Finding New Homes for Lethal Drones

America’s expanded use of drone warfare to kill targets half a world away is spreading from a base outside Las Vegas to other state-side locales, including Syracuse, New York, as Norman Solomon discovered.

By Norman Solomon

At dusk I stood on a residential street with trim lawns and watched planes approach a runaway along the other side of a chain-link fence. Just a few dozen yards away, a JetBlue airliner landed. Then a United plane followed. But the next aircraft looked different. It was a bit smaller and had no markings or taillights. A propeller whirled at the back. And instead of the high-pitched screech of a jet, the sound was more like … a drone.

A Predator drone firing a missile.

During the next half-hour I saw three touch-and-go swoops by drones, their wheels scarcely reaching the runaway before climbing back above Syracuse’s commercial airport. Nearby, pilots were at the controls in front of Air Force computers, learning how to operate the MQ-9 Reaper drone that is now a key weapon of U.S. warfare from Afghanistan to the Middle East to Africa.

Since last summer the Defense Department has been using the runway and airspace at the Syracuse Hancock International Airport to train drone operators, who work at the adjoining Air National Guard base. Officials say it’s the first time that the federal government has allowed military drones to utilize a commercial airport. It won’t be the last time.

No longer will the pilots who steer drones and fire missiles while staring at computer screens be confined to remote areas like the Nevada desert. With scant public information or debate, sizable American communities are becoming enmeshed in drone warfare on other continents. Along the way, how deeply will we understand — in human terms — what the drone war is doing to people far away? And to us?

Seen But Not Seen

The takeoffs and landings of military drones at the Syracuse airport get little attention in New York’s fifth-largest city. Already routine, the maneuvers are hardly noticed. In an elevator at a hotel near the airport, I mentioned the Reaper drone exercises to an American Airlines flight attendant who had just landed on the same runway as the drones. “I had no idea,” she said.

Drone “pilots” launch an MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle for a raid in the Middle East. (U.S. military photo)

The Reaper drones using the Syracuse runway are unarmed, the Air Force says. But when trainees go operational, their computer work includes aiming and launching Hellfire missiles at targets many thousands of miles away.

Despite the official claims that drone strikes rarely hit civilians, some evidence says otherwise. For example, leaked classified documents (obtained by The Intercept) shed light on a series of U.S. airstrikes codenamed Operation Haymaker. From January 2012 to February 2013, those drone attacks in northeast Afghanistan killed more than 200 people, but only about one-sixth of them were the intended targets.

Even without a missile strike, there are traumatic effects of drones hovering overhead. The former New York Times reporter David Rohde has described what he experienced during captivity by the Taliban in tribal areas of Pakistan: “The drones were terrifying. From the ground, it is impossible to determine who or what they are tracking as they circle overhead. The buzz of a distant propeller is a constant reminder of imminent death.”

As civic leaders in Syracuse and elsewhere embrace the expanding domestic involvement in day-to-day drone warfare, clear mention of the human toll far away is almost taboo. Elected officials join with business groups and public-relations officers from the military in extolling the benefits and virtues. Rarely does anyone acknowledge that civilians are maimed and killed as a result of the extolled activities, or that — in the name of a “war on terror” — people in foreign lands are subjected to the airborne presence of drones that is (to use Rohde’s word) “terrifying.”

Such matters are a far cry from Syracuse, where the local airport’s role in drone warfare is visible yet virtually unseen. My random conversations with dozens of Syracuse residents in many walks of life turned up scant knowledge or concern about the nearby drone operations. What’s front and center is the metropolitan area’s economic distress.

Unlike the well-financed Air National Guard base, the city’s crumbling infrastructure and budgets for relieving urban blight are on short rations. When I talked with people in low-income neighborhoods of Syracuse — one of the poorest cities in the United States — despair was often unmistakable. A major study by the Century Foundation identified Syracuse as the city with the highest concentrations of poverty among African-Americans and Hispanics in the United States. Locally, the latest influx of federal largesse is for the drone war, not for them.

Opposing the Drones

A group called Upstate Drone Action has been protesting at the Air National Guard base on the outskirts of Syracuse with frequent vigils and persistent civil disobedience. A recent demonstration, on Good Friday, included nine arrests.

A collection of “unmanned aerial vehicles” or military drones. (Photo credit: U.S. Navy, by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Daniel J. McLain )

The participants said in a joint statement: “What if our country were constantly being spied upon by drones, with some of us killed by drones? What if many bystanders, including children, were killed in the process? If that were happening, we would hope that some people in that attacking country would speak up and try to stop the killing. We’re speaking up to try and stop the illegal and immoral drone attacks on countries against which Congress has not declared war.”

The last couple of months have not gone well for authorities trying to discourage civil disobedience — what organizers call “civil resistance” — at the base. In early March, a jury in the Dewitt Town Court took just half an hour to acquit four defendants on all charges from an action two years ago that could have resulted in a year behind bars for disorderly conduct, trespassing and obstruction of government administration.

Later in March, citing a lack of jurisdiction, a local judge dismissed charges against four people who set up a “nativity tableau” in front of the main gate at the Hancock Air Force Base two days before Christmas last year. In a press release, Upstate Drone Action said that the activists had been “protesting the hunter/killer MQ-9 Reaper drones piloted over Afghanistan by the 174th Attack Wing of the New York National Guard” at the base.

Expanding War

The U.S. drone war is escalating in numerous countries. A year ago the head of the Air Combat Command, Gen. Herbert Carlisle, told a Senate subcommittee that “an insatiable demand” was causing U.S. drone operations to grow at a “furious pace.” That pace has become even more furious since President Trump took office. In early April a researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, Micah Zenko, calculated that President Trump had approved an average of one drone attack per day — a fivefold increase from the rate under the Obama administration.

President Donald Trump announces the selection of Gen. H.R. McMaster as his new National Security Adviser on Feb. 20, 2017. (Screen shot from

Upstate New York is leading the way for the Pentagon’s plan to expand its drone program from isolated areas into populous communities, which offer ready access to workers. One hundred and sixty miles to the west of Syracuse, just outside the city of Niagara Falls, an Air National Guard base — the largest employer in the county — is in the final stages of building a cutting-edge digital tech center with huge bandwidth. There, pilots and sensor operators will do shifts at computer consoles, guiding MQ-9 drones and firing missiles on kill missions. The center is on track to become fully operational in a matter of months.

At the main gate of the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, a sergeant from the public-affairs office was upbeat about the base “operating the MQ-9 remotely piloted aircraft.” At city hall the mayor of Niagara Falls, a liberal Democrat, sounded no less pleased, while carefully sidestepping my questions about whether he could see any downsides to the upcoming drone role. A local businessman who chairs the Niagara Military Affairs Council — a private organization that has long spearheaded efforts to prevent closure of the base — told me that getting the drone mission was crucial for keeping the base open.

In such ways, functioning locally while enabling globally, the political economy and mass psychology of militarism do the work of the warfare state.

Norman Solomon is the author of War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death. He is a co-founder of and the executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. This article was first published by ExposeFacts, a program of IPA.

34 comments for “Finding New Homes for Lethal Drones

  1. May 7, 2017 at 11:39

    The US government has no principles other than seeking and keeping power and domination, including of its serf subjects. With jobs gone, people can be enticed into supporting money making war machines. We have to get back on the road to challenging these Masters of War. We will have to, for the sake of a future. Kudos to the good people of Syracuse who are challenging the drones in their community, and thanks to Norm Solomon for showing how drones may be coming to a community near you.

  2. Megan Rice
    May 6, 2017 at 15:49

    This calls for total networking of peace movements in exposing these developments in the use of drone warfare esp from bases thousands of miles from the killing targets. We observed the thousands of officers entering and leaving from Creech Base daily, 60 miles west and north of LasVegas from the so-called National Nuclear Test Site near Mercury, on (land stolen from the First Nation People, Newe Sagobia) as far back as 2006. We saw those drones rising and returning from Creech AFB while in the base thousands were learning and being trained how the do the computer-based drone flights. Some of these pilots were having serious PTSD symptoms and family relationship problems needing counselling and pastoral care. And still this only escalates the US war by indescriminent murder and terrorism – Weapons of mass destruction to the Tee!

  3. evelync
    May 5, 2017 at 21:00

    “National Bird” aka “U.S. drones” was recently aired on PBS. A film by Independent Lens:

    It interviews the surviving Afghanistan family victims and the U.S. Air Force PTSD victims of perpetrating these kills on parents and children who lost lives and limbs.
    One man said his sadness was unbearable – he can still feed his children but when he lost his limbs it was like losing part of his mind/soul.
    The Air Force “survivors” of what they did who now suffer PTSD can’t face what they were a part of.
    The chatter of the “shooters” is like – are there children? YES….”infants or toddlers?” “toddlers or teens?” “well..a teen can still pick up a rifle”……boom…

  4. May 5, 2017 at 13:41

    Cannon Air Force base flies drones.

  5. lex talionis
    May 5, 2017 at 12:25

    a little gallows humor.

    a drone again, naturally.

  6. Seer
    May 4, 2017 at 19:49

    This is NOT warfare-based! As noted, there are no LEGALLY declared wars. Our government is rogue. This is extra-judicial killings, pure and simple. We are no longer a nation that upholds LAWS. All actions have counter-actions, consequences; blowback will be severe.

    • mike k
      May 4, 2017 at 21:36

      Yes, drone killing is simply murder. When Obama reportedly said, “I guess I’m a pretty good killer” in reference to his drone “hits” it was like a Mafia boss boasting about his murders. Presidential powers make these figures feel above all laws, like the tyrants of old.

  7. cmp
    May 4, 2017 at 18:28

    I was born in Syracuse. I long ago moved away, but I do want to say that “The Upstate NY Coalition to Ground the Drones & End the Wars,” or “Upstate Drone Action” is no band of rookies in the Peace Movement. .. And, if I was still in the area, I would proud to mobilize with them on their events.

    Remember the Berrigans? Remember the Draft Board Raids? Remember the protests for Migrant Farm Worker’s, etc.? Remember the Plow Shares Movement of the 80’s?

    .. These are some people who have generation-ally applied their deep values, principals and beliefs (..sacrificed their lives..) for the good of all.

    .. ty ..

    • cmp
      May 4, 2017 at 18:50

      .. I ‘am sorry, I meant to use the word principle, and not principal.

  8. mike k
    May 4, 2017 at 17:36

    The young people in the US who are trained to remotely kill often innocent people in distant lands, remind me of the subjects in the famous Milgram experiments who were induced to torture strangers “as an experiment.” It also reminds me of Erik Fromm’s classic book Escape From Freedom, about how so many Germans were willing to abet the holocaust because of their obedience to authorities. It does happen here.

  9. Bill Bodden
    May 4, 2017 at 17:36

    A major study by the Century Foundation identified Syracuse as the city with the highest concentrations of poverty among African-Americans and Hispanics in the United States. Locally, the latest influx of federal largesse is for the drone war, not for them.

    At least, Hitler took care of his people while rebuilding Germany which appears to be more than can be said for the proto-fascists running our government who are bent on plundering the public fisc for transfer to the plutocracy. As Germany went so too might these United States.

  10. Bill Bodden
    May 4, 2017 at 17:23

    I mentioned the Reaper drone exercises to an American Airlines flight attendant who had just landed on the same runway as the drones. “I had no idea,” she said.

    Millions of Americans have much in common with that flight attendant to had no idea.

  11. Fergus Hashimoto
    May 4, 2017 at 16:46

    Instead of drones, what solution does the author propose to attack training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan where terrorists are trained to massacre civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the US and Europe? Does he think we should send in the Marines instead of drones?

    • David Smith
      May 4, 2017 at 16:59

      The CIA could stop writing cheques and the “terrorist training camps” would close tomorrow.

      • May 4, 2017 at 22:04

        lol….theres 5000 pairs of boots(at least) send them in and hit the training centers…isnt that what they were sent there for in the first pkace…dont get me started on cowardly drone assassins…

    • BannanaBoat
      May 5, 2017 at 11:52

      Please send in every USA federal politician , except Tulsi, and then a thank you note and flowers.

    • BannanaBoat
      May 5, 2017 at 11:56

      The Taliban had ZERO intentions beyond their nations borders, they were willing to give up Bin Laden if some evidence was provided by USA. Terrorism is the Globalists greatest ally.

  12. mike k
    May 4, 2017 at 15:56

    Drones are a terrorist weapon. Those who use drones are terrorists, enemies of humanity, evil people.

  13. Realist
    May 4, 2017 at 15:19

    Won’t be long till our “authorities” start weaponizing the little quadcopter drones to surveil and exterminate domestic “terrorists.” If they can deliver a pizza or an order from Amazon, they can deliver bullets (they can deliver poison gas or poison darts too, but we’d have to blame Assad).

  14. Zachary Smith
    May 4, 2017 at 13:04

    Even without a missile strike, there are traumatic effects of drones hovering overhead. The former New York Times reporter David Rohde has described what he experienced during captivity by the Taliban in tribal areas of Pakistan: “The drones were terrifying. From the ground, it is impossible to determine who or what they are tracking as they circle overhead. The buzz of a distant propeller is a constant reminder of imminent death.”

    That last sentence caught my eye for sure! In my opinion a big part of the Drone use is to cause the targeted populations to be terrorized. If a drone makes enough noise to be heard, I figure it’s for one of two reasons. Either it was designed that way, or it is being deliberately flown low enough so that nobody can miss hearing how they’re potentially a few seconds from instant death or mutilation. From the wiki:

    Washing Machine Charlie or Bedcheck Charlie was a name given by Allies (primarily US) to Imperial Japanese aircraft that performed usually solitary, nocturnal operations over Henderson Field, Guadalcanal during the Guadalcanal Campaign. The name comes from the distinctive sound of the aircraft engines.

    Various aircraft were used in the role by Japanese forces, including ship or shore-based single-engine seaplanes, and, on occasion a two engine airplane, probably a Betty Bomber, whose pilot had made sure his engines were out of synchronization. The vibration was bad enough to wake most people, and then the waiting for the bomb, (most of which missed) kept the men awake for the rest of the night.

    Propeller airplanes can be made exceedingly quiet – witness the Lockheed YO-3 “Quiet Star” of the Vietnam era. That the Reapers are not silent means that the “audience” hearing them is a desired effect.

    Those Drone overflights represent a genuine Wave-The-Flag US campaign of psychological warfare and terrorism, all rolled into a tight little bundle.

    Perhaps author Norman Solomon missed some recent news on the Homeland Home Front about the Drones. Reuters headline to google:

    “Connecticut may become first U.S. state to allow deadly police drones”

    Of course that’s the camel’s-nose-under-the-tent first step. The US is beginning to fall apart, and the Power Elites want as many ways as possible to maintain their wealth and power. Using the Militarized Police to blow a few evildoers to hell and gone will surely get the attention of the rest, as will the constant audible reminder at night of the death machines circling overhead. Not only is Big Brother watching your every move, but he is also carrying heavy weapons available for instant use.

    Welcome to an ugly future.

  15. May 4, 2017 at 13:03

    probly just training the new “domestic operations” fleet….

    • Realist
      May 4, 2017 at 15:28

      It was the development of micro-electronics more than anything that made full spectrum control of the planet’s entire population possible.

      They will soon be changing the national motto from “e pluribus unum” to ” resistance is futile.”

      I am pleased to announce that Rachel Maddow has won the “Bullshit Artist of the Day” award for the 178th consecutive day today.

      To quote the prescient Dan Quayle: “What a waste it is to lose one’s mind. Or not to have a mind is being very wasteful. How true that is.” Try the chlorpromazine, Rachel.

  16. Sally Snyder
    May 4, 2017 at 13:02

    Here is an interesting look at the connection between American spending on drone warfare and lobbying:

    The payoff for defense lobbying is massive and is largely why the United States is constantly on a war-footing.

  17. mike k
    May 4, 2017 at 12:36

    Out of sight, out of mind. The right hand need not know what the left hand is doing. Isn’t it nice to live in a nice suburban neighborhood in America, where we don’t have to worry about drones and such – yet.

  18. Joe Tedesky
    May 4, 2017 at 11:40

    I agree drone warfare is terrible, but so is any other style of delivering death. If I had my way all war would be confined to being used only as a last resort, instead of how our U.S. leadership uses military might first.

    • Madeira
      May 4, 2017 at 14:02

      U.S. warfare is indeed “delivering death”. War is terrible whatever form it takes, but warfare as practiced by the US has become truly cowardly. It doesn’t take much courage to “zap” people from thousands of miles away. The US has no conception of what warfare really is about, having been virtually immune from war in the “homeland” since the Civil War 150 years ago.

      • Joe Tedesky
        May 4, 2017 at 23:40

        I wish if for no other reason that more Americans knew what you know Madeira.

    • Bill Bodden
      May 4, 2017 at 17:28

      I agree drone warfare is terrible, but so is any other style of delivering death.

      It could have been worse if Curtis Le May had his way and dropped atom bombs all over North Vietnam. Never underestimate the diabolical ingenuity of America’s warriors. Don’t forget. It is all about bringing democracy to the world.

      • john wilson
        May 4, 2017 at 18:24

        They are not warriors they murdering butchers. The term warrior means one who fights an enemy of of equal stature and puts his own life on the line with courage and fortitude. People who murder defenceless women and kids with a joystick are mentally unhinged and cowards.

        • Bill Bodden
          May 4, 2017 at 22:28

          They are not warriors they murdering butchers. The term warrior means one who fights an enemy of of equal stature and puts his own life on the line with courage and fortitude.

          Your definition seems to have a pro-military bias. Webster’s defines a warrior as a man engaged in or experienced in war. If the fighting in a war is not defensive then the people engaged in warfare may very well prove to be murderers.

      • Joe Tedesky
        May 4, 2017 at 23:38

        General Curtis LeMay, architect of the firebombing attacks on Japanese cities, later conceded: “If we had lost the war we would all have been prosecuted as war criminals.”

  19. exiled off mainstreet
    May 4, 2017 at 11:38

    The fact that practically this policy goes legally unchallenged shows that the rule of law no longer obtains.

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