Normalising death: The business of drones

As the leading suppliers, users and developers of drones, the US and Israel have defined the landscape of the industry.

File photo of U.S. Predator unmanned drone armed with a missile on the tarmac of Kandahar military airport
Today, Israel is the single largest exporter of drones worldwide, accounting for 41 per cent of the global exports of drones between 2001 and 2011, and the US "follows closely and covetously behind" [Reuters]

While families bury and mourn loved ones struck dead by US and Israeli drone attacks and pundits examine casus belli, US drone manufacturers are hard at work strategising their industry’s business plans.

As the two leading suppliers, users and developers of drone technology, the US and Israel have defined the landscape of the industry. While this leads to an inherent competition, the industries maintain a more co-operative than adversarial relationship.

American drone manufacturers have benefitted widely from the kind of warfare and attendant weaponry that Israel has helped pioneer. Not only did America’s initial drone capabilities come from Israel, but the policy of targeted assassinations, under which 300 American drone strikes have been deployed by the Obama administration, was instigated by Israel.

Lisa Hajjar, professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, documents that Israel implemented a policy of targeted killings during the first intifada but it only became an official policy in September 2000. According to Hajjar, at that point, Israel “became the first state in the world to officially proclaim a policy of ‘liquidation’ and ‘preemptive targeted killing'”.

A little over a year later, in January 2002, the US followed Israel’s lead by assassinating an alleged member of al-Qaeda, Ali Qaed Sinan al-Harthi, and five others in Yemen in January 2002. 

The US accelerated and expanded its use of the policy much more than Israel did, and is today actively engaged in drone warfare in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, while Israel continues to show off its drone surveillance technology in Gaza and along its border with Lebanon, as well as lethal drone use during the recent assault on Gaza.

American and Israeli politicians have heralded the adoption of drone warfare as enabling “surgical precision” to eliminate so-called enemies. However, as Human Rights Watch documented during Israel’s 08-09 assault on Gaza and recent reports on US drone warfare in Yemen and Pakistan demonstrate, drones do not ensure “precision” by any means.

Gaining the competitive edge

Irking US manufacturers, Israel enjoys a less fettered access to the global market for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and is not a signatory to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) as is the United States. Consequently, US drone makers fear losing potentially lucrative markets to Israel – even under their own noses. 


 US defends drone use for targeted killing

For instance, as Jefferson Morley reported last May, in 2006 Israel snuck a drone manufacturing company, Stark Aerospace of Mississippi, into the mid-size town of Columbus, Mississippi in order to more easily tap into American markets.

Today, Israel is the single largest exporter of drones worldwide, accounting for 41 per cent of the global exports of drones between 2001 and 2011. The US follows closely and covetously behind.

January 2012 Congressional Research Service report stated: “Some would argue that much new business is likely to be generated in the UAS [unmanned aerial systems] market, and if US companies fail to capture this market share, European, Russian, Israeli, Chinese, or South African companies will.”

(When China, another country with fewer export constraints, unveiled its new fleet of bargain-priced UAV’s at the end of November, it gave the Defence Department another opportunity to rue the restrictions placed on America’s export industry.)

Drone lobbyists and businessmen alike accuse MTCR of being the largest obstacle to a flow of money coursing to the coffers of American arms manufacturers, and allowing Israel to dominate the market. Lobby groups also argue that restricting the growth of this business hinders a potential boom in jobs for the US.

In April 2012, the marketing and consultancy firm, Teal Group, projected that worldwide UAV spending will double over the next decade, reaching an estimated $94bn by 2021. Today’s annual global expenditure is $6.6bn.

Echoing the rhetoric of the lobby, Congressman Howard Berman, a Democrat from Los Angeles and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said earlier this year, “It’s crazy for us to shut off sales in this area while other countries push ahead”.

From domestic to global markets

Members of the drone lobby group, Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) began amplifying their concerns that the US was lagging in global drone sales after they secured its domestic market for drones in February, when President Barak Obama signed the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorisation bill.

The bill allows unmanned aircraft to fly in US airspace by 2015, although the Department of Homeland Security hopes to hasten that due date while the FAA is relaxing licensing rules for local enforcement agencies. A pliant and eager Congress is also working – with uncharacteristic efficiency – to accelerate domestic drone use.

After spending $280,000 in 2011 on lobbying efforts (more than double what it spent in 2010), AUSVI ensured that the bill sailed through Congress, even retaining much of the same language the group had suggested. 

In a leaked slideshow presentation by AUVSI, the lobby group congratulated itself on its successes with the FAA, stating, “The only changes made to the UAS section of the FAA bill were made at the request of AUVSI. Our suggestions were often taken word-for-word.”  

No less helpful was Congress’ Unmanned Systems Caucus, or “drone caucus”, buoyed by $2.3m of funds donated by political action committees associated with drone companies.

Auguring the brave new world for drones and their makers, this summer the US saw some of the first consequences of the FAA’s new bill: local police forces across the country – including California, Washington, Texas and Florida – announced plans to acquire UAV’s to surveil and “fight crime” in their cities.

At the start of last month, AUVSI launched “Increasing Human Potential“, a website devoted to showing the softer side of drones, such as how they effectively and securely “enhance public safety”. By hyping such applications of drones – and successfully breaching the marginalised concerns about civil liberties – the UAV manufacturers fortify the inroads for their domestic use. 


 Counting the Cost – War by remote

But industry advocates say the real money will be in foreign sales. The lobby’s strategy – promoting the “peaceful use of drones” – will assist the US in amending the MTCR, which it has tried and failed to do since 2005: according to a recently declassified Government Accountability Office report, the United States has sponsored six amendments to the MTCR that would ease restrictions; all but one failed to be adopted.   

Drone advocates’ arguments for reforming the MTCR (which was established in 1987) include accusations that the regulations don’t account for the less-than-deadly drones used for surveillance, intelligence and reconnaissance (ISR), such as those that will be sold to local police departments in the US. 

Thus, significantly, by destigmatising the use of drones here lobbyists hope to provide the necessary lubrication to open trade routes abroad.

Academia and warfare

In 2005, Forbes magazine named the Jewish state as the “go-to country for anti-terrorism technology” and today, Israel is very well the go-to country for drone technology. The country’s academic institutions are principally to thank for that grand achievement. This symbiotic relationship between academia and drone warfare may well be coming to the US.

Assisting the US drone industry in its efforts to rebrand its unsavoury image, Israel is helping drone makers to align themselves with academic and philanthropic institutions.

In December 2011, New York City pledged to invest $100m alongside a $350m sum from a generous private individual in a new applied science campus on Roosevelt Island that would be developed by a partnership between Cornell University and the Israeli Institute of Technology, commonly known as Technion University. 

While the partnership was welcomed by some as foreshadowing a tech-boom in New York City that would see the creation of numerous jobs, it was roundly condemned by those who see the deal as, chiefly, a gigantic win for the private military-industrial complex of the US and Israel.

Technion has helped secure Israel as one of the world’s leaders in drone technology, and is responsible for unmanned D9 bulldozers, the “Dragonfly UAV” and the “Stealth UAV”, according to Max Blumenthal’s reporting

Technion established TASP, Technion Autonomous Systems Program, which has developed such devices as the Robo-Roach as well as search-and-hunt UAVs.

American drone manufacturers have not only taken cues from Israel in seeing the need to expand their foreign markets. With the example of Israel’s Technion University, US drone manufacturers may attempt to adopt more of the same kind of cozy relations with this country’s ivory tower.

People who are paid handsomely to make and advocate for killing machines have always had a bag of tricks to make their line of work respectable. To fear mongering and aiding in the unceasing war on terror, the drone guys can now add troop “drawdowns” (with fewer unsightly casualties for our side), “precision” and “enhancing public safety” to their list of product perks.

Charlotte Silver is a journalist based in San Francisco and the West Bank. She is a graduate of Stanford University. 

Follow her on Twitter: @CharEsilver