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Terror Tuesday: Surveillance on steroids as competition ramps up

Readers of this blog are familiar with drones that kill…drones that conduct surveillance at home and abroad…and drones that bring windfall profits to the arms industry. But did you know that drones could be the key to our economic recovery?

That is what Northrop Grumman Corporation and other drone manufacturers are telling Congress as they urge the US to abandon the 1987 Missile Technology Control regime which is preventing the export of all but small drones to foreign countries.

The result? The US is losing out to Israel, which has manufactured drones since the late 70s and is selling them to India, Equator and Azerbaijan, and may also be ceding market share to China, which is developing a dozen different kinds of drones that will soon be ready for export.

According to Rep. Howard Berman, who is on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, “It’s crazy for us to shut off sales in this area while other countries push ahead. A very significant part of this economic recovery depends on exports.” He added that the Obama Administration seems prepared to change the rules on export restrictions. 

The warning of arms control experts that permitting the sale of US drones to foreign countries could make it more likely for the devices to fall into “enemy hands” seems unlikely to blunt the drive for profit. In the words of Northrop Grumman’s CEO, "Export restrictions are hurting this industry in America without making us any safer."

Northrop Grumman is reportedly about to accelerate the arms race by producing, thanks to a $517 million contract from the US Army, an inflatable eye the size of a football field that “sees” a large swath of the earth, shoots and transmits video to ground stations and, for good measure, “hears” cell phone calls and can “beam a high resolution camera at the face of the caller from 20,000 feet.”

According to its advanced billing, the pilotless “Long-Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle” (LEMV) can do the work of a dozen drones while floating at 20,000 feet for 21 days at a time. 

But will this mother-of-all-airships get off the ground? 

The LEMV was supposed to have its test flight in mid 2011 at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey – the same place where 34 passengers aboard the giant blimp Hindenburg and one person on the ground lost their lives in 1937. Then it was supposed to have a long-endurance test at the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona in November 2011.

By the end of 2011, it was scheduled to be earning its keep by feeding vital information down to ground control stations in Afghanistan.  

However, the US Army has been putting off testing (most recently in early June) what Defense Industry Daily insists isn’t really a blimp. (After all, the images of the burning Hindenburg are not confidence-inspiring). Instead it is a helium-filled “hybrid aircraft” that is supposed to be less likely to be buffeted by winds and storms than its 20th century predecessors. 

Never addressed is the issue of how the LEMV would reach the war zone of Afghanistan, assuming it does eventually pass its tests: will this giant dirigible be in the hands of on board pilots as it crosses civilian airspace?

What if delays persist and the LEMV is not ready to be deployed until after the US has handed over security to the Afghan government? No problem. There is plenty of work for it to do. In the words of Defense Industry Daily, the “rise of modern terrorism” forces modern militaries “to be able to watch wide areas for very long periods of time.”

The Northrop Grumman website features images of a LEMV hovering over what appears to be North African terrain while keeping tabs on Latin America.

And there is always the domestic front. Small tethered versions of the LEMV known as aerostats that operate in Afghanistan have already been outfitted with cameras and hover at 2,000 feet along the border with Mexico. Given the speed with which the US is preparing to free up domestic airspace for drones of all sizes and uses, it does not seem farfetched to think that we may within a few years have a LEMV or two doing “Homeland” surveillance.

Meanwhile, there is no firm indication that the Pentagon has given up on the dream it announced three years ago of eventually launching with the help of the US Air Force and DARPA an eye in the sky that will hover above the earth for ten years at 65,000 feet. 

According to Defense Department calculations, this cross between a satellite and spy dirigible would only cost $400 million to develop. 

But already $517 million has been spent on Northrop Gumman’s LEMV that goes only a third as high and stays aloft only a fraction of the time – and it has yet to demonstrate its powers. And after what appeared to have been its maiden voyage, the US Air Force recently announced plans to scrap its own $211 million spy blimp called the Blue Devil 2.

Such blips on the blimp front do not change a lamentable reality: as long as there are “terrorists” anywhere in the world who are said to need watching and arms industry lobbyists with an appetite for lucrative government contracts, Congress seems unlikely to dry up funding for Big Brother surveillance projects. 

Will the Pentagon’s dream be regarded as too big to fail – and to export?

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.