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Drone home: Already a hub of drone activity, Southern Nevada wants more

<p>Predator in flight</p>

Predator in flight

Bzzzzzzzzzzzz … that droning sound you hear? Could it be a flying robot equipped with Hellfire missiles, operated by remote control? Would anyone have a problem with that?

Or is it just the sound of the debate over the use of drones, at home and abroad?

Either way, Las Vegas is doing its best to worm into the center of the issue.

One of the centers of research, development and deployment of drone aircraft is already in Clark County, practically in Las Vegas’ backyard. Creech Air Force Base is next door to the desert community of Indian Springs, from which residents can regularly view Predators, Reapers and models still in development.

The motto of the 432d Wing/432d Air Expeditionary Wing operating out of Creech is “Hunters Save Lives,” referring to the support that the Air Wing provides to ground troops in combat situations.

Of course, the drones also take lives. The Air Force publicly touts the drone program’s “intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance” mission, but drones are used to kill. Over the last several years, the Obama administration has authorized hundreds of missions targeting suspected terrorists in Southwest Asia and the Horn of Africa.

“This mission has revolutionized the way we think about warfare,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said in an address to airmen in a January visit to Creech.

Spokesmen for Creech and the Air Force program declined comment, directing questions to their websites. However, anyone who wants a good look at the new technology can make the 45-mile journey to Indian Springs and park across U.S. 95 from the base. The unmanned aircraft regularly take off and land at the base.

The use of those drones has made some people all over the world very unhappy. Critics have charged that hundreds of civilians have been hurt or killed as the byproduct of drone strikes against suspected terrorists and military targets in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and other countries. U.S. leaders in the Defense Department and White House have put the death toll among noncombatants much lower, in the single digits, according to one account.

In January, the United Nations said it would begin an investigation into the legality and lethality of U.S. drone attacks around the world. But many even in the United States already are convinced that the drone strikes must end.

This week, opponents of the military’s use of drones will take their message to Indian Springs and Creech. Retired Army colonel Ann Wright will be one of the protestors joining members of the Nevada Desert Experience, a Nevada-based peace group. She and her allies believe that the drone programs of the U.S. military and intelligence agencies violate international law and foster anti-American sentiments because of civilian deaths.

Nevada Desert Experience and friends will continue the protest with the group’s annual peace march, which will begin March 24 at the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas and pass by Creech on the way to the former Nevada Test Site, probably around March 26.

Wright said her opposition to drone warfare is motivated by the fact that there is no declared war against Pakistani or other targets, thus the attacks amount to “extrajudicial” killings. She says the drone attacks in Afghanistan contribute to the escalating problem of attacks by Afghani soldiers and police on U.S. troops and allies.

The protests are just the tip of the controversy. Among other issues that have sparked bipartisan consternation is the use of drone strikes to kill American citizens overseas — and, more recently, the Obama administration’s claim that if necessary, it could use a drone strike to kill a suspected terrorist on American soil. That claim sparked a 13-hour filibuster from conservative Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. (Which ended when the administration specified that the U.S. government couldn’t whack non-combatants on U.S. soil.) One of Paul’s allies in the filibuster was liberal Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, illustrating the way drone issues can cross ideological and party lines.

Controversies over the use of drones in warfare are mirrored in discussions about their growing use at home.

The Federal Aviation Administration has already given approval for some government agencies, especially federal, state and local law enforcement, to fly the unmanned drones. The U.S. Border Patrol, for example, uses them to spot people illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

According to data compiled from federal sources last year by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, at least 14 state and local police departments around the country also are approved to use drones.

Metro is not one of them. Spokesman Sgt. Bill Cassell said that although the department has looked at how the technology might be used here, Metro has no plans to use drones at this time.

But we might soon see civilian-controlled unmanned aircraft in Las Vegas anyway.

Southern Nevada, as part of a team effort that includes the region’s governments, universities and private industry, is vying to become home to the Federal Aviation Administration’s domestic-drone development program, specifically by being one of six test ranges for civilian unmanned aircraft. Winning the FAA designation as a project site doesn’t guarantee that the drone industry will move here, but it would be a leg up, which is why this week the Clark County Commission unanimously passed a resolution to support the bid to be designated a project site.

The resolution notes that Clark County already is home to an $18 billion national defense industry and that research and development of drone aircraft would help plump up the region’s tech sector.

There are plenty of potential domestic uses for the aircraft, and include mapping and other benign applications. But one of the chief beneficiaries of domestic drones is expected to be law enforcement. Already, drones are being used in other parts of the country to spot violations of state and federal environmental law, pot plantations and other concerns in hard-to-access areas.

The enthusiasm for domestic drones isn’t universal, of course. As much as the high-tech jobs would be a welcome stab at economic diversification, many are still uncomfortable with the idea of unmanned vehicles buzzing around our neighborhoods.

Jim Haber, coordinator with the Nevada Desert Experience, is one of those who doesn’t want the technology used by domestic law enforcement. He criticized the County Commission for trying to win jobs and economic development by attracting contractors who design and build drones: “War should never be treated as a jobs program.

“We can’t turn to military hardware to serve our economy,” he said.

While some fear flying robots equipped with Hellfire missiles, others have more pedestrian concerns. One of those who worries that drones could invade people’s privacy is Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, who introduced an amendment into this week’s resolution specifying that privacy should be respected.

“I do have concerns about the privacy issue,” she said at the March 19 commission meeting — then voted for the resolution.