The Kill Chain
Following the path of drones from Obama’s hit list to Johns Hopkins University
Published: January 30, 2013
Consider the scenario: Here in Baltimore, terrorists have a safe house, a van, a storage unit or two. They have a target. Could be the Inner Harbor or a convention that’s in town. Maybe it’s the Port of Baltimore, where about $50 billion of foreign commerce is conducted every year, or a high-profile target in the city’s large Jewish community. Maybe it’s something else.
A U.S. government agency has tracked the terrorists to a safe house. It just learned that the explosives are already in the van. With no time to deploy SEAL Team 6 or the FBI SWAT team, the agency deploys its newest weapon, developed just a few miles away by an arm of the city’s most respected and powerful nonprofit institution: Johns Hopkins University.
All but unnoticed in the evening twilight, a half-dozen tiny airplanes, the size of a child’s kite, swoop through the streets and into the alley behind the terrorists’ hideout. Nominally directed by a man sitting in a padded chair and looking at video screens two states away, the drones see through the rowhouse’s flat roof and brick walls, reading the heat signature of the men inside. Two drones blow holes through the front window and back door while two others fly into the house, landing in the laps of the terrorists and blowing them up with grenade-sized fragmentation bombs.
Meanwhile, 300 feet above, other drones circle, looking down through infrared-video eyes. A man runs from the house on fire. As he drops, writhing on the parking pad, the drone operator directs a single bullet into his head. He stops moving. Another terrorist, apparently uninjured, frantically pries at the door of the van as the other drone, operating without human input, puts a crosshair on him.
This fantastic scenario is conjured by the public documentation of the technical work going on now at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at 11100 Johns Hopkins Road in Laurel. There, in a complex of buildings surrounded by parking lots, green fields and a park with tennis and basketball courts, 5,000 scientists and engineers quietly labor to make better space missions, guided missiles, undersea threat detectors, and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles—drones. Last June the school, along with the project’s sponsor, Boeing, unveiled the “swarming technology” depicted above.
“This swarm technology may one day enable warfighters in battle to request and receive time-critical intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance information directly from airborne [UAVs] much sooner than they can from ground control stations today,” Gabriel Santander, Boeing’s program director of advanced autonomous networks, said in a statement quoted in the news media.
And on APL’s own jargon-heavy website, it says the lab “is conducting an internal research and development project to demonstrate that small unmanned aerial systems (UASs) (those with less than a 60-inch wingspan) can provide detection, identification, tracking, and subsequent engagement of stationary or mobile threats in chaotic urban environments with minimal collateral damage and operator workload. This research is founded on an APL flight experiment where the feasibility of using a group of small hunter/killer UASs to execute the entire kill chain against a moving HUMVEE target was successfully demonstrated.”
Being able to “execute the entire kill chain” with “minimal. . . operator workload,” then, is the vision of Johns Hopkins University.
Not everyone is thrilled.
Hopkins students allied with the Human Rights Working Group, an on-campus organization formed in 2010, are collecting signatures on a petition to stop the drone research. The group is “calling for a moratorium on drone research at Hopkins until there is a fuller discussion and more disclosure of the Hopkins program,” says Derek Denman, a Ph.D. student in political science who has been researching the university’s drone program since 2011.
The effort got started, he says, when an APL researcher named Jay Moore came to the Homewood campus to give a talk about the research he was doing on swarming drones.
“I went with a few other members of the group to ask about the ethics of drone research,” Denman says. “Is it making war perpetual and boundless? How does he see his research feeding into that?”
Moore responded that the swarming technology should be used only on smaller drones, not the big Predators and Reapers that shoot hellfire missiles into terrorists’ dens and wedding parties, Denman says. (APL declined to make Moore—or anyone—available for comment). “He said this technology would be more suitable for soldiers to deploy from backpacks, send the drones up to map the battlefield,” Denman says. “He had a larger defense of drone warfare, saying that soldiers over time distanced themselves from combat—starting with armor.
“We thought that there is a giant quantitative difference.”
Airborne drone technology has potentially major implications for military, law enforcement, and even civilian rescue and filmmaking. Imagine being able to direct an aerial shot of your wakeboarding or dirt-bike wheelie exploits as easily as wearing a GoPro Hero cam is now.
Baltimore, a “chaotic urban environment” if ever there was one, is not yet subject to civilian drone overflights because the Federal Aviation Administration still holds sway. But it is studying the issue and plans to develop rules for civilian drone use as early as this year.
Military drones, meanwhile, apparently have carte blanche. The pilots of the fearsome Reaper drones fly training missions over northern New York from Hancock AFB. The pilots reportedly pick out civilian vehicles on public highways to practice following them.
Such skills have quietly become vital to the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan—and countries with which America is not at war—as drone strikes have become the Obama Administration’s de facto strategy in the “war on terror.”
President Barack Obama deployed drones to kill people in Pakistan six times more often than President George W. Bush. The use of so-called “signature strikes,” where patterns of behavior by small groups are secretly deemed to be acts of war and punished with summary execution, became an administration hallmark, killing somewhere between 1,332 and 2,326 reported militants, according to a study by the New America Foundation. But the patterns of behavior common to groups of terrorists are apparently also typical of wedding parties, several of which have reportedly been bombed in recent years.
John Brennan, Obama’s nominee to head the CIA, has claimed that the CIA’s drones have never harmed a single innocent civilian—a claim that is unverifiable and disputed. Researchers from Stanford University and New York University visited Pakistan last year to interview relatives of alleged victims of U.S. drone strikes in the tribal regions of Pakistan. They found dozens of noncombatant deaths, according to a paper presented to a packed auditorium at Hopkins in November. People from the tribal regions of Pakistan told the researchers—James Cavallaro, director of the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic, and Omar Shakir, a law student—that they and their families had all but stopped walking anywhere in groups for fear that they would be mistaken for terrorists by the drones that flew overhead constantly, often in twos and threes. The people in the region have had their nerves frayed, Cavallaro said, by the “nagging, annoying, buzzing sound of imminent death.”
The researchers told of “double-tap” strikes, wherein a missile kills a person or group and then, later, a second missile strikes the same spot, wiping out any who came to render aid. One representative of a nongovernmental organization told Cavallaro’s team that they “won’t go to a drone strike area for six hours [after a strike] because of the U.S. double-tap policy.”
The researchers also claimed that 86 percent of the strikes come as a result of paid informants. “Even if that person is a militant, the United States has no legal right to kill them if they pose no imminent threat,” Cavallaro told the audience.
In the past year or so, the focus of U.S. drone attacks has shifted to Yemen, where al-Qaeda militants are thought to be massing. U.S.-controlled drones killed three American citizens there in 2011: Samir Khan, an al-Qaeda propagandist from North Carolina; Anwar al-Awlaki, reputed to be the man who trained the notorious “underwear bomber” who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound jet on Christmas 2009; and Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, Anwar’s 16-year-old son, who was born in Denver and was killed two weeks after his father in a separate strike in southeastern Yemen. Former White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs, asked to justify the killing of the younger al-Awlaki, said, “I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father.”
In September 2012, Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi told reporters in Washington that he personally signs off on all U.S. drone strikes in Yemen, and that they hit their targets accurately. “The drone technologically is more advanced than the human brain,” he said, according to the Washington Post.
Crudely put, that’s the idea being developed at Hopkins. “Minimal operator input” means fewer pilots training at New York’s Hancock AFB and elsewhere—thus, fewer places in which critics can stage die-ins. It’s also a practical necessity, as anyone who has tried to fly a tiny model helicopter in the backyard knows. Getting many small drones to coordinate with each other means developing the computerized means for them to do so automatically—far faster and more accurately than even the most skilled pilot could do. And that autonomy inevitably means programming the little flying robots to target and kill automatically, without any human input.
This is the future of drone warfare. But even in the present, the idea of a U.S. president ordering remote-control assassinations on U.S. citizens—and minors—living abroad in countries with which the U.S. is not at war has raised legal eyebrows.
On Thursday, Jan. 24, the United Nations special rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights announced an investigation into the U.S. drone program, its “civilian impact and human rights implications.” Ben Emmerson, the rapporteur, appears particularly interested in the targeted killings.
“The reality here is that the world is facing a new technological development which is not easily accommodated within the existing legal frameworks, and none of the analyses that have been floated is entirely satisfactory or comprehensive,” Emmerson wrote in the announcement of his inquiry. Replete with the drab rhetorical markers of international law, the announcement hardly made a dent in the news media.
Slowly, mostly away from public notice, a movement against the drones has begun to coalesce. It is now on a collision course with the U.S. government and, closer to home, Hopkins.
Like Denman, Baltimore peace activist Max Obuszewski says APL researcher Jay Moore’s fall 2011 talk at Gilman Hall on the Homewood campus drew his attention. Moore’s talk was mainly about the technical challenges of getting small styrofoam aircrafts called Unicorns to fly automatically, without an operator monitoring or controlling them. The technical name for this mathematically based robotic swarm-control function is “stigmergic potential fields.” They are being studied and developed at the University of Pennsylvania, MIT, Yale, CalTech and other universities, but Hopkins’ APL appears to be the leader, with papers on the subject dating from 2006.
“It was a Tuesday,” Obuszewski says, the usual day he and other activists hold a vigil on the street calling for an end to the wars. Obuszewski went to the lecture and challenged the professor on drone research before he began his talk. “It was the first time in years that an APL person had appeared in public,” Obuszewski says.
Obuszewski made common cause with Denman’s on-campus Human Rights Working Group, which was also organizing around the drone issue. There were actions on campus—Pledge of Resistance activists telling new students and parents about APL’s drone program on Family Weekend; evening lectures last spring and again in November by researchers documenting the effects the drones are having on civilians; and in April of 2012, a petition—different from the Human Rights Working Group’s—with more than 150 signatures asking Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels to meet to talk about the drone programs and provide “copies of contracts, and the dollar amounts, regarding unmanned aerial vehicles.” Obuszewski and allies conducted a sit-in at the president’s office. It got them nowhere.
“After the sit-in we got a response—basically [that] we’ll have to talk to APL or the Navy, ’cause we were asking for specific information,” Obuszewski says.
City Paper tried for weeks to get similar information from Hopkins, but details are hard to come by. APL maintains an elaborate website disclosing its supporting role in the development of the Tomahawk cruise missile system and the Navy’s electronic warfare program, efforts that have drawn protests to the campus for more than 30 years. “During the past few years, we have expanded our efforts into tactical aircraft, ship, and submarine programs and into programs developing better technologies for tactical surveillance and targeting. Goals for the future include further contributions in these areas and in critical programs for improving command and control for precision engagement,” the website says.
The lab’s website is full of euphemisms. Its “Precision Engagement organization,” for example, promises “high-quality technical leadership and problem resolution in the conception, design, development, integration, and employment of detection and targeting, command and control, and engagement capabilities used for the projection of military effects appropriate to furthering national goals.”
Bluntly, what “military effects” means is that APL is helping to build new machines that find people, wherever they are on planet Earth, and kill them.
One program area is called Detection and Targeting. “The challenge for the Detection and Targeting Program Area is integrating global intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) to provide timely, relevant detection, location, identification, and targeting information to decision makers,” the site says.
Susan Kennedy is the Detection and Targeting Area Manager at APL. Her phone number is listed on the website, but she did not return calls from City Paper.
Once the decision is made to kill, one option is “kinetic engagement”—APL-speak for “bombs and missiles.”
As the website explains, “The Kinetic Engagement Program Area focuses on identifying concepts, maturing technologies, and developing systems for providing precision effects at the time and place of our choosing.”
The program area manager for this is Kerrin Neace. The website says “he can be reached” at a listed phone number as well, but it is not so.
APL’s retired director, Richard Roca, earned more than $450,000 in 2010. He picked up his home phone after two rings. He told City Paper he “would be happy” to talk about his work at APL but only if the lab’s spokespeople OK’d it first.
They declined to provide permission.
“We won’t have anyone available for an interview on APL programs, though the web (www.jhuapl.edu) offers plenty of info on the broad scope of APL’s work,” spokesperson Michael Buckley wrote in an email after several conversations about this story. “We’ll defer to Naval Air Systems for information on specific UAV programs.”
City Paper spoke to Jamie Cosgrove, public affairs officer with the Naval Air Systems Command, which is a sponsor of at least some of the APL’s drone work. We sent her a list of questions; no answers came over two weeks.
“We got to the point with the APL where we couldn’t even get on the grounds without being arrested,” says Elizabeth McAlister, a lifelong peace activist who lives at Jonah House, the Catholic Worker Movement’s local headquarters. “That was late ’90s. I did a two-month jail sentence in Howard County for just a simple [protest] there. . . . The issue there became one of not feeling that our presence could touch the employees there.”
McAlister believes that 90 percent of APL’s budget is related to military work, mostly for the Navy. But despite more than three decades of protesting there, she admits she doesn’t know.
Buckley, for his part, allows that “more than half” of the lab’s billion dollars or so in annual receipts are “military or homeland security related.”
Drilling down into that using public documents proves impossible. Although the lab is a limited liability corporation and a nonprofit, it does not file its own tax returns. Instead, it is a “disregarded entity” within Hopkins’ overall structure.
Though APL is decades old, the LLC was chartered only in 2009—and for a very specific reason: Daniels, Hopkins’ incoming president, was a citizen of Canada and thus ineligible to receive the security clearance necessary to oversee APL’s secret work. As Hopkins spokesperson Dennis O’Shea explained in an email:
“The Johns Hopkins University Board of Trustees formerly oversaw the Applied Physics Laboratory through the Office of the President. The arrival in 2009 of a new president who was not yet a U.S. citizen required that this oversight be done differently. The LLC was created at that point as a subsidiary of the university. APL remains a part of the university and reports to a board of managers who are also university trustees and are appointed by the chair of the trustees. The university files a 990 covering the entire university, including APL.”
He declined to list the trustees.
APL is listed at the end of Johns Hopkins’ 573-page 2010 Form 990 (the most recent available) as a “disregarded entity” with income of $1,139,129,060 and assets of $693,590,905.
The tax form, a type that almost every nonprofit must make publicly available, lists hundreds of subcontracts with other colleges, hospitals, local social-service grantees, and the like. Omitting these, City Paper checked more than 100 contract companies for military or intelligence links. We found 75 contracts totaling more than $49 million.
It is impossible to tell which contracts are specific to drones or even to military work because many of the companies—Northrup Grumman ($6.2 million in contracts) and Boeing (a $682,000 sub contract), for example—are enormous and broad-ranging.
Some—a company called Zero Point ($89,000), for example—are obviously military/security-oriented but not drone-specific.
Others, like Textron Defense Systems ($120,000), make drones but are also so large and diversified that there is no way to tell if the subcontract from Hopkins had anything to do with drones. Last spring Textron demonstrated its BattleHawk Squad-Level Loitering Munition, which can be carried in a soldier’s backpack and launched like a toy glider. It carries cameras and an explosive charge that can take out a pickup truck.
Among the “system enhancements” cited by Textron in its May 22, 2012 press release, “are improved maneuverability in mountainous terrain; upgraded dual, high-resolution digital cameras for more comprehensive target detection and tracking; and moving target tracking during terminal guidance maneuvers. Also demonstrated was the system’s ability to execute the operator’s pre-programmed flight path as evolving battlefield conditions demand.”
Textron didn’t respond to calls and emails asking about the BattleHawk and its APL contract.
Linking drones like the BattleHawk into autonomous networks controlled nominally by a single, low-ranking soldier is the next innovation in remote warfare—the next step in distancing the soldier from the killing he or she does. It took 1,000 years for body armor, swords, and spears to make way for firearms, but less than eight years from the first flight of the airplane in Kittyhawk, N.C., to its first use as a bomber—in Tagiura, an oasis near Tripoli in Libya.
Back in 1911, Lieutenant Giulio Cavotti, flying 200 feet above a few Arabs requiring collective punishment, “leaned out of his delicate monoplane and dropped the bomb—a Danish Haasen hand grenade” weighing five pounds, according to Sven Lindqvist’s book A History of Bombing.
Less than 100 years after that, the pilot may sit half a world away, in climate-controlled comfort, sipping a Red Bull as his Reaper avatar “loiters” over a village or oasis, awaiting orders to “engage.” And the future being conceived today at Johns Hopkins and other secret incubators of higher learning will allow the soldier to “pre-program” the killing.
Or so it appears. APL declines to discuss the matter.
“People say, ‘Well, you can’t know the full story,’” says Denman. “Well, we do know that Hopkins contributes to drone warfare.”
Denman says his group sees more people at each event and is planning more this spring. Aside from APL’s secrecy, the second big obstacle is breaking out of the technical framework in which drones are usually discussed—“seeing it not as just a neat engineering problem but also something that touches peoples lives,” Denman says. “People say, ‘Look at the work these things can do on land surveys,’ but we know it is primarily [Department of Defense]-funded for war-fighting. If this research was being funded through the Department of Agriculture or the EPA, then we would be having a different conversation.
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