Pentagon to expand drone flights by 50% in next 4 years

A U.S. Air Force MQ-1 Predator. © U.S. Air Force / Airman 1st Class Jeffrey Hall
The US military will increase the number of drone flights from the current 61 a day to as many as 90 by 2019 while expanding lethal strike capabilities.

The expanded drone program, operated mostly by the US Air Force, will allow for broadened surveillance and intelligence gathering from Ukraine and North Africa to Iraq and the South China Sea.

"We've seen a steady demand signal from all of our geographic combatant commanders to have more of this capability," Navy Captain Jeff Davis, a Defense Department spokesman, told reporters at Pentagon.

The move would mark the most expansion within the drone program since 2011.

More than 5,000 people have been killed by US drone strikes since 2004, according to estimates by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. The US government has not made public any casualty figures related to the secretive program.

The new plan would have the Air Force share drone flight duties with the US Army and Special Operations Command, as well as government contractors that would not have lethal strike capabilities.

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By 2019, the Pentagon would like to have the Air Force fly 60 flights per day, the Army to contributing as many as 16, Special Operations Command would offer four, while contractors would fly as many as ten per day.

Currently, the Air Force flies 22 of its 61 daily flights for CIA intelligence gathering purposes, with the spy agency directing the flights with operation conducted by military personnel.

Earlier this year, the Air Force asked the Pentagon to reduce its number of drone flights. US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter agreed to scale down the Air Force's drone operations from 65 to 60 flights per day by October 2015, on condition that other branches of the military would increase the number of their drone flights.

The plan will materialize in steps, the Wall Street Journal reported, with the contractors handling six flights a day and the Army taking as many as eight by 2017, all in addition to the 60 daily flights by the Air Force.

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The plan also allows for drone flights to be rerouted from one area to another in case of bad weather or other restrictions. A defense official told the Journal that if a drone can't fly over Iraq on a certain day, for example, it could be sent elsewhere in the Middle East for monitoring.

Cost of the plan is unknown at this point.

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The expansion of the drone program since 2009 to surveil and police the world may be the most indelible mark on the Obama administration's tenure in Washington. The administration has used technological advances in unmanned lethal drones to revolutionize warfare overseas, portending ominous implications for the 21st century.

Capable of surveillance and firing missiles, Predator and Reaper drones have been used to attack targets – with much danger to civilians, according to numerous reports – in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, all without an international legal framework and with only America’s take-our-word-for-it assurances that lethal drones are guided by some sort of ethical or moral compass.

“There was no oversight. I just know that the inside of the entire program was diseased and people need to know what happens to those that were on the inside,” former US drone sensor operator Brandon Bryant told RT. “People need to know the lack of oversight, the lack of accountability that happen.”

Meanwhile, the administration has supplied numerous non-lethal arms, including drones and armored Humvees, to the government of Ukraine, seeking to suppress rebels in the east of the country.

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Obama’s legacy may ultimately rest with the dawn of this new epoch of warfare, as his administration has infamously kept a ‘kill list’ of alleged terror suspects that are targeted by the CIA’s secretive drone regime with no external oversight or accountability.

For example, the US has operated clandestine, CIA-run unmanned drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004. The US justifies this violation of Pakistani sovereignty with the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), a law the US Congress passed days after the 9/11 strikes that granted the US president the right to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against those behind the attacks on America. In May 2013, nearly 12 years after the law’s signing, Obama – in promising reforms to the drone program that are difficult to verify based on the government's secrecy – clarified who falls into that category as “Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and its associated forces.”

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Pakistan has denounced US drone activity, claiming it is illegal and counterproductive. Yet many believe the two nations collude in their mutual desire to eradicate Islamist militants from the semi-autonomous tribal areas on the Afghan border.

US officials avoid acknowledging the CIA drone strikes, preferring instead to assure the public that any strikes are used against top Islamist militants when capture is not available. The New York Times reported in May 2012 that those targeted for strikes – Obama's ‘kill list’ – are cleared through the White House during weekly meetings dubbed ‘Terror Tuesdays.’