Op-Ed by Nicholas West
It is often forgotten how recently, and how quickly, drones have become commonplace. Not only are they a military staple in countries around the world, but after long speculation it was admitted by the Pentagon just days ago that, yes, drones are being used to spy on the American people.
As this technology rapidly develops, and as legislation keeps pace by allowing their increased use anywhere and everywhere, each advancement now must be received with a further sense of concern.
It was several years ago that I first wrote about micro-drones – miniature flying vehicles that are designed to be as small as an insect. These tiny drones would be “hidden in plain sight” with the ability to harvest energy from natural and man-made power sources. The Air Force admitted in the video below that they could enter houses and even commit assassinations after being dropped from military aircraft.
So, here we are with the Pentagon’s most recent announcement about testing drone swarms that can be launched from fighter jets. Strangely, these announcements typically come from defense-related sites, or the videos appear directly on military YouTube channels; this latest one, however, has been given extensive treatment by The Washington Post in its article “Veil of secrecy lifted on Pentagon office planning ‘Avatar’ fighters and drone swarms.”
High over Alaska last summer, the Pentagon experimented with new, secret prototypes: Micro-drones that can be launched from the flare dispensers of moving F-16s and F/A-18 fighter jets. Canisters containing the tiny aircraft descended from the jets on parachutes before breaking open, allowing wings on each drone to swing out and catch the wind. Inch-wide propellers on the back provided propulsion as they found one another and created a swarm.
The experiment was run by the secretive Strategic Capabilities Office, a Pentagon organization launched in summer 2012 to figure out how to best counter growing strategic threats from China and Russia. The specifics of what the mini-drones can do are classified, but they could be used to confuse enemy forces and carry out surveillance missions using equipment that costs much less than full-sized unmanned aircraft. Video reviewed by The Washington Post shows the tiny aircraft, which weigh about a pound each, moving in packs and gaining situational awareness after sitting inert in the flare canisters. (Source)
The “secretive program” is called Perdix. Here is the test launch from an F-16 (itself potentially a drone):
One aspect of this video that is striking is how little detail there is and how unimpressive it is compared to other military promotional videos. Interestingly, the Pentagon was quick to admit that the release of this demonstration was part of a propaganda campaign to put America’s enemies on notice that this tech is out there.
(Defense Secretary Ashton) Carter’s disclosures raised some questions in the Pentagon about whether he had revealed classified information while previewing his 2017 budget. But in a rare interview, the director of SCO said the secretary sought a green light to disclose snippets of the mini-drone experiment in Alaska and a few other programs as part of a broader effort to get the attention of potential adversaries. (emphasis added)
While there is a very real global drone arms race (that the U.S. itself initiated) which now requires constant funding for capability upgrades, this video might actually be propaganda of a different sort; putting out something so unimpressive that it might lull other militaries – and the general public – into a false sense of how far along the U.S. military really is with their micro-drone program.
For example, please watch the next video that shows a projected battlefield for 2017, according to leading defense contractor General Atomics, then tell me that a toy with a parachute on it is a program worthy of being “veiled in secrecy.”
It seems that with each new announcement we run the risk of being conditioned to misunderstand the true state of military tech. Perhaps this latest video serves to reinforce that notion.
The fact that the Pentagon has just released a video, essentially through The Washington Post, might indicate an intent to establish the conditions that will make full-scale roll-out much more acceptable by giving us pause about what is really coming.
There is also a segment of the public who still have faith that if any of this is developed and used at all, it will be “over there” and not deployed in a town near us. However, combined with the Pentagon admitting that they have been using drones to spy inside the U.S., what should we expect the real future to look like?
What do you think is the reason for the Pentagon taking a high-profile stance regarding its micro-drone program? Please leave your thoughts in the comment section.