Should the State Dept Outsource Drone Operations to Private Contractors?

January 30, 2012

We’ve been reporting on the CIA’s covert drone program in Pakistan and the military’s drones in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the latest call for unmanned aircraft comes from a more unlikely source: the U.S. State Department.

Taking over a role formerly played by the U.S. military, the department is operating a small fleet of unarmed surveillance drones in Iraq to protect the U.S. embassy, consulates and Americans there, The New York Times reported today.

Though these drones are unarmed, they are already unpopular with some Iraqi leaders who say they were not consulted by the U.S. officials. “Our sky is our sky, not the U.S.A.’s sky,” said Acting Interior Minister Adnan al-Asadi.

But, as the Times noted, Iraq could be just the beginning:

American contractors say they have been told that the State Department is considering to field unarmed surveillance drones in the future in a handful of other potentially “high-threat” countries, including Indonesia and Pakistan, and in Afghanistan after the bulk of American troops leave in the next two years. State Department officials say that no decisions have been made beyond the drone operations in Iraq.

The Times uncovered a prospectus posted online by the State Department to solicit bids from private contractors to manage the program. But one expert FRONTLINE spoke to said that outsourcing drone operations to contractors poses unique risks, particularly in Iraq.

“I would be surprised if the government of Iraq would ever allow contractors to control them,” said Micah Zenko, a conflict prevention expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “As a result of the Blackwater incident of 2006 [in which 17 unarmed Iraqi civilians were killed] contractors are so poisoned in the minds of Iraqis.”

Zenko also warned that contractors can complicate issues of command and control.

“One thing we know about drones is that they tend to crash, quite often. And if a drone crashed and caused damage and caused injury, who would be culpable?” he asked. “That’s easy to determine in diplomatic agreements that countries have between each other, but if it’s a contractor, that’s a little trickier.” Without diplomatic immunity, a U.S. citizen working for a contractor as a drone operator could potentially be tried under Iraqi law, he added. “I think the U.S. State Department would find that very troubling.”

Mission creep is another issue to look out for, according to Zenko. The online prospectus says the State Department’s drone program’s mission is to provide “real-time air surveillance of fixed installations, proposed movement routes and movement operations, and special events thereby improving security in high-threat or potentially high-threat environments.” But Zenko also cautioned that mission could expand to include finding terrorists or other high-value targets.

“Drone programs, when they exist, tend to find more missions.”

Bonus: Remote-Control War

In 2009, as part of our Digital Nation report, we went inside the hidden world  of the Air Force pilots who operate Predator drones in Afghanistan from Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nev. But as we wrote about late last year, an Air Force study found that the increased demand for drones has proven to be a major source of stress for the limited number of operators, who work long hours and difficult schedules to keep pace.

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