Sky Patrol USA

Congratulations, Americans! You are now officially living in a police state patrolled by machines in the skies:

Armed with a search warrant, Nelson County Sheriff Kelly Janke went looking for six missing cows on the Brossart family farm on June 23. Three men brandishing rifles chased him off, he said. Janke knew the gunmen could be anywhere on the 3,000-acre spread in eastern North Dakota. Fearful of an armed standoff, he called in reinforcements from the Highway Patrol, a regional SWAT team, a bomb squad, ambulances and deputy sheriffs from three counties. He also called in a Predator B drone.

As the unmanned aircraft circled 2 miles overhead, its sensors helped pinpoint the suspects, showing they were unarmed. Police rushed in and made the first known arrests of U.S. citizens with help from a Predator, the spy drone that has helped revolutionize modern warfare.

That was just the start. Police say they have used two unarmed Predators based at Grand Forks Air Force Base to fly at least two dozen surveillance flights since then. The FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration have used Predators for other domestic investigations, officials said.

“We don’t use [drones] on every call out,” said Bill Macki, head of the police SWAT team in Grand Forks. “If we have something in town like an apartment complex, we don’t call them.”

The drones belong to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which operates eight Predators on the country’s borders to search for illegal immigrants and smugglers. The previously unreported use of its drones to assist local, state and federal law enforcement has occurred without any public acknowledgment or debate.

I have little doubt that 99 percent of all Americans who hear about this will dismiss it as any serious cause for concern “because at least the drones aren’t armed”. The interesting question is what will come first, the first use of an armed drone to kill American citizens inside the US, or the first shooting-down of a military drone by American citizens.

Forget the hacking involved in the capture of a Sentinel drone by Iran. A $200 souped-up Hawk Sky radio-control plane is all that’s needed to take down a $5 million Predator or a $30 million Reaper. I note that 70 of the 223 Predators and Reapers in operation through 2009 were “lost during combat operations” although the military has only admitted to four of them being shot down.