a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Forward — to drones on their own

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 3rd October 2012

(From United States Air Force Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan 2009-2047, Note the
planned capabilities of the MQ-Lc, far right: “Modular, Autonomous,” “Strategic Attack,” “Global Strike.”  Similar features
are envisioned for “medium,” fighter-sized version MQ-Mc’s.


What could be better than unmanned aerial vehicles raining death on Pakistan in a ratio of three children to one terrorist leader by remote control?  Why, the same thing on autopilot, of course.  J. Michael Cole of “The Diplomat” reports:

…although the use of drones substantially increases operational effectiveness — and, in the case of targeted killings, adds to the emotional distance between perpetrator and target — they remain primarily an extension of, and are regulated by, human decisionmaking.

All that could be about to change, with reports that the U.S. military (and presumably others) have been making steady progress developing drones that operate with little, if any, human oversight. For the time being, developers in the U.S. military insist that when it comes to lethal operations, the new generation of drones will remain under human supervision. Nevertheless, unmanned vehicles will no longer be the “dumb” drones in use today; instead, they will have the ability to “reason” and will be far more autonomous, with humans acting more as supervisors than controllers.

(Via digby at “Hullabaloo”).  Sure, there are concerns and glitches, Washington Post’s Peter Finn notes:  “Some experts also worry that hostile states or terrorist organizations could hack robotic systems and redirect them. Malfunctions also are a problem: In South Africa in 2007, a semiautonomous cannon fatally shot nine friendly soldiers.” 

But the deeper concern is that a war-fighting process already on institutional and public opinion autopilot would now simply go on a computerized one.  Americans think they know what’s going on in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere, but they don’t.  As the authors of Living Under Drones: Death,Injury,and Trauma to Civilians From US Drone Practices in Pakistan put it,

In the United States, the dominant narrative about the use of drones in Pakistan is of a surgically precise and effective tool that makes the US safer by enabling “targeted killing” of terrorists, with minimal downsides or collateral impacts.  This narrative is false.

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County Council’s retreat loses respect — and Busboys

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 10th October 2011

Great — the Montgomery County Council has chickened out of voting for a perfectly reasonable resolution saying we’re spending too much on defense — because Lockheed Martin blackmailed an easily cowed group of legislators into shelving the resolution.

As the resolution lays out — that is, laid out — it’s not just appropriate for a county council to express an opinion about this issue, it’s high time:

“4. While military spending has been extraordinary during the past decade, huge cuts have been made at the federal, state, and local levels to domestic spending, including appropriations for Maryland and Montgomery County.
5. The economic and financial situation in the state of Maryland has led to reductions in revenues from the state to Montgomery County. These reductions impact funding for education, environmental programs, health care, safety net services, public safety, and transportation projects.”

Cramped school budgets, fights with the police force over benefits, looming state and local health care and services cutbacks and more: they can all be attributed in no small part to this country’s misplaced budget priorities.

But if you need it, there will be another daily reminder of our county council’s embarrassing retreat — the empty storefront at the former Border’s Books location in Downtown Silver Spring.  That’s because Andy Shallal — owner of the thriving Busboys and Poets bookstore/cafe empire in the DC area — has ruled out expanding to that location (or any other in Montgomery County) because of the County Council’s action. CityPaper’s Lydia DePillis reports:

Having already planted flags in Arlington and Prince George’s counties, Montgomery was a clear next step for Shallal. And indeed, he tells me he’s been looking at the now-closed Borders Books & Music space in Silver Spring, and has been approached by developers to open in Bethesda. But Shallal, whose outlets have lately been sporting banners encouraging passersby to “IMAGINE A WORLD WITHOUT WAR,” says MoCo has lost its chance. “County residents pay about $2.5 billion in defense spending,” he emails. “Money that is desperately needed for other services.”

Sure: realistically, Busboys and Poets is no economic match for Lockheed Martin, which turns out to be the largest employer in the county.  But Mr. Shallal’s penalty to the county, while perhaps small in the scheme of things, is a concrete example of the trade-offs we’re making every day with our outlandish defense budget and our seemingly endless warfare.  Lockheed was either bluffing or insane: our county — with its still-excellent schools, its services, and above all its work force — either was a good place to work and live, or it wasn’t. Passing this resolution wasn’t going to change that.

With respect, I think Councilmember George Leventhal was mistaken to say the resolution amounted to unwise “federal legislating.” It was no such thing.  It simply urged Congress to make major reductions in the Pentagon budget, and reinvest the savings in state and local needs.

Councilmember Leventhal got it right the first time when he endorsed this bill.  I hope he gets it right again — and soon — to vote for it.

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Boeing air tanker lease deal approved

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 30th May 2003

U.S. Senator John McCain, Friday, May 23:

I am extremely disappointed that the Department of Defense has approved the lease of Boeing 767 aircraft for use as aerial tankers, a profligate waste of federal revenues. This is a great deal for the Boeing Company that I’m sure is the envy of corporate lobbyists from one end of K Street to the other. But it’s a lousy deal for the Air Force and for the American taxpayer.

For background, see my earlier posts (04/20/03, 01/01/02), but also a reader e-mail comment mentioned on 05/04/03. After the famous Far Side cartoon, here’s what I imagine the Bush administration heard:

blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah, blah blah blah blah blah blah. This is a great deal for the Boeing Company blah blah blah…

McCain points out that the Defense Department appears to have ignored a specific Congressional requirement to provide an “analysis of alternatives”, or AOA in the jargon, and comments, I know of no other weapon system that has been procured by the Pentagon without an AOA.” The senator notes that the Armed Services Committee will look into the matter, and promises he will hold hearings in the Commerce Committee on aspects of the lease.

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Pigs in space

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 9th October 2002

From the Peace Action press release:

The “Missile Defense (a.k.a. Star Wars) is Enron in Space” ads feature a graphic that shows three pink pigs whose effluent is blasting them through space with the blue orb of earth below (ad can be viewed at The ad displays open with, “The same greed, dishonesty and deception that shocked America in the Enron scandal is rampant in the $238-billion Pentagon Pig-Out called National Missile Defense.

Over $100-billion has already been wasted on what all experts agree is, since 9/11, America’s least likely threat!”

The quite excellent ads are currently on display on the Metro in Washington, D.C. (Acrobat needed for final link to poster.) By the way, the graphic link to the right leads to a lot of hard information about rigged tests, silenced whistleblowers, and more.

While we’re on the subject, I plan to watch Frontline’s “missile wars” this Thursday at 10pm; here’s the press release.

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$7 billion here, $7 billion there, pretty soon you’re talking real money

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 2nd January 2002

Via “newsrack” reader Chris Protopapas, a late December news item from It’s about a wildly expensive scheme to lease 100 Boeing 767s to serve as Air Force tankers at $20 million apiece per year. After 10 years, the planes must be reconverted to passenger use, at a cost of $30 million each, and returned to Boeing. reports that a broad coaliton including Ralph Nader, the National Taxpayers Union, and others is protesting:

The cost of the lease plan may be as much as five times higher than an outright purchase, according to the coalition . […]

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) complained Wednesday that “without a hearing before the Armed Services Committee, without any scrutiny, we’re going to give Boeing a deal, noncompetitive, for $26 billion cost to the taxpayers, where airplanes will be leased, converted into tankers at a government expense” and then “given back to Boeing.”

“It’s perhaps the biggest rip-off — it is the biggest rip-off of the taxpayer that I’ve seen since I’ve been here in Congress,” McCain said. […]

The “five times too high” is not universally accepted, but everyone seems to agree we’re paying too much. Even the OMB:

The Office of Management and Budget estimates that the lease plan would cost $22 billion, while purchasing the aircraft outright would cost just over $15 billion.

The Washington Post reported recently that Boeing has dispatched its top executives to lobby Congress on the proposal as a way of creating a multibillion military market for the company’s popular civilian aircraft including the 767.

The use of B-767 aircraft would also require an additional handout from taxpayers, as modifications to existing hangers would be necessary to house B-767s and would cost an estimated $ 600 million.

The B-767 lease proposal prompted a November 2, 2001 letter of opposition from OMB Director Mitchell E. Daniels. Daniels said it would circumvent rules that disallow lease agreements that are more expensive than traditional direct purchases.

Tankers were critical to the Afghanistan war effort, no argument there; but why overpay for them? Supporters appear to include Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-KS), and Senators Ted Stevens, (R-AK), Patty Murray (D-WA), and Daniel Inouye (D-HI). So it’s some good old fashioned pork barrel work (build ’em in Seattle, convert ’em in Wichita), plus whatever it is the senators from Alaska and Hawaii see in this. As Chris writes, “Maybe the next step will simply to dispense with any complicated “lease” deals and just give defense contractors the money directly…”

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