In this very important article, based on six years of research, Barry Summers provides us with the first detailed examination, of which I am aware, of how the U.S. military has been the primary force pushing military and commercial drones into U.S. airspace; possibly without adequate concern for air safety and the public’s rights to privacy and freedom from government intimidation. – Editor’s note.
In 2002, USAF Col. Stephen “Lux” Luxion created and commanded the 17th Reconnaissance Squadron, the first dedicated MQ-1 Predator drone attack unit in the “Global War on Terror (GWOT).” Their principal customer was the CIA, who awarded Luxion their National Intelligence Medal . "Transformed reconnaissance-only capability into revolutionary new weapons system."
In 2006, USAF Col. James O. Poss, then Director of Intelligence at Langley AFB, oversaw the military certification of the newest version of the Predator drone: the MQ-9 Reaper. The drone activities of the GWOT accelerated. Poss eventually became the senior career intelligence officer in the Air Force. “I have spent much of my career working for or with the National Security Agency.”
In 2011, USAF Col. Dallas Brooks, working out of the Secretary of Defense's office, wrote the Department of Defense’s Unmanned Aircraft System Airspace Integration Plan. “The DoD is working to ... further justify and enable routine NAS (National Airspace System) access for all required DoD UAS missions. … This plan lays out a course of action for achieving DoD’s vision.”
Naturally, these are the three men chosen by the FAA to lead research into allowing drones to operate in civilian US airspace.
The Department of Defense (DoD) has long been clamoring for the right to operate drones in civilian US airspace. To that end, they have been working with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on and off since at least 1997. Over the years, they have gotten louder, and the collaboration with the FAA has gotten... rougher. In 2009, the US Defense budget proclaimed that the slow progress in opening up the skies to military drones (otherwise known as “integration”) constituted a “threat to National Security.” It left no doubt as to whose fault that was: the Federal Aviation Administration.
DoD finally got what it wanted in the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act. In it, Congress ordered the FAA to work with the DoD and other entities on integrating drones into the National Airspace System (NAS). The legislation also addressed civilian, commercial, and recreational use of drones, and that's where all the media attention has been. That's not surprising – the Act doesn't specifically mention military drones. However, there was no mystery what it really meant - the conference report on the bill was unambiguous: “The FAA is directed to work with DOD to certify and develop flight standards for military unmanned aerial systems and to integrate these systems into the NAS.”
A principal section of the law directed the FAA to select six test ranges in states across the U.S. to assist in integration research. While the bill was still being drafted, a Pentagon official was quoted in a defense industry website, and he made it clear what the legislation was about and who was really in charge. “Unmanned military aircraft may soon have a permanent home in U.S. commercial airspace, according to a Defense Department official....DoD will begin preliminary site selection for those locations by the end of 2012.”
And the day before President Obama signed the 2012 FAA Act into law, the L.A. Times ran this article:
Pentagon working with FAA to open U.S. airspace to combat drones. This would be the last time this nationwide research and testing collaboration between the DoD and FAA would be reported.
In late 2013, the FAA announced the six state programs that had been selected through a nationwide competition to conduct drone testing. There was no mention that they had been selected by the DoD; in fact, no mention of the military at all. And yet...
Alaska's program was run by a former USAF Brigadier General, Commander of NORAD's Cheyenne Mountain Complex.
Nevada's was run by a former USAF Lt. Colonel, Commander of a Predator/Reaper squadron at Creech AFB, NV.
New York's was run by a former USAF Maj. General, Commander of the NY Air National Guard.
North Dakota's was run by an active-duty USAF Colonel, Chief of Staff of the ND Air National Guard, and Commander of the State's drone squadrons.
Texas’ was run by a former Army Lt. General, Commander of the 3rd Infantry Division during the 2003 invasion of Baghdad.
Virginia's was run by a former Vice Commander of the Naval Air Warfare Center, Aircraft Division, and an executive from Textron, a major US military drone manufacturer.
On paper, they were each civilian programs funded in part by their State governments, in part by the FAA. They were each affiliated with universities in their respective states. They have, in fact, each conducted plenty of research related to commercial, civilian drone applications. But they were all run by high-ranking military officers, and all operated on multiple military sites within their respective states. (Nevada's program actually disclosed that they had been testing “Non-FAA Aircraft” in Restricted airspace, somewhere near Groom Lake... otherwise known as Area 51. Yes, Area 51).
There have been many more state-level programs created, and some of them also have military connections. (One of North Carolina's testing sites was Blackwater. Yes, Blackwater. In presentations to the State legislature, they refer to it as “Caratoke [Moyock]”. But a quick look at Moyock NC on Google maps show it to be the Blackwater private military facility, now renamed as 'Academi'.)
But those six were the first to gain FAA legitimacy. Despite the appearance that these programs were created to address the multitude of legitimate technical and policy issues related to civilian drone use, it appears that they were established primarily to further the “vision” of the Pentagon. That vision is: unfettered access for military drones in non-segregated airspace, i.e. over populated areas of the United States. Advanced, persistent military surveillance platforms, over our heads, alongside commercial air traffic, and over our cities. And all without any real, informed, sustained debate about whether this is desirable in a free society.
It's just happening.
Which brings us back to “The Three Colonels”. In 2014, two years after creating the individual drone testing sites, Congress mandated that the FAA create a “Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” to coordinate all that research. After a “rigorous competition” (during which the upper echelons of the FAA had no fewer than three recently-retired Air Force generals among them), they selected the program run by... (drumroll)... recently-retired Air Force Major General James O. Poss, the former head of US Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance.
A cursory examination of FAA leadership on drone integration found that somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 high-ranking military officers, mostly recently-retired USAF Generals and Colonels, in key positions throughout. A casual observer might conclude that the FAA had been captured by the Pentagon.
With the selection of General Poss's ASSURE, this put the author of the DoD's 2011 UAS Integration Plan, Dallas Brooks, in charge of drone integration research for the FAA. That plan begins with making the case as to why the various branches of the US military (and “OGAs” (other government agencies) - don't forget the “OGAs”) need “routine” access to non-restricted airspace for their unmanned aerial vehicles. And there's a not-so-subtle jab at the FAA:
“While reliance on UAS continues to grow, the ability to integrate UAS into the National Airspace System (NAS) to support operations, training, and testing has not kept pace.”
The central concern of the FAA is, of course, safety. Establishing whether drones operating alongside manned aircraft is going to be “safe”, is complicated and not easily addressed. One of the central tenets of FAA safety is “see and avoid” - the responsibility of the pilot to see other aircraft and avoid collisions. With drones, the pilot could be on the other side of the globe.
To get around this, the DoD has been investing heavily in two distinct technologies: Ground Based Sense and Avoid (GBSAA – primary hardware is on the ground), and Airborne Based Sense and Avoid (ABSAA – primary hardware is aboard the aircraft). These two avenues of “Sense and Avoid” (sometimes also referred to as “Detect and Avoid”) represent the Holy Grail of drone integration. The DoD's plan proposed pursuing both strategies in a staged process, until “GBSAA/ABSAA collaborative solutions” allow for routine access to the NAS (national air space). The DoD's plan for safely integrating DoD drones into civilian US airspace would be implemented by DoD representatives integrated into the civilian FAA.
Skipping ahead to 2019, the FAA has approved GBSAA projects allowing military drones to leave military bases and operate in non-restricted airspace in several state-level programs, including Ohio, North Dakota, and New York. The New York test is explained in some detail by a spokesman from NUAIR, the FAA-designated civilian drone program, in this presentation given at a drone conference immediately after the test. The spokesman, Scott Brenton, can also be seen describing the operation in this 2010 photograph, taken when he was still Lt. Col. Scott “Gripper” Brenton of the 174th (drone) Attack Wing. He's in uniform, describing to representatives from the FAA how this exact GBSAA military drone operation will go down, almost 10 years before it actually does. So, that tells us that FAA-sanctioned testing of the GBSAA system is going mostly according to the DoD plan. But that system only allows drones to operate within range of the ground system – approximately a 50-mile diameter. To go beyond that, they need an airborne system onboard the drones; what's going on with ABSAA?
Which brings us to the SkyGuardian, and perhaps a much bigger story.
Around the time that President Obama signed the 2012 FAA Act, General Atomics began developing a new variant of their Predator B, or Reaper, drone. It would be designed from the ground up to qualify for certification from the FAA and European regulators. So, they called it (creatively enough) the “Certifiable Predator B”(CPB). Eventually renamed the “SkyGuardian”, it is the biggest and heaviest Predator B yet, up to 12,500 lbs. takeoff weight (the weight of a fully-loaded crop duster), and a 79 ft. wing span. When you consider that they want to fly it in the same airspace as the 747 bringing Grandma to Christmas dinner, one of the main upgrades it would need would be a proven, reliable, self-contained 'ABSAA', or sense-and-avoid system.
It would be this prospective sense-and-avoid system that would be the big selling point when General Atomics began pushing the as-yet untested Certifiable Predator B (CPB) to our allies overseas in 2014. The first buyers? The United Kingdom.
It wasn't an easy decision for the UK. Emails dug up and released by the organization Drone Wars revealed that UK civilian aviation authorities were extremely skeptical of the sense-and-avoid claims made about the CPB. So much so, that when the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) finally decided to purchase the drones, they left off the SAA system until it was proved reliable. The emails also show that General Atomics and MoD advocates for the purchase had some influential allies. There were intense discussions between the MoD, General Atomics, and unnamed officials from the FAA and USAF, who travelled back and forth between the UK and US to discuss the CPB issue. The assistance seems to have paid off.
In April of 2016, the UK announced they were planning to purchase at least 16 CPBs (to be renamed the “Protector”) to replace their aging Reaper squadrons. While the safety concerns of the civilian authorities took center stage in the early discussions, it seemed that once the purchase decision was made, other priorities took over. “HMG strategy aspiration for BVLOS fg for all UAVs...” (meaning, the UK government has plans and wants to be able to fly their new military drones in civilian airspace) “...by 2020.”
One month after the UK announcement, James O. Poss announced his resignation from ASSURE, raising the possibility that that was his main purpose for being there in the first place. Supporting this idea: shortly before resigning from the US Air Force in 2012, Poss was given an award from the UK Royal Air Force for facilitating their previous joint air-surveillance/aircraft-purchase with the US. He now consults and writes op-eds, including this one advising that the US and others do what the UK has done: gear up with the SkyGuardian and prepare for the coming drone war with Iran. A number of US allies are considering it.
Former Colonel Luxion was promoted to executive director of ASSURE. The tip of the spear in the post-9/11 drone-killing Global War on Terror is now running “civilian” drone research for the FAA. His experience helping to establish Reaper bases in various NATO countries 2005-2007 may be why he was chosen for this role.
When the 2018 FAA Act was being drafted in the U.S. House, legislators included strict collision-testing and risk-assessment provisions for military drones operating in the NAS. Clearly some in Congress, and probably in the FAA, thought that things were moving too quickly. Those safety provisions were stripped out of the version taken up and passed by the Senate, and the bill was signed by President Trump in October of 2018.
The next month, the FAA granted the SkyGuardian experimental certification to operate in the NAS. Two months later, the UK announced that they were purchasing the sense-and-avoid system for their “Protectors,” after all. Of that sense-and-avoid system, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems President Dave Alexander told members of the UK press,"Now it's better than having someone in the cockpit." There was no mention of what that conclusion was based on.
And General Atomics has just announced plans to conduct flights of the new SkyGuardian surveillance platform over a major American city (San Diego, headquarters of General Atomics)... during the summer of 2020.
If you're concerned about military surveillance drones wandering freely in US skies, contact your representatives in Congress. Also, do what you can to circulate this story, via social media and whatever contacts you have in the press.
Barry Summers is an artist and activist living in Greensboro NC.