The manufacturers of drone airplanes, which have killed hundreds of civilians in Pakistan and Afghanistan, are about to see their prospects soar as the Pentagon expands its vast arsenal.
At least that was the message at Tuesday’s "Unmanned Aircraft Systems West" conference in San Diego, where advocates of the lethal composite birds dispassionately described how unpiloted planes directed via satellite will soon come to largely replace the human element on the killing fields.
Use of the so-called Predator and Reaper drones to fight the U.S.-spawned war in the border regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan have rapidly escalated during the opening months of the Obama administration, with 51 reported strikes in Pakistan in 2009 alone – up from 45 during the previous eight years, according to a recent report by the New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
The foundation alleges in its "The Year of the Drone" account that more than 1,000 – or 32 per cent – of drone attack victims were civilians.
Tuesday’s industry conference was held at the sprawling Sheraton Hotel on Harbor Island. A group of antiwar protesters picketed the event on a sidewalk near the facility’s entrance.
"People have been so disappointed in President Obama, and now he’s expanding production of aircraft which is killing innocent civilians," lamented Carol Jahnkow, executive director of the Peace Resource Center of San Diego.
Jahnkow was standing near a heavily-trafficked intersection across from San Diego International Airport holding a three-foot-wide sign reading "Made Locally! Killing Globally!"
Nearby, three wraithlike figures wearing skeleton masks and black robes slowly paced the boulevard, with one pounding a drum at dirge tempo.
Many drivers passing by in their cars honked horns in support of the rally, even if most of them likely didn’t realize the focus of the gathering was the meeting inside.
San Diego is the epicenter of drone airplane construction, with the bulk of the machines built by area defense contractor General Atomics and a local division of Northrop Grumman.
The machines, which render both surveillance and attack functions at altitudes of up to 25,000 feet, cost between $4 million and $12 million each to produce – substantially less than piloted bomber planes.
Moreover, the 27-foot-long planes can travel as far as 400 miles to their target, hover there for hours rendering their assignment, and then return home to base.
Just how prized the drones have become to the U.S. military was evident on December 8 when Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, hailed the plane’s battlefield advantages during an appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Never mind that the drone’s reputation for precision snooping and targeting of U.S. foes has been battered lately with increasing reports of deadly stikes on unwary civilians, many of them children.
On January 3, for instance, four drones hovering over the village of Musaki in North Waziristan, Pakistan, dropped at least part of their payload on the civilian quarters of Sadiq Noor, a teacher, and his 9-year-old son Wajid, instantly killing them both, according to various news reports.
None of that was broached at the "Unmanned Aircraft" conference, where attendees referred in sometimes oblique terms to the mechanics of refining design wrinkles, target accuracy and other topics.
The two-day conference, which ended Wednesday, was held under the auspices of the Association of Naval Aviation, with corporate sponsorship supplied by the likes of RTI, a softward services company; HDT Engineered Technologies; Flow Technology and Z Microsystems, among other subcontractors hoping for expanded business from the drone’s primary producers.
Among the nine speakers at Tuesday’s meeting were Marine Major Gen. Thomas Conant, who addressed the burgeoning use of unmanned aircraft systems in the corps, and U.S. Coast Guard Captain James Sommer, who likewise recited various nonwar projects for the unmanned planes in his agency.
Several military officials and corporate executives, all of whom asked that their names not be used in this story, defended the dispatch of drones in warfare as an economical strategy to keep soldiers out of harm’s way.
Missions can be executed quickly and cleanly using unmanned aircraft, and "with little, if any, collateral (civilian) damage," one company official said.
Indeed, the executive stressed that Sadiq Noor, the victim of the drone attack cited above, actually had links to militant groups in his village, and was therefore a legitimate target.
Other attendees acknowledged that the drones aren’t necessarily the weapon for all occasions, but only good for use in relatively poor countries without the military capacity to launch anti-drone missiles and aircraft.
"These (drones) wouldn’t do well over, say, Russia," a company salesman said with a laugh.
FRANK GREEN is a veteran journalist and lives in the San Diego area. He can be reached at email@example.com