Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Are Drones the U.S. Navy's Not-So-Secret New Weapon?

Drone lands on aircraft carrier - Photo by Kevin J. Steigberg/US Navy
In a surreal, almost eerie glimpse into the not-too-distant future, an unmanned airplane landed itself today on the flight deck of a United States aircraft carrier. The bat-winged X-47B combat drone, manufactured by Northrup Grumman, took off from Naval Air Station Patuxent River on a flight headed to the USS George H. W. Bush in the Atlantic off the coast of Virginia. When it reached its destination and safely set down, it became the first pilotless aircraft to land itself on the moving flight deck of an aircraft carrier at sea, according to the Navy.

Navy brass are giddy over the historic landing of the drone, which will be developed into a battlefield-ready aircraft. You can view today's event at this link. As you watch, remind yourself that there is nobody in that plane. Its safe landing relied entirely on GPS coordinates and advanced computer technology used by "pilots" many miles away.

"It isn't very often you get a glimpse of the future. Today, those of us aboard USS George H.W. Bush got that chance," Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said today. "The operational unmanned aircraft soon to be developed have the opportunity to radically change the way presence and combat power are delivered from our aircraft carriers."

There's no question that in the coming years drones will play a substantial role in the American military, and in domestic use. Navy leaders are apparently on board, but I'm not so sure the Navy's highly skilled fighter pilots are quite as enthusiastic about these slick, flying robots.

Despite their coronation of sorts today, drones also remain the subject of intense controversy among civilians, and pols. Many Americans worry that drones will potentially compromise our freedoms and be abused by domestic law enforcement, among others. There is also grave concern about the number of civilian fatalities caused by drones we've sent across the globe to kill terrorists.

As I noted in The Daily Beast a few months ago, there's even growing tension over drones in my hometown, San Diego, which is America's drone-making hub. Protests against the drones are increasing here. But so are profits for defense contractors that design and build these futuristic machines - Northrup and General Atomics - and all the subsidiary companies. Drone-related businesses in San Diego County generate a whopping $2 billion in annual revenue and have created as many as 14,000 jobs. 

Meanwhile, in Washington, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky) this week threatened to block the Senate confirmation of outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller’s replacement, James Comey, because, Paul says, Mueller did not address Paul's concerns over domestic drone use.

Of course it was Paul who filibustered the Senate confirmation of CIA Director John Brennan back in March, demanding that the Obama administration clarify its policy on domestic drone use and the targeted assassinations of Americans on U.S. soil. 

But while the debate rages in Washington, the military is moving forward with its drone program. Mabus predicted today that "across the entire spectrum of military operations, an integrated force of manned and unmanned platforms is the future. The X-47B's autonomous arrested landing aboard USS George H.W. Bush shows how the Navy and Marine Corps are riding the bow wave of technological advances to create this 21st century force."


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