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Indiana connections to drone warfare technology

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no-frills YouTube video looks like it could be the chronicling of an ambitious

science fair project. Inside a spare Indiana warehouse, a young man launches a

thin two and a half foot black cylinder into the air, where its propeller

blades keep it hovering vertically. Then it moves slowly across the warehouse,

past the Purdue University and ROTC signs, before easing its way back into the

waiting hands of the same young man who launched it.

But this is

no schoolboy experiment, and the small flying cylinder is no model airplane. It

is the Voyeur UAV, or unmanned aerial vehicle, also known as a "drone."

According to the website of its manufacturer, West Lafayette-based Lite

Machines, Inc., the Voyeur is designed to allow military and law enforcement to

conduct surveillance and "human or non-human target acquisition." The Voyeur

can travel as far as 50 miles in the air and can hover over and/or touch its



Machines is based in the Purdue Research Park, which promotes the fact that the

company has received a $10.5 million contract from the U.S. Navy. The

multi-million dollar military investment for a small company in Tippecanoe

County represents part of a $4 billion annual Department of Defense budget for

UAV technology, a highly secretive world of warcraft, which is being eagerly

embraced by U.S. military and intelligence agencies. Last year, for the first

time, the U.S. Air Force trained more pilots to operate unmanned vehicles than

it did pilots for traditional fighter planes.

But the U.S.

drone program is also being sharply criticized for its role in targeted killing

in Pakistan and beyond, which has caused significant civilian deaths and which

legal experts and peace activists label as both illegal and counter-productive.

The Voyeur is one of several Indiana connections to robotic technology that is

revolutionizing warfare — for good or for ill.


Hoosier sites of drone support include:


Haute-based Indiana Air National Guard's 181st Intelligence Wing,

which analyzes data collected from drones hovering over Afghanistan and

Pakistan and sends back the results to troops in the field.


Indianapolis plant of Rolls Royce, one of the largest U.S. military

contractors, which manufactures the engine for the drone Global Hawk.


Indiana's Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center, which has received millions of

dollars in military contracts to expand the combat capability of drones.


developments have been touted in elected officials' press releases applauding

the money flowing to Indiana. But some Hoosiers are concerned. "Our state needs

jobs, but I hate the fact that people of good conscience may be sucked into the

military industrial complex process of creating machines that contribute to the

deaths of innocent civilians," says Lori Perdue, an Air Force veteran and local

coordinator for the peace activist group CODEPINK. "If we could create green

jobs instead of war jobs, I bet the guy working the line making jet turbines

would rather be building a wind turbine."

The rise

of robot killers


drones equipped with cameras have been used by the U.S. for military

surveillance since the Vietnam War. Drones with names like the Global Hawk and

the Predator conducted reconnaissance over Bosnia, Serbia and Yemen, and now

regularly fly over Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Shortly after the turn of

the century, drones expanded beyond mere surveillance when the Predator was

outfitted with Hellfire missiles.

The drones

are operated remotely by computer and video display, often by Air Force

personnel in Nevada or Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) staff in Virginia,

even when the drone is flying several thousand miles away. The lack of an

onboard pilot eliminates direct risk to U.S. personnel, and is part of a

movement toward robot-izing military missions chronicled in Brookings

Institution senior fellow P.W. Singer's widely acclaimed book, Wired for War: The Robotics

Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.

As Gordon

Johnson of the Pentagon's Joint Forces Command told Singer regarding machines

like the drones, "They don't get hungry. They are not afraid. They don't forget

their orders. They don't care if the guy next to them has been shot. Will they

do a better job than humans? Yes."

The extent

of the current U.S. use of drones for attack purposes is not completely clear.

The U.S. military and the CIA have resisted requests by Phillip Alston, United

Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, for an explanation of

the program, and a Freedom of Information Act request for similar information

filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has not yet yielded a

response. But it is known that the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command

maintain a list of individuals to kill or capture, many of them located in

Afghanistan or Pakistan, and drone-launched missiles are a preferred method for

conducting the assassinations. The New America Foundation recently conducted an

extensive study of drone attacks and concluded that the U.S. launched 51 drone

missile strikes in Pakistan alone in 2009, with anywhere from 372 to 632 people

killed, about a third of whom were civilians.

The election

of Barack Obama ushered in an era of significant reliance on drone warfare.

Jane Mayer recently reported in The New Yorker that, within three days

of Obama taking office, a U.S. Predator airstrike in Pakistan hit the wrong

target, killing an entire family including a five-year-old child. Despite that

inauspicious beginning, the Obama administration has conducted drone attacks at

a rate that far exceeds that seen during the George W. Bush administration. The

current CIA director Leon Panetta has said of drone attacks, "Very frankly, it

is the only game in town in terms of confronting and disrupting the al Qaeda


At one strategic

level, the attraction is understandable: drone attacks do not put any U.S.

soldiers or pilots at immediate risk, and the strikes are potentially more

precise than traditional aerial bombing. Recent drone-launched missiles

reportedly killed the two top leaders of the Pakistani Taliban. Lack of media

access to the rugged areas of Pakistan where drone attacks occur limit the U.S.

public's exposure to the unintended effects of such attacks, including the

children and civilians killed by Hellfire missiles.

But there is

also substantial evidence that drone attacks carry with them significant

long-term negative impacts for the U.S. David Kilcullen, who served as a chief

counterinsurgency strategist for the U.S. State Department and who helped

design the U.S. military surge in Iraq, has estimated that drone attacks kill

50 non-targeted persons for each intended target. Kilcullen told Congress last

year that robot-launched missiles lead to a groundswell of anger against the

U.S. and spikes of extremism worldwide. New York Times reporter David Rohde

recently emerged from seven months as a Taliban hostage to report that his

captors' hatred for the U.S. was fueled in part by civilians being killed by

drones. "To my captors, they were proof that the United States was a

hypocritical and duplicitous power that flouted international law," Rohde


Cycles of

violence and international law

In recent

months, an object lesson in drones' role in perpetuating a cycle of violence

played itself out in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Multiple drone attacks last

summer directed toward Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud reportedly

killed over 80 people — many attending funeral services for previous

drone strike victims — without claiming Mehsud. The CIA finally got its

man in a well-publicized August 2009 missile strike that also killed Mehsud's

wife, physician and in-laws. Then, on December 30th, a CIA informant

conducted a suicide mission at a U.S. base in Khost, Afghanistan, killing

himself and seven CIA agents. The informant, Hamam al-Balawi, left behind a

video stating he intended to avenge Mehsud's death. In response, the U.S.

stepped up its drone attacks in Pakistan in early 2010, killing hundreds,

including the alleged planner of the al-Balawi suicide bombing.

It seems

inevitable that the cycle of drone violence will soon include robot attacks on

U.S. targets as well — over 40 countries are reportedly developing UAV

technology, including Iran, Russia and China, and Hezbollah has already

deployed UAV's during its 2006 war with Israel. In P.W. Singer's March 23rd

testimony to the U.S. House Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign

Affairs, he compared the current state of robotics in war to the early 20th

century use of the automobile or the state of computers around 1980. "The point

here is that every so often in history, the emergence of a new technology

changes our world," Singer told Congress. "Like gunpowder, the printing press,

or even the atomic bomb, such 'revolutionary' technologies are game-changers

not merely because of their capabilities, but rather because the ripple effects

that they have outwards onto everything from our wars to our politics."


of Notre Dame law professor Mary Ellen O'Connell, who has conducted a case

study of the use of combat drones in Pakistan, says these ripple effects have

already led to multiple aspects of U.S. drone warfare directly violating

international law. Among the illegal acts O'Connell cites are the CIA's

involvement in aerial killing, the targeting of individuals in Pakistan —

where the U.S. is not at war and does not have explicit permission from

civilian authorities to conduct attacks, and the refusal to provide information

to the U.N. regarding the program's criteria for selecting human targets.

She also

stresses that the large civilian impact of drone attacks violates centuries-old

agreements on the rules of war, which limit military strikes to proportional

responses that do not unnecessarily risk the lives of non-combatants. "The

questions of legality and effectiveness are bound up in each other," says

O'Connell, who advocates for a law enforcement-oriented approach of capture and

trial of alleged terrorists. "Most of the rules of international law,

especially the law on deadly force, are good for us. Not killing people in a way

that foments revenge is a rule that goes back to St. Augustine."

Yet the U.S.

drone program is clearly gaining momentum. Seven thousand drones are operated

by the U.S. currently, the military budget for drones has more than doubled in

just the past four years, and the New America Foundation reports that as many

as 211 people have been killed by U.S. drone missiles in just the first three

months of 2010. The Star Wars-like technology and the remote locations of drone

missile strikes do not seem to suggest an affiliation with Midwest settings,

but it turns out that there are several Hoosier connections to this trend in

warfare. An ongoing investigation by NUVO, including multiple Freedom of

Information Act requests to military agencies, has revealed Indiana-based

activity in drone manufacture, research and operations.


connections to drone warfare


of Defense records indicate that West Lafayette-based Lite Machines received

nearly $2.5 million in U.S. military contracts for fiscal year 2008 alone,

including a $1.5 million contract from U.S. Special Operations Command for

research and development. Lite Machines did not return several messages

requesting an interview for this article, but the company's website touts the

Voyeur's applications for military and law enforcement, including its ability

to locate and detonate improvised explosive devices.


Machines promotes the Voyeur's ability to fly in swarms, and many military

observers say that such mini-drones can carry weapons as well as surveillance

equipment. "Mini-drones can be used for the same purposes as larger ones,"

Notre Dame's O'Connell says. "They can be used like a flying missile with

explosives that can be dropped by the drone or the drone itself can be

triggered to explode. The sky is the limit here."

The Indiana

Air National Guard's 181st Intelligence Wing, based at Terre Haute's

International Airport-Hulman Field, embodies the military's transition to robot

warfare. In 2008, the base switched from a focus on F-16 fighter jets to

processing information gathered by drones. First Lt. Randi Brown, the 181st's

executive staff officer, said that the Guardsmen in Terre Haute are reviewing

information obtained by Predator drones and relaying their analysis back to

troops and aircraft around the world.

"We receive

near-real time video feeds from UAV's, and intelligence airmen analyze that

information and send it back out," Brown said. "It is like a customer service

job, in that we respond to the requests of the folks in the field, whether it

be for humanitarian or combat purposes." Although Brown could not confirm

whether the 181st has been involved in the planning of controversial

bombings in Pakistan or elsewhere, it has been widely reported that such video

analysis provides information used to plan and conduct drone missile strikes.


Indianapolis plant of Rolls Royce, according to Department of Defense reports,

received over $473 million in government contracts in fiscal year 2008 alone,

in part to pay for the manufacture of the AE 3007H turbofan engine for the

drone Global Hawk. While the Global Hawk does not carry or fire missiles like

the Predator does, it is known for its ability to cover tens of thousands of

square miles in surveillance while staying in the air for up to 35 hours,

gathering data that is used for the planning of drone and other military



southwest Indiana's Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center received $3 million in

2005 to expand the capability of drones in "electronic warfare," according to a

statement by Senator Evan Bayh. Requests for an explanation of Crane drone

activity for this article were not replied to, but Freedom of Information Act

requests remain pending.

Drone technology's

impact seems destined to expand beyond the mountains of Pakistan and

Afghanistan toward more domestic uses. Lite Machines, for example, advertises

the Voyeur's law enforcement capacity in addition to its military uses, and

mini-drones are known for their ability to perch and observe via tiny video

cameras in places where humans cannot go. The U.S. Customs and Border

Protection is already flying drones as part of its border security, and the

Miami-Dade Police Department has sought and obtained authorization to create a

program of drone surveillance in urban law enforcement.

To Notre

Dame's O'Connell, the CIA's drone use in Pakistan is already replacing a

difficult but achievable law enforcement challenge—arresting and putting

to trial suspected terrorists in a country where we are not at war—with

summary executions accompanied by civilian casualties Thus, a slippery slope is

already being descended.

"We quickly

moved from using drones just for data collection to weaponizing them, and we

quickly moved from battlefield use of drones to killing people beyond the lines

of any battlefields," O'Connell says. "So what will keep us from using them

with other crimes and in other locations, including the U.S.? In the civilian

context, that is something we should definitely be concerned about."

The overall

Indiana picture is of a state with substantial and varied ties to a robotics

revolution that is already transforming war and may soon do the same for law

enforcement and domestic surveillance. While elected officials like Senator

Bayh and institutions like Purdue University celebrate Indiana's drone

connections as an economic victory in a competition to bring some of the

billions of dollars in robotic combat spending to local communities, activists

like CODEPINK's Perdue see no reason to celebrate. "It breaks my heart to see

what we are doing in Indiana to sustain a form of warfare that both causes

civilian deaths and creates problems for the U.S. in terms of our global

image," she says.


reporting assistance by Jeff Cox