Thursday, August 18, 2011

USA Sends DRONES to Libya

The US military has dispatched two more Predator drones to the Libya war as Libyan revolutionary forces make major advances toward the powerbase of the country's ruler Muammar Gaddafi.

A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said on Wednesday that the drones arrived earlier this week, Reuters reported.

The measure was adopted following requests by the NATO commanders who had said changing tactics by the Gaddafi forces made it difficult for fighter jets to hit targets.

US President Barack Obama authorized the use of armed drones over Libya in April and since then there have been over 90 drone attacks, reports say.

The drones can remain in the air for a dozen hours or longer and send live videos and other intelligence information to the headquarters on the ground and have the capability to carry two air-to-ground missiles.

The move reveals a big shift in the US strategy in Libya since Leon Panetta took over the Pentagon early July.

Robert Gates, the former US defense secretary, had demanded that the European allies do more in the Libya military campaign. However, Panetta has said victory in the Libya war is one of his top priorities.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, fighting between Gaddafi loyalists and fighters raged for a fourth consecutive day in the strategic town of Zawiya, around 50 kilometers (32 miles) west of Gaddafi's stronghold of Tripoli.

Fierce fighting has been reported near the town's oil refinery but revolutionary forces say they have already shut down the fuel lines to and from the refinery.

Fighters also said they made other gains in the west of the country by eliminating regime forces in the town of Tiji and securing the coastal town of Sabratha, west of Zawiya.

Fighters said on Wednesday that they will gain victory over regime forces by the end of August.


How the Libyan rebels bought a miniature drone on the Internet
By Laura Rozen | The Envoy –

Although Libyan rebels have been celebrating their advance into the capital of Tripoli this week, just a few weeks ago, they had a problem. Outgunned and poorly trained, Libya's ragtag opposition was the object of pitying--if not unsympathetic--reports by the journalists covering their seemingly hapless efforts to advance and hold ground against Gadhafi's professional forces, who were better trained and better equipped.

Naturally, the rebels turned to the Internet for help. In June, members of the Libyan National Transition Council were "searching the Web," the New York Times reports, where they found information about a surveillance drone--"essentially a tiny, four-rotor helicopter dangling a pod carrying stabilized-image day- and night-vision cameras"--made by Aeryon Labs of Waterloo, Ontario.

The ship delivering the drone and German Red Cross pulling into Misrata, Libya July 16, 2011. (Charles Barlow, …

That's how Charles Barlow, a former Canadian army officer who previously served with the United Nations in Syria, found himself on a boat to Misrata, Libya, in July, delivering a miniature surveillance drone to the rebels. (Barlow's photo of pulling into Misrata on July 16 is posted to the right.)

"What was happening with [the Libyan rebels] was they'd be driving down roads, getting shot at and losing people along the way," Barlow, now the president of Zariba Security, an Ottawa, Canada-based company that works closely with the drone's manufacturer, Aeryon. Barlow spoke with The Envoy on Thursday. "They wanted to say, where are Gadhafi's forces so they did not end up driving right into them."

The rebels first tried a number of different methods to acquire better visibility of the battlefield. "They asked NATO for imaging. NATO could not provide that, it was deemed too sensitive," Barlow said. They then rigged up a toy helicopter and strapped a camera under it, but that didn't work.

"So they started to look around for drones--little ones--they could pilot themselves."
Unlike the Predator drones the United States flies over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere, which are equipped with sophisticated weapons systems that can strike suspected terrorist hideouts,the Scout miniature unmanned aerial drone has no weapons system. It also does not require an airfield to take off; it can be launched from, say, the top of a car. It is basically a flying, pilotless camera. It weighs about 3 pounds. It can also only fly about 2 miles.

The cost? About $100,000 to $200,000, Barlow said, "but it depends a lot" on the situation, he added, explaining that mitigating factors include how quickly the customer needs the device, how many they're buying, and whether it's a drone that has thermal cameras, which are able to see at night.

(Asked if it costs extra if he is required to deliver the drone to a war zone, Barlow said it does.)A number of bureaucratic obstacles also had to be overcome for the deal to be approved. The Canadian firms needed to get an export license from the Canadian government. The Canadian Foreign Ministry had to determine whether the equipment could be legally provided to Libya's opposition coalition, the National Transitional Council (NTC).

"It all started with the official rep of the NTC to Canada," inquiring about purchasing the drone, Barlow told The Envoy. "And we checked out with [the Canadian Ministry of] Foreign Affairs whether this was a real person. We established these are really NTC guys."

Once Canada recognized the rebels as the official Libyan government, no more legal obstacles remained, Barlow said.

So in July, Barlow embarked on an "18-hour voyage from Malta to the Libyan port of Misrata on a former South Korean fishing ship chartered by the rebels," as the New York Times reported.
Barlow spent two days in the besieged city teaching a team of Libyan rebels how to use the drone.

Asked his observations of Libya's freedom fighters, Barlow said of the dozen he met and trained, none of them were soldiers, but they told him they had no choice but to fight. One, for instance, was until recently a medical technician, whose hospital had been destroyed when Gadhafi's forces attacked the city. He didn't have a job anymore. "So he picked up a gun and went off to fight," Barlow said. "He knew if the Gadhafi guys came back to the city they would burn it down."

"The guys I met were fighting because they had absolutely had no choice," Barlow told The Envoy. "They are not out there fighting for some particular guy ... The guys I met fighting at the front were mortified that they were fighting other Libyans at all."

Will the Libyan opposition be placing more orders for drones? "Now that the rebels have basically won," Barlow said, "they've got more important priorities: like rebuilding hospitals."
(Video at top of an Aeryon Scout unmanned aerial drone, courtesy of Aeryon Labs.)

Coming Soon: The Drone Arms Race
By Scott Shane, The New York Times
24 October 11

t the Zhuhai air show in southeastern China last November, Chinese companies startled some Americans by unveiling 25 different models of remotely controlled aircraft and showing video animation of a missile-armed drone taking out an armored vehicle and attacking a United States aircraft carrier.

The presentation appeared to be more marketing hype than military threat; the event is China's biggest aviation market, drawing both Chinese and foreign military buyers. But it was stark evidence that the United States' near monopoly on armed drones was coming to an end, with far-reaching consequences for American security, international law and the future of warfare.

Eventually, the United States will face a military adversary or terrorist group armed with drones, military analysts say. But what the short-run hazard experts foresee is not an attack on the United States, which faces no enemies with significant combat drone capabilities, but the political and legal challenges posed when another country follows the American example. The Bush administration, and even more aggressively the Obama administration, embraced an extraordinary principle: that the United States can send this robotic weapon over borders to kill perceived enemies, even American citizens, who are viewed as a threat.

"Is this the world we want to live in?" asks Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Because we're creating it."

What was a science-fiction scenario not much more than a decade ago has become today's news. In Iraq and Afghanistan, military drones have become a routine part of the arsenal. In Pakistan, according to American officials, strikes from Predators and Reapers operated by the CIA have killed more than 2,000 militants; the number of civilian casualties is hotly debated. In Yemen last month, an American citizen was, for the first time, the intended target of a drone strike, as Anwar al-Awlaki, the Qaeda propagandist and plotter, was killed along with a second American, Samir Khan.

If China, for instance, sends killer drones into Kazakhstan to hunt minority Uighur Muslims it accuses of plotting terrorism, what will the United States say? What if India uses remotely controlled craft to hit terrorism suspects in Kashmir, or Russia sends drones after militants in the Caucasus? American officials who protest will likely find their own example thrown back at them.

"The problem is that we're creating an international norm" - asserting the right to strike preemptively against those we suspect of planning attacks, argues Dennis M. Gormley, a senior research fellow at the University of Pittsburgh and author of "Missile Contagion," who has called for tougher export controls on American drone technology. "The copycatting is what I worry about most."

The qualities that have made lethal drones so attractive to the Obama administration for counterterrorism appeal to many countries and, conceivably, to terrorist groups: a capacity for leisurely surveillance and precise strikes, modest cost, and most important, no danger to the operator, who may sit in safety thousands of miles from the target.

To date, only the United States, Israel (against Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza) and Britain (in Afghanistan) are known to have used drones for strikes. But American defense analysts count more than 50 countries that have built or bought unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, and the number is rising every month. Most are designed for surveillance, but as the United States has found, adding missiles or bombs is hardly a technical challenge.

"The virtue of most UAVs is that they have long wings and you can strap anything to them," Mr. Gormley says. That includes video cameras, eavesdropping equipment and munitions, he says. "It's spreading like wildfire."

So far, the United States has a huge lead in the number and sophistication of unmanned aerial vehicles (about 7,000, by one official's estimate, mostly unarmed). The Air Force prefers to call them not UAVs but RPAs, or remotely piloted aircraft, in acknowledgment of the human role; Air Force officials should know, since their service is now training more pilots to operate drones than fighters and bombers.

Philip Finnegan, director of corporate analysis for the Teal Group, a company that tracks defense and aerospace markets, says global spending on research and procurement of drones over the next decade is expected to total more than $94 billion, including $9 billion on remotely piloted combat aircraft.

Israel and China are aggressively developing and marketing drones, and Russia, Iran, India, Pakistan and several other countries are not far behind. The Defense Security Service, which protects the Pentagon and its contractors from espionage, warned in a report last year that American drone technology had become a prime target for foreign spies.

Last December, a surveillance drone crashed in an El Paso neighborhood; it had been launched, it turned out, by the Mexican police across the border. Even Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group, has deployed drones, an Iranian design capable of carrying munitions and diving into a target, says P.W. Singer of the Brookings Institution, whose 2009 book "Wired for War" is a primer on robotic combat.

Late last month, a 26-year-old man from a Boston suburb was arrested and charged with plotting to load a remotely controlled aircraft with plastic explosives and crash it into the Pentagon or United States Capitol. His supposed co-conspirators were actually undercover FBI agents, and it was unclear that his scheme could have done much damage. But it was an unnerving harbinger, says John Villasenor, professor of electrical engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles. He notes that the Army had just announced a $5 million contract for a backpack-size drone called a Switchblade that can carry an explosive payload into a target; such a weapon will not long be beyond the capabilities of a terrorist network.

"If they are skimming over rooftops and trees, they will be almost impossible to shoot down," he maintains.

It is easy to scare ourselves by imagining terrorist drones rigged not just to carry bombs but to spew anthrax or scatter radioactive waste. Speculation that Al Qaeda might use exotic weapons has so far turned out to be just that. But the technological curve for drones means the threat can no longer be discounted.

"I think of where the airplane was at the start of World War I: at first it was unarmed and limited to a handful of countries," Mr. Singer says. "Then it was armed and everywhere. That is the path we're on."

Scott Shane is a national security correspondent for The New York Times.

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