the classified part.

FARMER: Albritten wants an unclassified role for the drones too, offering surveillance during floods or after tornado outbreaks, assisting with manhunts and drug busts. He's raised his hand with the Pentagon to get what he calls iron in the state.

ALBRITTEN: There's no iron. There's no aircraft here in Tennessee. I will say we're working to try to get iron in the state so that they're available for the governor to use in a state of emergency.

FARMER: It's been done before. In 2013, a disarmed MQ-1 Predator hovered high above the smoke and flames of a remote wildfire near Yosemite, feeding live infrared video to the ground. The California Guard was so proud of this milestone it produced a highlight reel set to a dramatic score.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIGHLIGHT REEL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This was a historical moment. I mean, we've been fighting for this to support the - you know, the American people here on the home soil.

FARMER: But there's plenty of suspicion. In Tennessee, State Senator Mae Beavers pushed through a law governing drones and unwarranted surveillance. It targets police. But she has concerns about the military as well.

MAE BEAVERS: The very idea that someone could use a drone to spy on you through your windows at home or, you know, in the privacy of your backyard even, I think that bothers people.

ALBRITTEN: I don't care anything about you being in your backyard flipping burgers.

FARMER: That's Col. Albritten again. He cites multiple layers of state and federal oversight. No less than the secretary of defense must sign off on any U.S. operation. Albritten says all video would be publicly available, and the unmanned aircraft wouldn't carry weapons. Still, there's some pushback even among drone supporters.

RICHARD DAVIS: I mean, with the name Reaper, the first thing people think about are these killing machines.

FARMER: Richard Davis is an assistant fire chief in Austin, Texas. He's researched and written about unmanned aircraft. He's an advocate for using drones in disaster response, but the less menacing kind - not the military's long-range high-flyers.

DAVIS: In some cases, it would be overkill.

FARMER: But if Reapers and Predators are what you have, guardsmen ask, why not use them. Tennessee Guard Commander Max Haston sees the drones as no more dangerous than other spying gear, like eavesdropping equipment.

MAJOR GENERAL MAX HASTON: If I've got a device that's a listening device, I can't take it home and turn it on my neighbor's house and hear what he's doing. And that's illegal.

FARMER: Still, Major General Haston acknowledges the anxiety.

HASTON: I think the public has a fear of the government, you know, big brother spying on them. But it's less of a threat than driving down I-40 or I-65 with all the cameras on the road. It's there.

FARMER: And if commanders like Haston have their way, National Guard drones will occasionally be there too. For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.

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