Flashback: 1995, Manhattan, Kansas. I had just bought a home near Lake Tuttle and was out on my first Saturday motorbike cruise to check out the neighborhood. Down the road a few miles I came upon a large, open field and a cluster of men looking skyward in intense concentration.
I stopped to see what was going on. It was the local radio-controlled aircraft club, passionately engaged in their hobby on a beautiful, blue-sky Kansas afternoon. Their airplanes and helicopters were meticulously fabricated and painted – most were replicas of famous propeller-driven war-planes. The craftsmanship required to build and maintain such machines is only exceeded by the dexterity it takes to get and keep one aloft and under control. These guys were way beyond that, and I was mesmerized watching them guide their craft through acrobatic spins, dives, tricks, and mock battles. Takeoffs and landings were precise, if abrupt. Given the cost of these birds and the hours of work invested, crashes are uncommon.
Funny how we miss events and trends that ultimately have a huge impact. It never occurred to me on that prairie afternoon that this hobby would rapidly evolve into a multi-billion dollar industry, a constitutional crisis, and a sea-change in military and security strategy.
Today we call them drones, and as we speak you may have one quietly buzzing over your head, perhaps observing you.
Our armed forces were quick to take advantage of drone technology – at first for reconnaissance, but soon after for actual combat missions. The use of machines to reduce risks to our soldiers won wide-spread support from political leaders and citizens alike. But as their use proliferated the ethical line in the sand seemed to move.
Americans were pleased to learn that Osama Bin Laden’s right-hand man, Ayman al Zawahiri, was one of many Al Qaeda bad-asses sent to meet their maker by Predator drones in recent months. But concerns mounted when a drone strike killed American-born terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki and three other Al Qaeda leaders in Yemen, and a few days later, another drone took out al-Awlaki’s 16-year old Denver-born son, who, according to his family, was not a terrorist.
“To kill a teenager is just unbelievable, really, and they claim that he is an al-Qaeda militant. It’s nonsense,” said Nasser al-Awlaki, a former Yemeni agriculture minister who was Anwar al-Awlaki’s father and the boy’s grandfather, speaking in a phone interview from Sanaa on Monday. “They want to justify his killing, that’s all.” (quote from the Washington Post)
Senator Rand Paul takes the Constitution seriously, and literally. He filibustered the Senate for 13 hours last week to challenge the authority of President Obama – or any American, for that matter – to assassinate another American without due process. “The ‘drone debate’ isn’t over,” Paul declared. “I wanted everybody to know that our Constitution is precious and no American should be killed by a drone without first being charged with a crime.”
The market for military drones will reach $90 billion over the next ten years, according to the Teal Group. And applications for use in the private sector, as well as domestic law enforcement, are only starting to heat up.
Watching those pretty toy planes maneuvering above the Kansas prairie almost twenty years ago, I didn’t see the huge future implications. It makes me wonder what else I’m missing as I observe ordinary life today.
Tom Balek – Rockin’ On the Right Side
A shout out to the Vietnam vets –
How high can you fly
You’ll never, never, never reach the sky
Sky Pilot – Eric Burdon