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Air Force hires civilian drone pilots for combat patrols; critics question legality

Funny: The supplier of Reaper drones, General Atomics, also supply the pilots

No need anymore for pilots or soldiers: Just contract out these skilled personnel from the equipment contractor.

The Air Force has hired civilian defense contractors to fly MQ-9 Reaper drones to help track suspected militants and other targets in global hot spots, a previously undisclosed expansion in the privatization of once-exclusively military functions.

For the first time, civilian pilots and crews now operate what the Air Force calls “combat air patrols,” daily round-the-clock flights above areas of military operations to provide video and collect other sensitive intelligence.

Contractors control two Reaper patrols a day, but the Air Force plans to expand that to 10 a day by 2019. Each patrol involves up to four drones.

W.J. Hennigan. Contact Reporter. Nov. 27, 2015

Civilians are not allowed to pinpoint targets with lasers or fire missiles. They operate only Reapers that provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, known as ISR, said Air Force Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, head of Air Combat Command.

“There are limitations on it,” he said. The contractors “are not combatants.”

Nonetheless, the contracts have generated controversy within the military.

Critics, including some military lawyers, contend that civilians are now part of what the Air Force calls the “kill chain,” a process that starts with surveillance and ends with a missile launch. That could violate laws barring civilians from taking part in armed conflict.

The use of contractors reflects in part the Pentagon’s growing problem in recruiting, training and retaining military drone pilots for the intensifying air war against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. It is several hundred short of its goal of 1,281 pilots.

The contractors are Aviation Unmanned, a small, 3-year-old company based in Addison, Texas, and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., a far-larger firm based in Poway, outside San Diego, that is the only supplier of armed drones to the Pentagon.

A redacted Air Force document approving the classified contract with Aviation Unmanned notes that the “lack of appropriately cleared and currently qualified MQ-9 pilots is a major concern.”

The five-page document, dated Aug. 24, says the company will provide pilots and sensor operators for government-owned Reapers to help respond to “recent increased terrorist activities.”

A similar document, dated April 15, approved a classified contract to lease a General Atomics-owned Reaper and ground control station for a year and to hire the pilots, sensor operators and other crew members needed to fly and maintain it.

The Reaper “is needed immediately” for surveillance and reconnaissance, the document states.

Both documents black out the cost, as well as most details of the missions and sensors involved.

The Reaper is a larger, heavier and more powerful version of the better-known Predator. Both are made by General Atomics.

The Pentagon requires the Air Force to fly 60 combat air patrols with Predators and Reapers each day. They plan to ramp up to 90 patrols a day by 2019.

Most are controlled from ground stations at Creech Air Force Base, near Las Vegas, command hub for Pentagon drone operations in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere around the globe.

An Air Force spokesman denied that the use of contractor pilots blurs traditional lines of military responsibility in a combat zone.

“Planning and execution of these missions will be carried out under the same oversight currently provided for military aircrews, and the resulting sensor information will be collected, analyzed, transmitted and stored as appropriate by the same military intelligence units,” the spokesman, Benjamin Newell, wrote in an email.

General Atomics employees also provide logistics support, software maintenance, flight operations support, aircraft repair, ground control and other work on most Air Force drones. The company was paid more than $700 million over the last two years for those services, according to Air Force records.

A General Atomics spokeswoman, Kimberly Kasitz, said the privately owned company had no comment for this article.

Aviation Unmanned executives did not respond to repeated phone messages and emails over the last week.

The little-known Aviation Unmanned was founded by a former Reaper pilot and instructor, and it provides aircraft, training and operations in support of commercial and government contracts, according to its website.

The Pentagon’s reliance on contractors is a relatively recent phenomenon.  (Not that recent: Remember the Contra in Nicaragua))

In 1991, the vast U.S.-led force that pushed Iraq’s troops out of neighboring Kuwait in the Persian Gulf War was nearly 100% military personnel.

That changed dramatically as the Pentagon cut its force, and weapons systems became more sophisticated. By 2010, the number of contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan had surpassed the number of U.S. military personnel and federal civilian employees, records show.

The use of drones began in 1995 when the Pentagon used a Predator to gather intelligence during the Balkan wars. Their success persuaded Air Force commanders and intelligence officials to embrace the new technology.

Today, nearly every airstrike or special forces ground raid in Iraq and Syria relies on live video or data from electro-optical infrared cameras, wide-area radars and other high-tech sensors on drones.

How fully civilians should participate is a matter of intense debate in the Air Force.

A lengthy article in the 2013 Air Force Law Review, a publication of the judge advocate general’s office, contended that over-reliance on contractors in a combat zone risks violating international law that prohibits direct civilian participation in hostilities.

It cites a Predator missile attack that killed 15 civilians in central Afghanistan in February 2010. Although the military piloted and operated the drone, the decision to fire a Hellfire missile “was largely based upon intelligence analysis conducted and reported by a civilian contractor.”

“It is imperative that Defense Department contractors not get too close to the tip of the spear,” the author, Maj. Keric D. Clanahan, warned.

The combat air patrols flown by drones involve six steps in the kill chain: Find the target, map the location, track its movements, aim a laser to pinpoint it, fire the missile and assess the damage.

“The more closely related an activity is to the kill chain, the greater the likelihood the activity should be barred from contractor performance,” he wrote. The article urged the Pentagon to “only allow military personnel to serve as aircraft pilots and … sensor operators.”

In an interview, retired Air Force Gen. David A. Deptula, who was deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, said he did not believe contractors are in danger of crossing the line into a combatant’s role. (Living under a Gen. illusion?)

“Weapons deployment only involves less than 2%” of drone missions,” he said. Most flights provide aerial surveillance or intercept and analyze electronic emissions from the ground.

But William D. Hartung, director of the arms and security project at the Center for International Policy, a left-leaning think tank in Washington, warned that there is a thin line between tracking an individual or vehicle and firing a deadly missile.

“The best way to avoid this slippery slope is to prohibit any use of contractors to fly any mission involving drones,” he said. “Military aircraft should be flown by military personnel, period.”

Mary Ellen O’Connell, a professor of international law at the University of Notre Dame, also expressed alarm at the growing civilian role.

Military drones should be flown only by those who “wear a uniform [and] are trained in the law of armed conflict

Obama’s drone wars

Leaked military documents expose the inner workings

More than 90% of victims and casualties are civilians (Not the intended targets? How often this trend has to continue before we dismiss this claim?)

DRONES ARE A TOOL, not a policy. The policy is assassination.

While every president since Gerald Ford has upheld an executive order banning assassinations by U.S. personnel, Congress has avoided legislating the issue or even defining the word “assassination.”

This has allowed proponents of the drone wars to rebrand assassinations with more palatable characterizations, such as the term du jour, “targeted killings.” (exterminate with utmost prejudice?)

Andrew Bossone shared this link

“In one 5-month period of a US operation in Afghanistan, nearly 90% of people killed were not the intended targets” -@HinaShamsi

The whistleblower who leaked the drone papers believes the public is entitled to know how people are placed on kill lists and assassinated on orders from
theintercept.com

When the Obama administration has discussed drone strikes publicly, it has offered assurances that such operations are a more precise alternative to boots on the ground and are authorized only when an “imminent” threat is present and there is “near certainty” that the intended target will be eliminated.

Those terms, however, appear to have been bluntly redefined to bear almost no resemblance to their commonly understood meanings.

The first drone strike outside of a declared war zone was conducted more than 12 years ago, yet it was not until May 2013 that the White House released a set of standards and procedures for conducting such strikes.

Those guidelines offered little specificity, asserting that the U.S. would only conduct a lethal strike outside of an “area of active hostilities” if a target represents a “continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons,” without providing any sense of the internal process used to determine whether a suspect should be killed without being indicted or tried.

The implicit message on drone strikes from the Obama administration has been one of trust, but don’t verify.

The Intercept has obtained a cache of secret slides that provides a window into the inner workings of the U.S. military’s kill/capture operations at a key time in the evolution of the drone wars — between 2011 and 2013.

The documents, which also outline the internal views of special operations forces on the shortcomings and flaws of the drone program, were provided by a source within the intelligence community who worked on the types of operations and programs described in the slides.

The Intercept granted the source’s request for anonymity because the materials are classified and because the U.S. government has engaged in aggressive prosecution of whistleblowers. The stories in this series will refer to the source as “the source.”

The source said he decided to provide these documents to The Intercept because he believes the public has a right to understand the process by which people are placed on kill lists and ultimately assassinated on orders from the highest echelons of the U.S. government.

“This outrageous explosion of watchlisting — of monitoring people and racking and stacking them on lists, assigning them numbers, assigning them ‘baseball cards,’ assigning them death sentences without notice, on a worldwide battlefield — it was, from the very first instance, wrong,” the source said.

“We’re allowing this to happen. And by ‘we,’ I mean every American citizen who has access to this information now, but continues to do nothing about it.”

The Pentagon, White House, and Special Operations Command all declined to comment. A Defense Department spokesperson said, “We don’t comment on the details of classified reports.”

The CIA and the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) operate parallel drone-based assassination programs, and the secret documents should be viewed in the context of an intense internal turf war over which entity should have supremacy in those operations.

Two sets of slides focus on the military’s high-value targeting campaign in Somalia and Yemen as it existed between 2011 and 2013, specifically the operations of a secretive unit, Task Force 48-4.

Additional documents on high-value kill/capture operations in Afghanistan buttress previous accounts of how the Obama administration masks the true number of civilians killed in drone strikes by categorizing unidentified people killed in a strike as enemies, even if they were not the intended targets.

The slides also paint a picture of a campaign in Afghanistan aimed not only at eliminating al Qaeda and Taliban operatives, but also at taking out members of other local armed groups.

One top-secret document shows how the terror “watchlist” appears in the terminals of personnel conducting drone operations, linking unique codes associated with cellphone SIM cards and handsets to specific individuals in order to geolocate them.

The costs to intelligence gathering when suspected terrorists are killed rather than captured are outlined in the slides pertaining to Yemen and Somalia, which are part of a 2013 study conducted by a Pentagon entity, the Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Task Force.

The ISR study lamented the limitations of the drone program, arguing for more advanced drones and other surveillance aircraft and the expanded use of naval vessels to extend the reach of surveillance operations necessary for targeted strikes.

It also contemplated the establishment of new “politically challenging” airfields and recommended capturing and interrogating more suspected terrorists rather than killing them in drone strikes.

The ISR Task Force at the time was under the control of Michael Vickers, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence. Vickers, a fierce proponent of drone strikes and a legendary paramilitary figure, had long pushed for a significant increase in the military’s use of special operations forces. The ISR Task Force is viewed by key lawmakers as an advocate for more surveillance platforms like drones.

The ISR study also reveals new details about the case of a British citizen, Bilal el-Berjawi, who was stripped of his citizenship before being killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2012.

British and American intelligence had Berjawi under surveillance for several years as he traveled back and forth between the U.K. and East Africa, yet did not capture him. Instead, the U.S. hunted him down and killed him in Somalia.

Taken together, the secret documents lead to the conclusion that Washington’s 14-year high-value targeting campaign suffers from an overreliance on signals intelligence, an apparently incalculable civilian toll, and — due to a preference for assassination rather than capture — an inability to extract potentially valuable intelligence from terror suspects.

They also highlight the futility of the war in Afghanistan by showing how the U.S. has poured vast resources into killing local insurgents, in the process exacerbating the very threat the U.S. is seeking to confront.

These secret slides help provide historical context to Washington’s ongoing wars, and are especially relevant today as the U.S. military intensifies its drone strikes and covert actions against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Those campaigns, like the ones detailed in these documents, are unconventional wars that employ special operations forces at the tip of the spear.

The “find, fix, finish” doctrine that has fueled America’s post-9/11 borderless war is being refined and institutionalized. Whether through the use of drones, night raids, or new platforms yet to be unleashed, these documents lay bare the normalization of assassination as a central component of U.S. counterterrorism policy.

“The military is easily capable of adapting to change, but they don’t like to stop anything they feel is making their lives easier, or is to their benefit.

And this certainly is, in their eyes, a very quick, clean way of doing things. It’s a very slick, efficient way to conduct the war, without having to have the massive ground invasion mistakes of Iraq and Afghanistan,” the source said.

“But at this point, they have become so addicted to this machine (drone), to this way of doing business, that it seems like it’s going to become harder and harder to pull them away from it the longer they’re allowed to continue operating in this way.”

While many of the documents provided to The Intercept contain explicit internal recommendations for improving unconventional U.S. warfare, the source said that what’s implicit is even more significant.

The mentality reflected in the documents on the assassination programs is: “This process can work. We can work out the kinks. We can excuse the mistakes. And eventually we will get it down to the point where we don’t have to continuously come back … and explain why a bunch of innocent people got killed.”

The architects of what amounts to a global assassination campaign do not appear concerned with either its enduring impact or its moral implications. “All you have to do is take a look at the world and what it’s become, and the ineptitude of our Congress, the power grab of the executive branch over the past decade,” the source said.

“It’s never considered: Is what we’re doing going to ensure the safety of our moral integrity? Of not just our moral integrity, but the lives and humanity of the people that are going to have to live with this the most?”

 Yemenis dream about drones. And their attacking dreams come true

We dream about drones, said 13-year-old Yemeni before his death in a CIA strike

Mohammed Tuaiman becomes the third member of his family to be killed by what he called ‘death machines’ in the sky months after Guardian interview

‘My father was martyred by a drone’: Yemeni teenager records life months before suffering a similar fate

Chavala Madlena, Hannah Patchett and Adel Shamsan in Sana’
Tuesday 10 February 2015 07.01 GMT

A 13-year-old boy killed in Yemen last month by a CIA drone strike had told the Guardian just months earlier that he lived in constant fear of the “death machines” in the sky that had already killed his father and brother.

“I see them every day and we are scared of them,” said Mohammed Tuaiman, speaking from al-Zur village in Marib province, where he died two weeks ago.

“A lot of the kids in this area wake up from sleeping because of nightmares of drones and some now have mental problems. They turned our area into hell and continuous horror, day and night, we even dream of them in our sleep.

Much of Mohammed’s life was spent living in fear of drone strikes.

In 2011 an unmanned combat drone killed his father and teenage brother as they were out herding the family’s camels.

The drone that would kill Mohammed struck on 26 January in Hareeb, about an hour from his home. The drone hit the car carrying the teenager, his brother-in-law Abdullah Khalid al-Zindani and a third man.

“I saw all the bodies completely burned, like charcoal,” Mohammed’s older brother Maqded said. “When we arrived we couldn’t do anything. We couldn’t move the bodies so we just buried them there, near the car.”

Several anonymous US government officials told Reuters that the strike had been carried out by the CIA and had killed “three men believed to be al-Qaida militants”.

Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris last month. (So did many other movements, like Daesh)

Marib province has become a flashpoint in the struggle between the Houthi rebels –who have ousted the president after overrunning the capital – and the local tribes who reject the Shia group’s attempts to bring Marib under their control.

Like the other families around al-Zur and throughout Marib province, the Tuaiman men have been involved in pushing back against the Houthis.

In a secretive program carried out by the CIA in rural, isolated parts of Yemen, it is easy for confusion to surround the particulars of those killed in a drone strike. Affiliations with al-Qaida and anti-government tribal sympathies mesh and merge depending on who is attacking whom.

Mohammed Saleh Tauiman was 13 when the Guardian gave him a camera to record his family life.

Maqdad said the family had been wrongly associated with al-Qaida, and family members strongly deny that Mohammed was involved in any al-Qaida or anti-Houthi fighting. “He wasn’t a member of al-Qaida. He was a kid.”

Speaking from al-Zur the day after his brother’s death, Meqdad said: “After our father died, al-Qaida came to us to offer support. But we are not with them. Al-Qaida may have claimed Mohammed now but we will do anything – go to court, whatever – in order to prove that he was not with al-Qaida.”

When the Guardian interviewed Mohammed last September, he spoke of his anger towards the US government for killing his father. “They tell us that these drones come from bases in Saudi Arabia and also from bases in the Yemeni seas and America sends them to kill terrorists, but they always kill innocent people. But we don’t know why they are killing us.

“In their eyes, we don’t deserve to live like people in the rest of the world and we don’t have feelings or emotions or cry or feel pain like all the other humans around the world.”

Mohammed’s father, Saleh Tuaiman, was killed in 2011 in a drone strike that also killed Mohammed’s teenage brother, Jalil. Saleh Tuaiman left behind three wives and 27 children.

The CIA and Pentagon were both asked to comment on whether the teenager had been confirmed as an al-Qaida militant. Both declined to comment.

Mohammed’s 27 siblings have now lost three family members in US drone strikes and may grow up with the same sense of confusion and injustice Mohammed expressed shortly before his death.

“The elders told us that it’s criminal to kill the civilians without distinguishing between terrorists and innocents and they kill just on suspicion, without hesitation.”

For Meqdad, Mohammed’s death has reignited his determination to seek out justice for his family. “We live in injustice and we want the United States to recognise these crimes against my father and my brothers. They were innocent people, we are weak, poor people, and we don’t have anything to do with this.”

However, he added: “Don’t blame us because we sympathise with al-Qaida, because they were the only people who showed their faces to us, the government ignored us, the US ignored us and didn’t compensate us. And we will go to court to prove this is wrong.”

Additional reporting by Iyad al-Qaisi in Jordan

“The family has again received no explanation for [13-year-old] Mohamed’s death from either the U.S. or Yemeni governments. Al Qaeda continues to offer the only support to the family.”http://www.theguardian.com/…/drones-dream-yemeni-teenager-m…

Mohammed Tuaiman becomes the third member of his family to be killed by what he called ‘death machines’ in the sky months after Guardian interview
THEGUARDIAN.COM|BY CHAVALA MADLENA

London Palestine Action shut down Israeli arms drone factory near Birmingham

#StopElbit

Resist: Palestine exists. Respect Palestinians UN rights

Victory to the Palestinian struggle! Stop arming Israel

UK activists shut down Israeli arms factory

For nearly a month, Israel has bombarded Gaza from land, sea and air.

More than 1800 Palestinians have lost their lives and war crimes have been committed.

To our collective shame, the UK government has not only failed to take action to pressure Israel to stop its massacre, but has refused to take steps to end the material support it provides to Israel’s brutal regime of apartheid and colonialism.

When governments support crimes against humanity, grassroots movements must take direct action.

A group of activists from the London Palestine Action network have today (5/8/14) chained the doors shut of an Israeli weapons factory based near Birmingham in the UK and are now occupying the roof.

As part of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) and in response to calls for action from Palestinian movements, we are demanding the permanent closure of the factory and an end to all forms of military trade and cooperation with Israel.

The factory that we are occupying produces engines for drones and is owned by Elbit Systems, Israel’s largest military company and the world’s largest drones producer.

Drone engines manufactured at this factory have been exported to Israel in 2010, 2011 and 2012 and Elbit Systems drones are being used in Israel’s ongoing massacre. Any claims that components manufactured at this factory are not being used in Israel’s current attack on Gaza are not credible.

Drones are a key part of Israel’s military arsenal.

By allowing this factory to export drone components and other arms to Israel, the UK government is providing direct support and approval to Israel’s massacres.

The factory is also a key part of the Watchkeeper program under which Elbit Systems is leading the manufacture of a new generation of drones for the UK military.

The Watchkeeper drone is based on the Hermes 450, documented as being used to kill Palestinian civilians during the 2008-09 attack on Gaza. Elbit Systems markets its drones as ‘field tested’ – by which it means that their drones have been proven to be effective at killing Palestinians. The UK government is importing technology that has been developed during the course of Israeli massacres.

UK prime minister David Cameron and the UK government have Palestinian blood on their hands.

In order to end their deep complicity with Israel’s system of occupation, colonialism and apartheid against Palestinians, they must take steps to impose a full military embargo on Israel and close the Elbit Systems factory immediately.

It is more important than ever that the solidarity we build with the Palestinian struggle is effective and impactful. Israel does not act alone but is supported by governments and corporations across the world that have names and addresses.

It is time for the international solidarity movement to escalate its direct actions against those that support and profit from Israeli apartheid to take action that can lead to a genuine isolation of Israel.

Join the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement!

Stop arming Israel!

Are you a Pakistani, still living in a remote area?

Scared to Go Outside and be harvested by a drone?

One year ago, a 67-year-old Pakistani woman was killed by an alleged U.S. drone while picking vegetables in a field with her grandchildren on October 24, 2012.

The United States has never acknowledged killing her or any other drone strike victims in Pakistan, always claiming that it is militants locked in the cross-hairs.

Amy Goodman and Juan González posted an interview on DAILY INDEPENDENT GLOBAL NEWS HOUR this Oct.31, 2013

“Too Scared to Go Outside”: Family of Pakistani Grandmother Killed in U.S. Drone Strike Speaks Out

This week, her son and two of her grandchildren traveled to Washington, D.C., to become the first drone victims to testify before members of Congress — even though only 5 Democrats appeared at the hearing.

Live in studio, we speak to Rafiq Rehman and his two children, 9-year-old Nabila and 13-year-old Zubair, both of whom were injured in the strike. “I don’t understand why this happened to me. I have done nothing wrong,” Zubair says. “What I would like to say to the American people is: Please tell your government to end these drones, because it is disrupting our lives.”

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: As we continue our special on U.S. drone strikes, we turn now to the killing of a 67-year-old Pakistani grandmother last year. In a moment, we’ll be joined by her son and two grandchildren, nine-year-old Nabila and 13-year-old Zubair. But first, another clip from Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars.

RAFIQ UR REHMAN: [translated] My name is Rafiq ur Rehman. I am a primary school teacher. I’ve been teaching for 10 years. We strive to eradicate illiteracy so our children can be educated and have a bright future. This is my daughter Nabila. This is my daughter Asma. Zubair ur Rehman is my son. We have our own land and grow our own food.

ZUBAIR UR REHMAN: People enjoyed life before the attacks.

RAFIQ UR REHMAN: It was 2:45 p.m. on October 24th of 2012. After school finished, I went into town to buy school supplies.

ZUBAIR UR REHMAN:  I was in the fields tying up bundles.

RAFIQ UR REHMAN: I got back in the car and bought sweets for the children.

KALIM UR REHMAN: When I got home, I was drinking tea. After the first sip, the drone hit. The house shook.

ZUBAIR UR REHMAN: The dust flew.

ATIQ UR REHMAN: The roof shook, and the ground trembled.

ASMA UR REHMAN:  I ran. and I got hit.

KALIM UR REHMAN:  I ran out, and there was all this dust and smoke.

SHOW FULL TRANSCRIPT ›

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