East Asia Drone Wars

Northrop-Grumman Global Hawk (USAF)

In one of my only posts last year, around this time, I argued that 2012 would be in the ‘year of the drone’ – and it certainly lived up to that. But we’re still only just beginning. This is already the decade of the drone. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are going to be everywhere in the coming few years (and of course not just in international disputes – I am writing about the spread of domestic surveillance drones for a major report on Surveillance in Canada that we’re producing right now).

Media outlets are reporting that the dispute over maritime territory between China and Japan is ramping up through the use of UAVs.  At the moment both countries rely heavily on conventional naval or fisheries surveillance vessels, which are limited in terms of speed of deployment and numbers. However, surveillance drones could enable a more consistent presence over the disputed islands (and more importantly the sea around them, whose fisheries and below seabed mineral resources are the real underlying issue here).

However, there are big differences in the politics and the political economy of each state’s strategic trajectory here. Japan is relying on its longstanding ‘alliance’ with the USA, and is likely to purchase US-made Northrop-Grumman Global Hawks, further emphasizing the military dependency Japan still has on the USA. China, on the other hand, is speeding up development of its own UAVs, in multiple different models. US industry sources seem more worried by alleged breaches of intellectual property rights in the drones’ design than by strategic issues – but of course, China has almost certainly had access to both hardware and software from downed US drones, which is all part of what some analysts are terming a ‘drone race’ with the USA.

and the Chinese version (Chengdu Aircraft Co.)

But this isn’t just about surveillance. Like the USA’s models, many of China’s UAVs are armed or can be weaponized very easily, and again like the USA, China has also been looking to export markets – most recently, Pakistan has been discussing the purchase of several armed drones from China, following the distinct lack of success in its own UAV development program.

The Global Hawks that Japan is buying are not armed, but this doesn’t mean that Japan is acting less aggressively here or will not in future used armed drones. Despite the post-WW2 US-imposed but popular ‘pacifist’ constitution of the country, the recent return to power of rightist PM Shinzo Abe might will mean both more heated rhetoric over territorial claims and attempts to increase the of the country’s self-defence forces: a review of Japanese military spending – with a view to increasing it – was announced just yesterday.

Drones would seem to be a politically popular choice in this regard as they do not involve putting Japanese lives at risk, or at least not directly; however the longer term outcomes any drone war in East Asia would not likely favour a Japan whose regional economic and political power is influence declining relative to China’s.

Mapping drone strikes

Via Boingboing, an analysis and map of US UAV drone strikes on the tribal regions of Pakistan from 2004. Some good stuff from NewAmerica. What is particularly interested, if not unpredictable, is the way that weaponized UAVs have in the course of just a few years become a ‘normal’ part of the US war machine, with deaths from drone strikes possibly doubling from 2008-9. We can’t be sure of the exact numbers.

Does the expansion of surveillance make assassination harder? Not in a world of UAVs…

Following the killing of Mahmood Al-Mabhouh is Dubai, allegedly by Israeli Mossad agents, some people are starting to ask whether political assassination is being made more difficult by the proliferation of everyday surveillance. The Washington Post argues that it is, and they give three other cases, including that of Alexandr Litvinenko in London in 2006. But there’s a number of reasons to think that this is a superficial argument.

However the obvious thing about all of these is that they were successful assassinations. They were not prevented by any surveillance technologies. In the Dubai case, the much-trumpeted new international passport regime did not uncover a relatively simple set  of photo-swaps – and anyone who has talked to airport security will know how slapdash most ID checks really are. Litvinenko is as dead as Georgi Markov, famously killed by the Bulgarian secret service with a poisoned-tipped umbrella in London in 1978, and we still don’t really have a clear idea of what was actually going on in the Markov case despite some high-profile charges being laid.

Another thing is that there are several kinds of assassination: the first are those that are meant to be clearly noticed, so as to send a message to the followers or group associated with the deceased. Surveillance technologies, and particularly CCTV,  help such causes by providing readily viewable pictures that contribute to a media PR-campaign that is as important as the killing itself. Mossad in this case, if it was Mossad, were hiding in plain sight – they weren’t really trying to do this in total secrecy. And, let’s not forget many of the operatives who carry out these kinds of actions are considered disposable and replaceable.

The second kind are those where the killers simply don’t care one way or the other what anyone else knows or thinks (as in most of the missile attacks by Israel on the compounds of Hamas leaders within Gaza or the 2002 killing of Qaed Senyan al-Harthi by a remote-controlled USAF drone in the Yemen). The third kind are those that are not meant to be seen as a killing, but are disguised as accidents – in most of those cases, we will never know: conspiracy theories swirl around many such suspicious events, and this fog of unknowing only helps further disguise those probably quite small number of truly fake accidents and discredits their investigation. One could argue that such secret killings may be affected by widespread surveillance, but those involved in such cases are far more careful and more likely to use methods to leverage or get around conventional surveillance techniques.

Then of course, there is the fact that the techniques of assassination are becoming more high-tech and powerful too. The use of remote-control drones as in the al-Harthi case is now commonplace for the US military in Afghanistan and Pakistan, indeed the CIA chief, Leon Panetta, last year described UAVs as “the only game in town for stopping Al-Qaeda.” And now there are many more nations equipping themselves with UAVs – which, of course, can be both surveillance devices and weapons platforms. Just the other day, Israel announced the world’s largest drone – the Eltan from Heron Industries, which can apparently fly for 20 hours non-stop. India has already agreed to buy drones from the same company. And, even local police forces in many cities are now investing in micro-UAVs (MAVs): there’s plenty of potential for such devices to be weaponized – and modelled after (or disguised as) birds or animals too.

Finally, assassinations were not that common anyway, so it’s hard to see any statistically significant downward trends. If anything, if one considers many of the uses of drones and precision-targeted missile strikes on the leaders of terrorist and rebel groups as ‘assassinations’, then they may be increasing in number rather than declining, albeit more confined to those with wealth and resources…

(Thanks to Aaron Martin for pointing me to The Washington Post article)

New UAVs in Afghanistan

The USAF continues to use the Afghanistan / Pakistan conflict as a test bed for new military surveillance technologies and robotic weapons. The latest thing is apparently the RQ-170, codenamed Sentinel, which is a radar-evading UAV or drone aircraft.

This picture of the aircraft was apparently shot near Kandahar…

The Sentinel (source unknown)

It seems that as this conflict drags on, more and more of these things will get wheeled out. Its only purpose seems to have become to field test all these black-project developed technologies that the US security-industrial complex has been churning out. It wasn’t that long after the Predator drone emerged that we saw a weaponized version. It is unclear whether there is any such version of the Sentinel yet, but no doubt there will be soon enough. The increasing reliance on remote-controlled and robotic weapons seems to be a new article of faith amongst the world’s wealthier militaries.