Drone Wars: Obama and Texas cops agree on dehumanizing sky

Greg Harman

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Not counting those “supplemental” billions sought from Congress to keep the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan humming in time, Obama's 2011 proposed defense budget bumps Defense Department bones up by 3.4 percent.

It's a healthy meal in a time of famine. While social programs across the country are getting frozen in place, the only major existing military hardware lines to get the ax are the C-17 cargo planes and secondary engines for Joint Strike Fighters, programs Defense Secretary Robert Gates wanted cut last year anyway.

But in this era of terror-related cost creep, one program in the new warfare arsenal is about to double. Unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, are slated to receive $2 billion for increased production. It appears that drones, offering stealth surveillance packed with hellfire missiles underwing, are finally coming into their own.

According to the Los Angeles Times:

The Air Force will double its production of the MQ-9 Reaper, a bigger, more heavily armed version of the Predator drone, to 48. The Army will also buy 26 extended-range Predators.

Overall, spending on the Reapers and Predators, which are built by General Atomics of San Diego, will grow from $877.5 million in 2010 to $1.4 billion in 2011.

The expansion will allow the military to increase unmanned patrols -- the number of planes in the air at once -- to 65, up from its current limit of 37.

Texas Air Guard fighter jocks at Houston's Ellington Field traded in their F-16s for fulltime drone combat more than a year ago when the last of the F-16s flew out in the summer of 2008. The 147th Fighter Wing became the 147th Reconnaissance Wing with a dozen Predators in the shed.

But Texas' drone fever dates back at least to 2005, when Governor Rick Perry swooned over the potential of UAVs to safeguard Texas' oil refineries and track border crossers along the Rio Grande. The Houston Police Department sought to jump into the game in 2007 with a not-so-secret launch of a pint-sized predator. However, the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority still won't let the Inspector Gadgets of innumerable cop shops or even the Ellington crews put up their unmanned drones.

Lynn Lunsford, press officer out of the FAA's Fort Worth office said the “mechanics of the thing” have his agency studying the issue intently. “Right now the technology is still not quite there, where you can have a drone that can detect and then avoid other aircraft,” he said.

D.C.-based FAA staff, digging in for a possible blizzard, weren't able to get me the stats I was looking for. A spokesperson said while they are still taking applications for unmanned flying machines, but he didn't know offhand if any had been approved in Texas.

And then there is the whole government secrecy thing: “I'm not even aware if that's releasable at this point,” said spokesperson Les Dorr. “The only one I'm aware of is Houston.”

In fact, the first FAA waivers to launch UAV's domestically was granted way back in 2003 to the U.S. Air Force. In the years since, the agency has approved a minimum of 440 applications for UAVs nationwide, according to an FAA fact sheet released in October, 2009.

Still the FAA and military have been butting heads on the issue. It may take the development of “sense-and-avoid” tech to smooth the deal that would completely militarize our civilian skies, one military journal wrote recently.

If prosecution ever starts to include drone surveillance footage, things could interesting.

HPD's Executive Assistant Police Chief Martha Montalvo told the TV crew that busted the “secret” test flight years back that “the unmanned aircraft would be used for â??mobility' or traffic issues, evacuations during storms, homeland security, search and rescue, and also â??tactical.'” And HPD officials said they “would address privacy and unlawful search questions later.”

Keep watching this space to find out who has applied (and who may be flying) spy drones above us, because, at least according to Defense Secretary Gates, these things aren't going away.

Back to the Times again:

Besides their use in international hot spots, Gates said, drones are useful for such efforts as countering narcotics trafficking and helping in natural disasters.

"We will continue to see significant growth for some years into the future even as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan eventually wind down," Gates said. "The more we have used them, the more we have identified their potential in a broader and broader set of circumstances."

I tried to follow up with Public Affairs at the 147th, but they must have been strapped into something somewhere. After punching my way through the departmental gauntlet multiple times, I found they hadn't managed to set up their voicemail. A robot's voice told me so.

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