Transcript: Retired Air Force Col. Martha McSally’s testimony on drones & targeted killing – Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on April 23, 2013

Partial transcript of testimony by Colonel Martha McSally, United States Air Force (Ret.), on the “Drone Wars: The Constitutional and Counter-Terrorism Implications of Targeted Killing”. The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights hearing was held on April 23, 2013:

…I come to you today from an operational point of view and I’ll speak in generality at the unclassified level from my military experience related to the use of remotely-piloted aircraft for targeted killings.

I use the term remotely-piloted aircraft, which is my first point, instead of drones because I think that’s part of the challenge. There is an information operations campaign by Al Qaeda going on against us and the word drone actually has a connotation that we’ve got these autonomous vehicles flying around and striking at will without a whole lot of scrutiny and oversight to them.

So the military does use the term remotely-piloted aircraft to explain and to try and paint the picture that it actually takes about 200 individuals to keep one of these aircrafts airborne for a 24-hour orbit, and that 200 individuals includes the operators, the intelligence personnel, the maintenance personnel, the equipment people, the lawyers, and also in part of the process you have literally hundreds of other personnel that are involved in the process on the military side when you’re actually conducting one of these operations.

So I will be using the term RPA throughout my testimony, and that’s certainly one of the points to make.

In my written testimony, I explained that I think this issue is very important and there are very legitimate questions that need to be asked for the oversight roles that we have as when we’re choosing if it is legal to use lethal force for targeted killings and if it is a good counter-terrorism strategy to use that force.

Those questions are legitimate and need to be asked and that oversight has got to be tightened up.

There’s been way too much, I think, vagueness and lack of clarity even in the information that’s come out of the chain of command related to their legal argument and their strategy on that matter.

I believe there is – it should be separated though into three questions. Is it legal? Is it good strategy? And then the third question is if we’ve decided that we want to use lethal force because it is legal and good strategy in the counter-terrorism arena, then what platform should we use?

So I will be focusing on discussing that platform and then the process that we go through.

It’d be surprising to you perhaps that a pilot would be advocating for the use of remotely-piloted aircraft in order to conduct operations but in the course of my 22 year in the military, I’ve extensively worked with remotely-piloted aircraft for a variety of different means.

And when we’re on the regular battlefield, you often have a Lieutenant pilot and an Airman First Class on the ground making decisions to use lethal force with potential strategic consequences. If they hit the wrong target and there is collateral damage then there is a great level of potential issues related to that wrong decision.

When you’re talking about the use of remotely-piloted aircraft, you have what I believe is unprecedented level of persistence, oversight, and precision if you’re choosing to use that as a platform. Your other choices are fighter aircraft, cruise missiles, SEALs, artillery, and other means of using lethal force.

But when you’re using remotely-piloted aircraft oftentimes because of the number of issues that have to come together and line up to include positive identification, geographic location, collateral damage assessment, friendly force deconfliction, and other communications that need to happen, it is often not practical because the targets are fleeting to use any of these other assets.

As an example, you wouldn’t want to have to wait and then launch fighters from a certain base, air refueling tankers, diplomatic clearances – all while these stars are all lining up in a very fleeting moment that basically those conditions can not be met in the next moment.

So if you have a remotely-piloted aircraft overhead as those conditions are lining up – and the process actually has a great deal of extraordinary scrutiny; you have the chain of command watching, you have the intelligence analysts watching; you actually have the lawyers sitting side-by-side with you – and you can wait until the moment that you have identified the positive identification and all the criteria has been met, and you can also abort at the last minute.

If you launch a cruise missile for a lethal strike, there’s usually 30 minutes of planning, 30 minutes time of flight, and then oftentimes you cannot divert that missile as an example.

So remotely-piloted aircraft actually gives us the highest level of scrutiny and oversight and persistence and precision if you’re deciding to have a lethal strike.


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