(This article and its content were first published on thebubble.com, March 19, 2015).
They are always unmanned, often sinister and irrefutably all the rage these days, as the perennial gauge of modern Western culture, South Park, has confirmed. Drones, for better or worse, are everywhere. And in a fresh new contract announced in recent weeks, they will soon be manufactured and used by the Argentine government and military too.
The abbreviation-heavy deal, named the “SARA Project” (Sistema Aereo Robotico Argentino), was struck with INVAP (National Institute of Applied Research), a catch-all high technology company based in Bariloche with close affiliation to the state generally and the Rio Negro provincial authorities in particular. It makes everything from satellites to nuclear reactors, and now, of course, drones (that’s “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles” or UAVs in official regime-speak). INVAP is a regular source for sophisticated engineering projects for the government, thanks to its prowess in a great many technical things the state does: From the more peaceable input in scientific progress, like developing radiotherapy equipment for public hospitals and launching Argentina’s first ever entirely native satellite (ARSAT-1) last year, all the way through to various “defense” (military) projects like radar systems.
And therein lies the doubt. It is the company’s foray into military technology that is being employed in this instance, and there is simply no way of knowing what the drones will end up actually being used for in the future, despite the rigorous official line that their role will involve “Surveillance” and little else. We have collectively been informed by INVAP themselves that Resolution No. 1484 of the Military of Defense provided their remit by recognizing:
“THE NEED TO PROVIDE NATIONAL DEFENSE WITH UNMANNED AERIAL SYSTEMS FOR THE MONITORING AND CONTROLLING OF THE LARGE AIR, LAND AND MARITIME AREAS OF THE COUNTRY”.
The near-impenetrable Resolution No. 1484 continues in this fashion and outlines the plan to build and use UAVs in the military for “defense” purposes. It is available here courtesy of infotechnology.com for all you UAV enthusiasts. The authors own attempts to reach an INVAP employee with the relevant information for this article (and a more human diction) were thwarted by a plethora of automated voices.
One thing that is clear, amid the jargon, is that these are not the lightweight remote control gadgets thirty-something males can presumably continue to expect as Christmas presents in the years leading up to an assumed mid-life crisis. The models in question are heavy duty, military-grade machines designed to carry significant quantities of mountable gear and have a very large operational range. The smaller Class II types proposed are “tactical formation” UAVs used globally for military or police surveillance. Also under design and production within Project SARA are a batch of Class III drones, however.
Class IIIs tend to be over 600 kilos in weight, have a reportedly “unlimited” operational range and have alongside various other uses been recently employed in the ominous “Predator” and “Reaper” variants by the US military for its repeated, covert bombing campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen. So, despite our reassurances that the new drones will be used for surveillance only, the gate remains open for them to be kitted out in all manner of lethality with minimum fuss. Any future authority who decides it knows best and doesn’t much care for dusty military-industrial contracts could do so.
More general concerns over the rise of unregulated drone use in the region have also been voiced by human rights lawyers like Santiago Canton for some time, who described the threat to freedom of association they might pose:
“WE SEE THE CHILLING EFFECT THAT THIS CAN HAVE ON SOCIETIES… WHEN PEOPLE WANT TO HAVE PUBLIC DEMONSTRATIONS, DRONES CAN HAVE A CHILLING EFFECT AND CAN INTIMIDATE PEOPLE FROM DOING THIS.”
Meanwhile the deal itself is reported to be worth around two billion dollars and constitute Argentina’s first ever foray into serious drone production by and for the government. It’s clear pilotless flying machines are not especially new to Latin America. But even Brazil- the country that reportedly hosts more drone activity than anywhere else in the region- doesn’t tend to build these military grade models itself. The government there has been buying and using advanced UAVs from overseas, such as the Israeli Class II Hermit 450 model, for years now. In fact it’s the world’s 9th largest importer of drones, where they have come in handy monitoring Brazil’s vast interior.
Examples like this provide a counter-weight of sorts to our doubts about the undeniable sinister side of drones: Recent years have shown governments using them both in Brazil and here in Argentina to yield positive, constructive results. They have been deployed to good effect on various occasions by the Rousseff government, for instance, in its campaign to monitor environmental destruction and stop illegal logging activity. Until recently this was an immensely difficult crime to confront in Brazil due to the vast areas involved and the logistical nightmares posed by the jungle. Largely unimpeded by these factors, police drones have captured images and video which proved logging in various protected areas had taken place. And, while still a huge and ongoing problem, the recent arrest of prolific illegal logging kingpins was in part thanks to this data.
Here too, they have proved their worth in catching out parasitic millionaires evading tax. By using small, agile drones, the local authorities across the Buenos Aires province famously unearthed a host of lavish assets from soy fields to swimming pools and attached mansions that were undeclared by their wealthy owners. Easy enough to lose in a fudging of paperwork, these (no doubt entirely deserved) trophies of affluence are less easy to obscure from the beady electronic eyes of a regional authorities drone. The guilty owners are now scrambling to get their tax papers in order and some their wallets too, as fines for denying the state money that could otherwise be spent on hospitals or schools are leveled.
Do these more positive news stories detract from the bad name “Drone” as a noun currently enjoys internationally, not least in those parts of the world where their use has entailed deeds of callous brutality in the name of a never-ending War On Terror?
The specifically military side of the debate is perhaps more relevant where the INVAP government contract is concerned, as the drones responsible for these attacks were similar heavy duty UAVs: the grimly titled “Reaper” model, for example, is a Class III drone much like those billed by Project SARA. Such technology was used by the Bush White House and now even more freely by its successor in a bid to kill enemies of the regime in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia; no matter international law or the untold number of civilians killed in the crossfire as a result. This animation gives some idea of the human cost.
Then there’s the surveillance. Former NSA employee Edward Snowden’s jaw-dropping revelations concerning the extent of government mass surveillance at home and abroad, recently presented in the Oscar-winning documentary Citizen Four, commented how US military drones are an integral part of the massive spying operation Washington and the NSA are involved in at home and abroad:
“AT NSA WE COULD WATCH DRONE VIDEOS FROM OUR DESKTOPS IN REAL TIME. THAT REALLY HARDENED ME TO ACTION… IT’LL STREAM A LOWER QUALITY OF THE VIDEO TO YOUR DESKTOP… YOU’LL HAVE A DRONE THAT’S JUST FOLLOWING SOMEBODY’S HOUSE FOR HOURS AND HOURS… IT’S JUST A PAGE WHERE IT’S LISTS AND LISTS OF OF DRONE FEEDS IN ALL THESE DIFFERENT COUNTRIES.”
Argentina is not the United States. But these dark practices all serve to highlight how the creep of drone use under a powerful State’s control can lead to some very murky practices indeed, among which has been the killing of children and widespread spying on domestic populations. Despite the imminent overhaul, if the recent debate surrounding the SIDE/SI (the former Argentine State Intelligence bodies) and their widespread, clandestine surveillance showed us anything, it is that unchecked or unaccountable State Intelligence here in Argentina can lead to massive abuses of authority, no matter how democratic the government in power is.
The insistence that these drones will be specifically used for “surveillance” starts to seem less reassuring. Perhaps too the fact that, at present, there is still no regulation regarding their use whatsoever in Argentina. Brazil is the only country in all Latin America where there is, in fact. But this is where a chink of good news comes. In response to the INVAP deal, Congress announced a debate to be held regarding the introduction of drone use that, it is believed, will seek regulation to all but prohibit their use in big cities.
We’ll have to wait and see whether this makes it through and into law, but in the meantime it is a somewhat anxious wait as the production forges onwards. For better or worse, military drones will soon be over our heads. The deal makers have gone out of their way to assure us all that their presence will be completely benign, and point to the official wording of the contract. But what is to stop future governments in different circumstances changing this remit? The onus will be on those branches of the military and government (and the individuals at the joystick) who will control the UAVs when they come into use to act in an open, peaceful and democratic way.
Perhaps an even more pertinent and troubling question is whether we even care about rise of anonymous technology in our lives. Both Snowden’s exposés in the United States and SI/SIDE’s unearthing here had a blunter impact than the shocking information revealed might have implied. They were met by many with a nonplussed, knowing response that basically said it wasn’t surprised at all. And while the acceptance of state corruption is nothing new, the leaching of technology into the farthest corners of our lives is happening at break-neck speed. Project SARA demonstrates how we are increasingly, as filmmaker Adam Curtis recently paraphrased, “Watched Over By machines Of Loving Grace”.