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Drones: Friend or Foe?

Written by Dr. Maria Velez de Berliner
24 February 2014

By Dr. Maria Velez de Berliner  President, Latin Intelligence Corporation  Professor, Intelligence and Strategic Analysis  The George Washington University, College of Professional Studies Summary of Webinar given at George Washington University, College of Professional Studies, on 24 February 2014 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (Drones) are here to stay.  They have changed how conventional and asymmetrical wars are fought and how law enforcement tracks criminals and patrols high-interest areas.  Come 2017 or sooner, they will change how commerce delivers products, how we have fun building our own drones, utilizing off-the-shelf products, and, possibly flying them above 400 feet, today’s maximum allowable airspace under which personal drones can fly.   Industrial drone use is not permitted today, although some have tried.  To their consternation, the FAA grounded their drones upon viewing them on FaceBook. From the introduction of the Albatross by Abraham Karem in 1981 to the launching of the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator (UCAS-D) from the USS George H.W. Bush in 2013 to Rolls Royce’s displaying of a CAD mockup of a drone container ship in 2014, surveillance drones have shown to be our friends. All over the world they help track fires, floods, and tornados, and aid diplomacy by enhancing surveillance in stabilization and rescue missions.  Industrial drones help predict crop health and soil conditions; deliver mail and medicines to remote areas; aid in protecting the rainforest by pinpointing illegal logging and strip mining; help identify poachers of rhinoceroses, mustangs, and cattle herds. They deliver cases of beer. Come 2017, they will deliver to your doorstep what you thought of buying because Amazon did the ordering in anticipation of your wishes. Drones also defend us against terrorists and sundry security threats.  Surveillance drones such as the Predator, and missile-armed drones, such as the Reaper, support the warfighter in 3-D Operations (dull, dirty, and dangerous) with precision information collection and firepower capabilities.  Armed drones are credited with the elimination of the original leadership of Al Qaeda, members of the Taliban, and the Haqqani Network.  U.S. drones have sawn terror along Pakistan’s Federally Administered  Tribal Area (FATA).  Israeli drones have done the same against Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Drones are thought to be harmless to the operators who direct them from computer consoles far away from theater.  Not so.  Drones are precision machines programmed and directed by human beings who are susceptible to misinterpretation of the thousands upon thousands of still photographs and videos the drone’s cameras produce.  The collected raw data (information) must be turned into actionable intelligence (information that is vetted and analyzed) necessary to support a mission.  Actionable intelligence demands a level of accuracy the very nature of intelligence analysis does not guarantee.  The most reliable actionable intelligence is the product of as informed as possible an estimate of all the combined variables of what is happening at a circumscribed time and place, under a given set of circumstances.  This means that, despite the best training available in intelligence analysis, a human being is behind the final assessment of who or what is the designated target of a drone.  These human beings, like others in similar circumstances, are susceptible to doubts, concerns, fatigue, tension, and stress that have the potential of causing errors in judgment.  Also the granularity of images might not be as precise as it is assumed.  All this combines to create personal, familial, mental, emotional, and physical costs drone operators must bear.  These human costs, which can be staggering at the personal level, belie the belief that drones ensure fighting war on the cheap. Today, Israel, the United States, the United Kingdom, Iran, and Russia are supposed to be the only countries with weaponized drones, but this will not last long, if it is still true.  Israel is the world’s largest supplier of drones while the United States has the largest fleet of surveillance and armed drones, and the most advanced technology, for now.  Military and surveillance industrial drones are all over the world, but their commercial use is still restricted.   The industrial and personal segments of the $8.4 billion drone industry have the highest risk of being acquired (if they are not already) by rogue states or hostile non-state actors with actual or potential nefarious intentions against the United States and its allies, particularly if the hostile actors are members or associates of transnational criminal or terrorist organizations. This is where drones become our foes. Criminal organizations are no longer mono-product traffickers.  They are transnational criminal business enterprises (TCBEs) that operate like any business, basing their decisions on return on investment, and collaborating with or fighting to death among them when expedient or necessary. We need to remember these organizations built and operated seafaring narco-submarines that plied the Pacific Ocean evading detection.   These organizations also manufacture narco-tanks that are veritable copies of the tanks used by the Mexican Army, and they build exact replicas of commercial trucks, such as UPS and FedEx, to cross borders undetected.  TCBEs do not need to acquire a Predator or a Reaper, if that were possible.  However, they have the financial, corruptive, and collusive power that will enable them to acquire drones suitable to carry bioagents or small payloads whose deployment in small doses can cause pervasive terror among any population.  It is known that terror, spread in small doses over staggered period of time, is the purpose of terrorism.  And drones will amplify the capabilities of terrorists.  Figuratively, the Towers do not have to be brought down again in a spectacular show of terrorism’s capabilities.  One or several rogue drones flying over the CONUS, even if they are taken down before they deliver a hazardous payload, will be sufficient to terrorize a lot of Americans and, consequently, change the calculus of how to fight terrorism – once more.