Killer Reaper Drones Coming to the Pacific “To Counter Threats from China.”

by Ann Wright, published on Popular Resistance, March 27 2021

A Chinese military takeover of Taiwan is the top U.S. concern in Asia and the Pacific, according to the admiral nominated to lead the U.S. military’s Indo-Pacific combatant command.

During his confirmation hearing to head the command that covers 51 percent of the globe, U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Admiral John Aquilino told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “the most dangerous concern is that of a military force against Taiwan.”  Aquilino told the committee that the “annexation of Taiwan is the number one priority of China and asked the Senate committee to fund the $27.3 billion Pacific Deterrence Initiative.

Aquilino’s comment echoed the March 2, 2021 assessment of retired Lt. General H.R. McMaster, one of the Trump administration’s national security advisers. McMaster told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Taiwan is “the most significant flashpoint now that could lead to a large-scale war.”  McMaster, who is a fellow at the Hoover Institute at Sanford University, submitted 28 pages of written testimony to the Congress which centered around the Chinese “threat” to the U.S.

To meet what senior U.S. officials are calling the “threat” from China, the U.S. Marine Corps is embarking on a major change in strategy and equipment.   Marine strategy calls for assassin drones “to counter threats from China.”  The Marines will dramatically increase its current worldwide inventory of only two MQ-9A Reaper unmanned aerial drones to 18 and have them located in the Indo-Pacific region, with six in Hawaii arriving in fiscal year 2023.

The Marines currently operate only two MQ-9A drones, turboprop aerial vehicles with wingspans of 66 feet and a maximum weight of 10,500 pounds. They are significantly larger than the RQ-21 Blackjack drones currently in use by Hawaii-based Marines, which have wingspans of 20 feet and weigh 460 pounds. The Hawaii-based Reapers, which will be operated by hundreds of Marine Corps personnel with new job specialty designations, could be armed with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, officials said. The Air Force has used laser guided bombs.

This is a dramatic upswing in the Marines major reorganization designed in large part to counter China in the Western Pacific with fast-moving missile forces aided by unmanned ships, vehicles and the eighteen Reaper aircraft.

In another aspect of the new Marine stategy, on March 15, the entire Marine Corps fleet of CH-53E Sea Stallion helicopters in Hawaii began leaving the islands to be replaced by a squadron of KC-130 cargo and refueling aircraft.

Eliminating from the Marine Corps inventory of all tanks is another move to use of longer-range missiles over conventional, tubed artillery shelling.

To layout its Pacific strategy, on March 16, the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps released a 40-page “Unmanned Campaign Framework”, that details the range of unmanned vehicles they have developed including the No Manning Required Ship (NOMARS) and Unmanned Logistics Systems with a variety of unmanned air, surface, undersea, and ground systems developed to demonstrate long range, big payload, ship-to-ship, ship-to-shore, and land-based cargo transport options.

In the report, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger said he is committed to a “deliberate but aggressive” pathway toward unmanned systems. Berger wrote in the report that “Concepts such as half of our aviation fleet being unmanned in the near- to midterm, or most of our expeditionary logistics being unmanned in the near to mid-term, should not frighten anyone.” When operating forward in small groups under austere conditions, “the ability to maximize unmanned systems to create outsized effects for our allies and against our adversaries is a key element of our future success.”

Unmanned systems are becoming so important that the U.S. Pacific fleet in April 2021 will conduct an “integrated fleet battle problem,” otherwise known as war maneuvers, that will have unmanned systems operating in the air, on the surface and subsurface, according to the new report.


Ann Wright spent 29 years in the U.S. Army/Army Reserves and retired as a Colonel. She also was a U.S. diplomat for 16 years in U.S. embassies in Nicaragua, Grenada, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Sierra Leone, Micronesia, Afghanistan and Mongolia.  She resigned from the U.S. government in March 2003 in opposition to the U.S. war on Iraq.  She is the co-author of “Dissent: Voices of Conscience.”  She lives in Honolulu, Hawaii.




The False Narrative of Unmanned Drones and Trump’s Responsibility to Lead

by George Cassidy Payne, Published on Talker of the Town,  June 24, 2019

The unmanned drone narrative is wrong. Someone is always operating these highly sophisticated killing/surveillance machines. Militarized drones may be maneuvered thousands of miles away by human pilots, but they are always being flown by someone. More to the point, they are being used by human beings to launch missile strikes that have killed at least 2,000 people since the beginning of Bush’s “War on Terror.”

Although estimates of civilian deaths attributed to drone strikes are notoriously difficult to establish, several courageous organizations have made it their mission to uncover the origin of these deaths so that the world can know what is happening in places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. For instance, the New America Foundation has stated that from 2004 to 2011 alone, 15% of the 2,551 people killed by drone strikes were either known civilians or unknown. It has been widely reported that at least 150 children have been killed by militarized drones in Pakistan and that over 1,000 have been maimed or injured. Of course, these statistics say nothing about the extraordinary levels of PTSD inflicted on these populations. Civilian casualties from U.S. drone strikes

Whether someone agrees or disagrees with their use in combat, no one can effectively make the argument that these drones are in any way benign or innocuously unmanned. Whether equipped with weaponry or not, they represent the terrifying reality of American firepower and the severe cost of making the United States an enemy to be resisted. That is why they are flying above — or dangerously close to — the sovereign airspace of Iran. That is why Donald Trump authorizes their use every day. In fact, that is why the American president even went so far as to stop the mandatory reporting of civilian deaths and casualties due to drone strikes. (An act that reversed an Executive Order signed by Barack Obama in 2016.) What is more, that is why the United States military has been authorized by the American people to spend over 100 million dollars on a single piece of drone aircraft, which, we are learning, is the estimated cost of the one recently shot down by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

And that brings me to my second point. When that American drone was blown out of the sky, what an immense waste it truly was. I don’t mean a waste of insanely expensive technology. I mean, what an immense waste of potential to do good! What has a shot down airplane resulted in but further geopolitical brinkmanship, mutual distrust, and the growing likelihood of another costly and protracted war in the Middle East? And don’t try to tell me that drones are the only way that the U.S. military and intelligence apparatus can attain footage of Iran’s nuclear program. That line of reasoning is absurd and outright mendacious.

I always wonder how that money could be spent differently to achieve better results. With that same amount of money, just imagine what could have been accomplished in the way of actually improving international relations between the two historic foes. If Trump really wants to “make Iran great again”, as he stated to Chuck Todd in his recent Meet the Press interview, then he must change how money is invested and the way he uses resources to make his presence and priorities known. Just think about it. 100 million dollars, even today, goes a long way in the arena of peacemaking. Examples abound from cultural exchange programs and humanitarian aid relief to joint commercial ventures and the lifting of economic sanctions. Even direct support of Iranian-American institutions and citizens and the sponsorship of diplomatic talks would, if allocated strategically, cost far less than 100 million dollars and open up the potential for hundreds of billions in new trade opportunities, regional stability, and scientific cooperation. During the Cold War, the Soviets still collaborated with the U.S. to achieve incredible feats of space exploration. To merely assume that Iran would refuse direct investment — not to mention one less drone in their airspace — is not rational.

Now, I do agree with Trump’s wise decision to restrain his military options after the drone was shot down. The fact that he is looking into other retaliatory options besides bombing Iranian civilians is a good sign that he has not completely lost his grip on reality and the responsibility he has to maintain global peace. But in general, Trump must be far more creative and proactive when it comes to Iran. He must realize that drones are not “unmanned” and that they represent to millions of people in the Middle East a horrific example of indiscriminate slaughter and omnipresent terror. It is, by any calculation, a hugely expensive means for exacting political leverage. Whether or not they have been effective from a combat standpoint is a matter of academic debate, but there is no debating that the use of these weapons has destroyed thousands of lives in some of the most unethical acts of combat in military history. Morally speaking, the price we pay as Americans far exceed the 100 million dollar price tag that each of these vehicles comes with.

For all of these reasons, the time has arrived for President Trump to rethink everything about Iran, the use of force, and the cost of what some pundits call “hard diplomacy.” On a heart level, I ask myself: Why does Iran need to be a mortal threat to the national interests of America? That is not what the people of Iran want. That is not what the region, as a whole, wants. And, if Trump looks at this problem from a big picture perspective, that is not what has to happen, at least not if the U.S. is truly the leader of the free world. As such, we all have a choice. We can choose peace and prosperity or destruction and poverty. War is never inevitable, and the future can belong to those who truly believe that humanity is fundamentally alike and intrinsically good. It does not have to turn into a situation in which all sides pay a price that cannot be put into numerical form.

Photo by Lynda Howland

Come to think of it, Trump actually said something akin to this in his Meet the Press interview. To paraphrase, the U.S. president said, “I am from NY. I know a lot of Iranians. They are good people.

Yes, they are. That you are right about Mr. President. Because they are good people, the time is now to show the world that you can lead with thoughtful reflection on your own experience, resolute compassion for others (not in your base), and an honest desire to make people’s lives better because that is the sacred duty of the office you hold.

** Featured Image: Pilgrimage of Peace: Upstate Drone Action Walk to Educate Upstate NY about Drone Warfare




U.S. Drone and Surveillance Flight Bases in Africa Map and Photos

Just in case you thought there was nothing going on in Africa!

The following map and photos depict current and future locations used by the U.S. military for launching drones and surveillance flights throughout Central and North Africa. The map is not complete and reflects available information from open sources.  Similar to drone bases in Pakistan, a Washington Post article from 2012 quotes a senior U.S. commander as saying that most of the African air bases launching drones and surveillance flights are “small operations run out of secluded hangars at African military bases or civilian airports.” Several sites that are rumored to be used for launching drones and surveillance aircraft are not included in the map, including al-Wigh airbase in Libya which has been recently reported by news outlets in North Africa to be a base for French and U.S. operations in Mali.  All images are via Google Earth.

Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti

Camp Lemonnier, a U.S. Naval Expeditionary Base located at the Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport, has functioned for several years as a “core of secret operations” in Africa and the Middle East.  Since at least 2009, the site has hosted armed drones flights targeting Somalia and Yemen.  A 2012 Washington Post article states that unmanned aircraft take off “about 16 times a day” from Camp Lemonnier.  According to the Post, the site is closely linked with Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), hosting at least 300 special operations personnel who “plan raids and coordinate drone flights from inside a high-security compound at Lemonnier that is dotted with satellite dishes and ringed by concertina wire . . . concealing their names even from conventional troops on the base.”  At least five Predator drones have crashed near Camp Lemonnier since January 2011 and a Special Operations Command U-28 surveillance plane crashed in February 2012 killing four Air Force Special Operations personnel.

Photo dated August 26, 2012.  Notice the construction of an adjacent taxi-way and support facilities.

Photo dated April 17, 2009.

Arba Minch Airport, Ethiopia

The U.S. Air Force verified in October 2011 that the Arba Minch Airport in Ethiopia hosts armed flights of MQ-9 Reapers over Somalia.  According to the Washington Post, the U.S. Air Force invested millions of dollars to upgrade the airport “where it has built a small annex to house a fleet of drones that can be equipped with Hellfire missiles and satellite-guided bombs.” The drones are reportedly used in operations against Al-Shabaab.

Photo dated February 9, 2004.

Ouagadougou Airport, Burkina Faso

Described as a “key hub of the U.S. spying network” in Africa, Ouagadougou Airport is the home of a classified surveillance program code-named Sand Creek that includes “dozens of U.S. personnel and contractors” operating a “small air base on the military side of the international airport.”  From the airport, unarmed PC-12 airplanes fly surveillance mission in Mali, Mauritania and the Sahara.

Photo dated December 5, 2012.

Niamey, Niger

Diori Hamani International Airport in Niamey, Niger has hosted PC-12 surveillance flights since 2012.  On February 22, 2013 President Obama sent a letter to Congress that approximately 100 troops would be sent to Niger to support “intelligence collection” and “facilitate intelligence sharing with French forces conducting operations in Mali, and with other partners in the region.”  The same day the AP published a story quoting two senior defense officials as saying that the troops, mostly U.S. Air Force logistics specialists, will be setting up a drone base in the capital of Niamey. The drones will reportedly be unarmed and used for surveillance. The location also currently hosts French activities in relation to Mali.
Photo dated December 13, 2012.

Nzara, South Sudan

In March 2012 U.S. Army General Carter F. Ham, the head of U.S. Africa Command, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee about the need for spreading intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) efforts in “assist the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Central African Republic and the Republic of South Sudan to defeat the Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa.”  According to the Washington Post, the airfield at Nzara is one of the locations intended as a future base for surveillance flights.  An article from April 2012 in the Post states that Nzara is a basing location for part of a contingent of U.S. troops searching for Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony.  Other locations where small camps of troops are located include Dungu, Congo and Obo and Djema in the Central African Republic.

Nzara airfield looking West. Photo dated August 19, 2004.

Entebbe, Uganda

Since at least 2009, the U.S. military has been using defense contractors to run surveillance flights in unmarked PC-12 aircraft from out of Uganda.  The flights are part of a secret project codenamed Tusker Sand that searches for Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, processing imagery from over the airspace of Uganda, Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic. In August 2011, the U.S. government provided small unarmed drones to Uganda and Burundi.

The Ugandan military operates an airbase adjacent to the Entebbe International Airport that is reportedly used by the U.N. and foreign military forces. Photo dated July 2, 2011.

Manda Bay, Kenya

Though drone flights have not been confirmed to originate from Manda Bay, Kenya, past drone strikes in the region have raised suspicion that the base could be a launching point for armed drone flights into Somalia.  According to the Washington Post, the U.S. military has more than a hundred commandos stationed at a Kenyan naval facility at Manda Bay called Camp Simba and the U.S. Navy is currently spending several million dollars to upgrade the runway at the facility.  An unclassified 2008 diplomatic cable from the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi released by WikiLeaks indicates that:

“The Government of Kenya has demonstrated outstanding support for U.S. and coalition operations in the Horn of Africa (HOA) region. They have allowed a continuous US DoD presence in Manda Bay that allows for training and combined operations in support of counter-terrorism operations and anti-piracy actions. They have maintained one of the only long-term access agreements that allows unparalleled cooperation for U.S. military aircraft, permits DoD personnel to enter and exit the country by simply presenting an ID card, provides a safe location for hub operations throughout the HOA region, and provides a Status of Forces Agreement that safeguards US DoD personnel. Kenya is among our strongest supporters in the region and a key friend in the regional war on terror.”

The Kenyan military has publicly denied that it hosts U.S. drones or surveillance flights.

Camp Simba.  Photo dated April 16, 2006.

Photo of the airfield looking West.  Photo dated April 16, 2006.

St. Victoria, Seychelles

Located on the island of Mahé, Seychelles the Seychelles International Airport has hosted U.S. drones since at least 2009.  Since December 2011, two MQ-9 Reapers have crashed at the airport.

Photo dated December 1, 2012.

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Trump Drones On

How Unpiloted Aircraft Expand the War on Terror
By Rebecca Gordon, originally published on Tom Dispatch, May 24, 2018

They are like the camel’s nose, lifting a corner of the tent. Don’t be fooled, though. It won’t take long until the whole animal is sitting inside, sipping your tea and eating your sweets. In countries around the world — in the Middle East, Asia Minor, Central Asia, Africa, even the Philippines — the appearance of U.S. drones in the sky (and on the ground) is often Washington’s equivalent of the camel’s nose entering a new theater of operations in this country’s forever war against “terror.” Sometimes, however, the drones are more like the camel’s tail, arriving after less visible U.S. military forces have been in an area for a while.

Scrambling for Africa

AFRICOM, the Pentagon’s Africa Command, is building Air Base 201 in Agadez, a town in the nation of Niger. The $110 million installation, which officially opens later this year, will be able to house both C-17 transport planes and MQ-9 Reaper armed drones. It will soon become the new centerpiece in an undeclared U.S. war in West Africa. Even before the base opens, armed U.S. drones are already flying from Niger’s capital, Niamey, having received permission from the Nigerien government to do so last November.

Despite crucial reporting by Nick Turse and others, most people in this country only learned of U.S. military activities in Niger in 2017 (and had no idea that about 800 U.S. military personnel were already stationed in the country) when news broke that four U.S. soldiers had died in an October ambush there. It turns out, however, that they weren’t the only U.S soldiers involved in firefights in Niger. This March, the Pentagon acknowledged that another clash took place last December between Green Berets and a previously unknown group identified as ISIS-West Africa. For those keeping score at home on the ever-expanding enemies list in Washington’s war on terror, this is a different group from the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), responsible for the October ambush. Across Africa, there have been at least eight other incidents, most of them in Somalia.

What are U.S. forces doing in Niger? Ostensibly, they are training Nigerien soldiers to fight the insurgent groups rapidly multiplying in and around their country. Apart from the uranium that accounts for over 70% of Niger’s exports, there’s little of economic interest to the United States there. The real appeal is location, location, location. Landlocked Niger sits in the middle of Africa’s Sahel region, bordered by Mali and Burkina Faso on the west, Chad on the east, Algeria and Libya to the north, and Benin and Nigeria to the south. In other words, Niger has the misfortune to straddle a part of Africa of increasing strategic interest to the United States.

In addition to ISIS-West Africa and ISGS, actual or potential U.S. targets there include Boko Haram (born in Nigeria and now spread to Mali and Chad), ISIS and al-Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Libya, and Al Mourabitoun, based primarily in Mali.

At the moment, for instance, U.S. drone strikes on Libya, which have increased under the Trump administration, are generally launched from a base in Sicily. However, drones at the new air base in Agadez will be able to strike targets in all these countries.

Suppose a missile happens to kill some Nigerien civilians by mistake (not exactly uncommon for U.S. drone strikes elsewhere)? Not to worry: AFRICOM is covered. A U.S.-Niger Status of Forces Agreement guarantees that there won’t be any repercussions. In fact, according to the agreement, “The Parties waive any and all claims… against each other for damage to, loss, or destruction of the other’s property or injury or death to personnel of either Party’s armed forces or their civilian personnel.” In other words, the United States will not be held responsible for any “collateral damage” from Niger drone strikes. Another clause in the agreement shields U.S. soldiers and civilian contractors from any charges under Nigerien law.

The introduction of armed drones to target insurgent groups is part of AFRICOM’s expansion of the U.S. footprint on a continent of increasing strategic interest to Washington. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, European nations engaged in the “scramble for Africa,” a period of intense and destructive competition for colonial possessions on the continent. In the post-colonial 1960s and 1970s, the United States and the Soviet Union vied for influence in African countries as diverse as Egypt and what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Today, despite AFRICOM’s focus on the war on terror, the real jockeying for influence and power on the continent is undoubtedly between this country and the People’s Republic of China. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, “China surpassed the United States as Africa’s largest trade partner in 2009” and has never looked back. “Beijing has steadily diversified its business interests in Africa,” the Council’s 2017 backgrounder continues, noting that from Angola to Kenya,

“China has participated in energy, mining, and telecommunications industries and financed the construction of roads, railways, ports, airports, hospitals, schools, and stadiums. Investment from a mixture of state and private funds has also set up tobacco, rubber, sugar, and sisal plantations… Chinese investment in Africa also fits into Chinese President Xi Jinping’s development framework, ‘One Belt, One Road.’”

For example, in a bid to corner the DRC’s cobalt and copper reserves (part of an estimated $24 trillion in mineral wealth there), two Chinese companies have formed Sicomines, a partnership with the Congolese government’s national mining company. The Pulitzer Center reports that Sicomines is expected “to extract 6.8 million tons of copper and 427,000 tons of cobalt over the next 25 years.” Cobalt is essential in the manufacture of today’s electronic devices — from cell phones to drones — and more than half of the world’s supply lies underground in the DRC.

Even before breaking ground on Air Base 201 in Niger, the United States already had a major drone base in Africa, in the tiny country of Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen. From there, the Pentagon has been directing strikes against targets in Yemen and Somalia. As AFRICOM commander Gen. Thomas Waldhauser told Congress in March, “Djibouti is a very strategic location for us.” Camp Lemonnier, as the base is known, occupies almost 500 acres near the Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport. U.S. Central Command, Special Operations Command, European Command, and Transportation Command all use the base. At present, however, it appears that U.S. drones stationed in Djibouti and bound for Yemen and Somalia take off from nearby Chabelley Airfield, as Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone reports.

To the discomfort of the U.S. military, the Chinese have recently established their first base in Africa, also in Djibouti, quite close to Camp Lemonnier. That country is also horning in on potential U.S. sales of drones to other countries. IndonesiaSaudi Arabia, and the United Arab emirates are among U.S. allies known to have purchased advanced Chinese drones.

The Means Justify the End?

From the beginning, the CIA’s armed drones have been used primarily to kill specific individuals. The Bush administration launched its global drone assassination program in October 2001 in Afghanistan, expanded it in 2002 to Yemen, and later to other countries. Under President Barack Obama, White House oversight of such assassinations only gained momentum (with an official “kill list” and regular “terror Tuesday” meetings to pick targets). The use of drones expanded 10-fold, with growing numbers of attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia, as well as in the Afghan, Iraqi, and Syrian war zones. Early on, targets were generally people identified as al-Qaeda leaders or “lieutenants.” In later years, the kill lists grew to include supposed leaders or members of a variety of other terror organizations, and eventually even unidentified people engaged in activities that were to bear the “signature” of terrorist activity.

But those CIA drones, destructive as they were (leaving civilian dead, including children, in their wake) were just the camel’s nose — a way to smuggle in a major change in U.S. policy. We’ve grown so used to murder by drone in the last 17 years that we’ve lost sight of an important fact: such assassinations represented a fundamental (and unlawful) change in U.S. military strategy. Because unpiloted airplanes eliminate the physical risk to American personnel, the United States has embraced a strategy of global extrajudicial executions: presidential assassinations on foreign soil.

It’s a case of the means justifying the end. The drones work so well at so little cost (to us) that it must be all right to kill people with them.

Successive administrations have implemented this strategic change with little public discussion. Critiques of the drone program tend to focus — not unreasonably — on the many additional people (like family members) who are injured or die along with the intended targets, and on civilians who should never have been targets in the first place. But few critics point out that executing foreign nationals without trial in other countries is itself wrong and illegal under U.S. law, as well as that of other countries where some of the attacks have taken place, and of course, international law.

How have the Bush, Obama, and now Trump administrations justified such killings? The same way they justified the expansion of the war on terror itself to new battle zones around the world — through Congress’s September 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). That law permitted the president

“to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”

Given that many of the organizations the United States is targeting with drones today didn’t even exist when that AUMF was enacted and so could hardly have “authorized” or “aided” in the 9/11 attacks, it offers, at best, the thinnest of coverage indeed for such a worldwide program.

Droning On and On

George W. Bush launched the CIA’s drone assassination program and that was just the beginning. Even as Barack Obama attempted to reduce the number of U.S. ground troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, he ramped up the use of drones, famously taking personal responsibility for targeting decisions. By some estimates, he approved 10 times as many drone attacks as Bush.

In 2013, the Obama administration introduced new guidelines for drone strikes, supposedly designed to guarantee with “near certainty” the safety of civilians. Administration officials also attempted to transfer most of the operational responsibility for drone attacks from the CIA to the military’s only-slightly-less-secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Although the number of CIA strikes did drop, the Agency remained in a position to rev up its program at any time, as the Washington Post reported in 2016:

“U.S. officials emphasized that the CIA has not been ordered to disarm its fleet of drones, and that its aircraft remain deeply involved in counterterrorism surveillance missions in Yemen and Syria even when they are not unleashing munitions.”

It’s indicative of how easily drone killings have become standard operating procedure that, in all the coverage of the confirmation hearings for the CIA’s new director, Gina Haspel, there was copious discussion of the Agency’s torture program, but not a public mention of, let alone a serious question about, its drone assassination campaign. It’s possible the Senate Intelligence Committee discussed it in their classified hearing, but the general public has no way of knowing Haspel’s views on the subject.

However, it shouldn’t be too hard to guess. It’s clear, for instance, that President Trump has no qualms about the CIA’s involvement in drone killings. When he visited the Agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, the day after his inauguration, says the Post, “Trump urged the CIA to start arming its drones in Syria. ‘If you can do it in 10 days, get it done,’ he said.” At that same meeting, CIA officials played a tape of a drone strike for him, showing how they’d held off until the target had stepped far enough away from the house that the missile would miss it (and so its occupants). His only question: “Why did you wait?”

You may recall that, while campaigning, the president told Fox News that the U.S. should actually be targeting certain civilians. “The other thing with the terrorists,” he said, “is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. They care about their lives, don’t kid yourself. When they say they don’t care about their lives, you have to take out their families.” In other words, he seemed eager to make himself a future murderer-in-chief.

How, then, has U.S. drone policy fared under Trump? The New York Times has reported major changes to Obama-era policies. Both the CIA’s and the military’s “kill lists” will no longer be limited to key insurgent leaders, but expanded to include “foot-soldier jihadists with no special skills or leadership roles.” The Times points out that this “new approach would appear to remove some obstacles for possible strikes in countries where Qaeda- or Islamic State-linked militants are operating, from Nigeria to the Philippines.” And no longer will attack decisions only be made at the highest levels of government. The requirement for having a “near certainty” of avoiding civilian casualties — always something of a fiction — officially remains in place for now, but we know how seriously Trump takes such constraints.

He’s already overseen the expansion of the drone wars in other ways. In general, that “near certainty” constraint doesn’t apply to officially designated war zones (“areas of active hostility”), where the lower standard of merely avoiding unnecessary civilian casualties prevails. In March 2017, Trump approved a Pentagon request to identify large parts of Yemen and Somalia as areas of “active hostility,” allowing leeway for far less carefully targeted strikes in both places. At the time, however, AFRICOM head General Thomas D. Waldhauser said he would maintain the “near certainty” standard in Somalia for now (which, as it happens, hasn’t stopped Somali civilians from dying by drone strike).

Another change affects the use of drones in Pakistan and potentially elsewhere. Past drone strikes in Pakistan officially targeted people believed to be “high value” al-Qaeda figures, on the grounds that they (like all al-Qaeda leaders) represented an “imminent threat” to the United States. However, as a 2011 Justice Department paper explained, imminence is in the eye of the beholder: “With respect to al-Qaeda leaders who are continually planning attacks, the United States is likely to have only a limited window of opportunity within which to defend Americans.” In other words, once identified as an al-Qaeda leader or the leader of an allied group, you are by definition “continually planning attacks” and always represent an imminent danger, making you a permanent legitimate target.

Under Trump, however, U.S. drones are not only going after those al-Qaeda targets permitted under the 2001 AUMF, but also targeting Afghan Taliban across the border in Pakistan. In other words, these drone strikes are not a continuation of counterterrorism as envisioned under the AUMF, but rather an extension of a revitalized U.S. war in Afghanistan. In general, the law of war allows attacks on a neutral country’s territory only if soldiers chase an enemy across the border in “hot pursuit.” So the use of drones to attack insurgent groups inside Pakistan represents an unacknowledged escalation of the U.S. Afghan War. Another corner of the tent lifted by the camel’s nose?

Transparency about U.S. wars in general, and airstrikes in particular, has also suffered under Trump. The administration, for instance, announced in March that it had used a drone to kill “Musa Abu Dawud, a high-ranking official in al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,” as the New York Times reported. However, the Times continued, “questions about whether the American military, under the Trump administration, is blurring the scope of operations in Africa were raised… when it was revealed that the U.S. had carried out four airstrikes in Libya from September to January that the Africa Command did not disclose at the time.”

Similarly, the administration has been less than forthcoming about its activities in Yemen. As the Business Insider reports (in a story updated from the Long War Journal), the U.S. has attacked al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) there repeatedly, but “of the more than 114 strikes against AQAP in Yemen, CENTCOM has only provided details on four, all of which involved high value targets.” Because Trump has loosened the targeting restrictions for Yemen, it’s likely that the other strikes involved low-level targets, whose identity we won’t know.

Just Security, an online roundtable based at New York University, reports the total number of airstrikes there in 2017 as 120. They investigated eight of these and “found that U.S. operations were responsible for the deaths of at least 32 civilians — including 16 children and six women — and injured 10 others, including five children.” Yemeni civilians had a suggestion for how the United States could help them avoid becoming collateral damage: give them “a list of wanted individuals. A list that is clear and available to the public so that they can avoid targeted individuals, protect their children, and not allow U.S. targets to have a presence in their areas.”

A 2016 executive order requires that the federal director of national intelligence issue an annual report by May 1st on the previous year’s civilian deaths caused by U.S. airstrikes outside designated “active hostility” zones. As yet, the Trump administration has not filed the 2017 report.

Bigger and Better Camels Coming Soon to a Tent Near You

This March, a jubilant Fox News reported that the Marine Corps is planning to build a fancy new drone, called the MUX, for Marine Air Ground Task Force Unmanned Aircraft System-Expeditionary. This baby will sport quite a set of bells and whistles, as Fox marveled:

“The MUX will terrify enemies of the United States, and with good reason. The aircraft won’t be just big and powerful: it will also be ultra-smart. This could be a heavily armed drone that takes off, flies, avoids obstacles, adapts and lands by itself — all without a human piloting it.”

In other words, “the MUX will be a drone that can truly run vital missions all by itself.”

Between pulling out of the Iran agreement and moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, Trump has made it clear that — despite his base’s chants of “Nobel! Nobel!” — he has no interest whatsoever in peace. It looks like the future of the still spreading war on terror under Trump is as clear as MUX.


Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes. Her previous books include Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States and Letters from Nicaragua.

Copyright 2018 Rebecca Gordon