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A Remote Predator Base and the Dangers of Drone Warfare

The Washington Post has been investigating the Obama administration’s expansion of the conflict formerly known as the global war on terror, and the article that ran in today’s paper focuses on a rapidly growing remote drone airfield and military base in Djibouti called Camp Lemonnier.

Increasingly, the orders to find, track or kill those people [on Obama’s kill list] are delivered to Camp Lemonnier. Virtually the entire 500-acre camp is dedicated to counterterrorism, making it the only installation of its kind in the Pentagon’s global network of bases. . .

Today, Camp Lemonnier is the centerpiece of an expanding constellation of half a dozen U.S. drone and surveillance bases in Africa, created to combat a new generation of terrorist groups across the continent, from Mali to Libya to the Central African Republic. The U.S. military also flies drones from small civilian airports in Ethiopia and the Seychelles, but those operations pale in comparison to what is unfolding in Djibouti.

Lemonnier also has become a hub for conventional aircraft. In October 2011, the military boosted the airpower at the base by deploying a squadron of F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jets, which can fly faster and carry more munitions than Predators.

This expansion has led to problems. One drone crashed in a residential area in Djibouti City. Another malfunctioned and went down in the middle of the Gulf of Aden. Most worrying perhaps (and for more than just its similarities to Maximum Overdrive), was one drone that turned itself on even though the fuel lines weren’t connected and the ignition had been turned off.

The Obama administration’s expansion of the drone war has led to the deaths of a number of notable terrorists, like Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, dozens of mid-level commanders fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and an undetermined number of civilians. Mitt Romney has said he supports Obama’s drone war and that if he were president, he would continue these policies.

But there are problems with drone war that might not yet be fully apparent, in this age when the United States and a handful of allies control the vast majority of the world’s armed and surveillance drones. That’s an extremely powerful weapon to have in your arsenal, but the advantage can’t last forever. Plus, these drones are prone to malfunctions and mistakes. It can be hours or days before the military is able to recover a crashed drone, which is plenty of time for someone to snatch from them sensitive equipment or Hellfire missiles. They have nearly crashed into civilian aircraft on several occasions. Hackers have proven that they are able to get inside drone brains. Hezbollah and Iran have them now too: a surveillance drone was shot down over Israeli airspace recently.

How soon until terrorist organizations get their own armed drones? What if hackers are able to get inside a Predator and take it over?

One problem with technology is that it filters down over time. We aren’t going to have a monopoly on the world’s most dangerous unmanned aircraft forever. And in the meantime there is real danger that an enterprising hacker working for an American enemy will be able to “turn” a drone against its operators or civilians.

America can’t rest on its laurels; as our enemies adapt and move up the learning curve, we have to keep innovating as well. Drones have been extremely effective weapons during the last few years, but nothing in warfare is static.

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