Could that plane flying overhead actually be a Pentagon drone on a spying mission over U.S. soil? Yes, apparently, although the Pentagon said when it has deployed spy drones on non-military missions over the U.S. that it was done lawfully.
Details are scarce about the Pentagon’s domestic spying missions – other than they have happened on rare occasions – “fewer than 20 times between 2006 and 2015” – according to a Defense Department report obtained by USA Today via a Freedom of Information Act request. The Pentagon must have laughed when USA Today requested a list of the spy flights; the request was denied.
Nevertheless, the report issued by the DoD inspector general in 2015 did include a few examples of how spy drones have not been used. USA Today described one in which an unnamed mayor asked the Marines to fly a drone over a city to identify potholes; the Marines nixed the request, saying “obtaining the defense secretary’s ‘approval to conduct a UAS mission of this type did not make operational sense’.”
Several military units reportedly told the IG they’d like more opportunities to fly drones on domestic missions. The report, USA Today added, “quoted a military law review article that said ‘the appetite to use them (spy drones) in the domestic environment to collect airborne imagery continues to grow, as does Congressional and media interest in their deployment’.”
Pentagon’s swarming micro-drones and Avatar project
Speaking of drones, The Washington Post reported that the Pentagon tested tiny, secret prototype drones 150 times over Alaska last summer. The 3D-printed micro-drones from the Perdix Project can be launched via ground troops or be fired from “flare dispensers of moving F-16s and F/A-18 fighter jets. Canisters containing the tiny aircraft descended from the jets on parachutes before breaking open, allowing wings on each drone to swing out and catch the wind. Inch-wide propellers on the back provided propulsion as they found one another and created a swarm.”
While this might sound like the brainchild of DARPA, the ideas come from the DoD’s Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) – an organization tasked with creating “new trick plays” for the Pentagon. Capabilities of the micro-drones are considered classified, but The Post was told they “could be used to confuse enemy forces” and as a less expensive unmanned aircraft alternative to “carry out surveillance missions.”
The Post also revealed another new Pentagon project, previously called “Skyborg” but now dubbed “Avatar.” It involves pairing “fifth-generation fighter jets like the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter with unmanned versions of older jets like the F-16 Fighting Falcon or F/A-18 Hornet, which would be flown without a pilot for the first time.” The Avatar program “will require unmanned fighters to act with enough autonomy that the pilot in the manned jet doesn’t have to direct them all the time.”