This is How That HappenedBy
by Barry Summers
Late in 2013, I was reading a press release from a local state legislator, which publicized his being named chair of a new NC House committee. At the bottom, he listed all the other committees he was currently on, and just on a whim, I compared it to the official list of committees on his legislative website. There was exactly one missing from the press release: “House Committee on Unmanned Aircraft Systems”. That got me curious, and that’s how I eventually came to be the only member of the public sitting in an NCGA hearing room full of military, law enforcement, and drone industry representatives, and being stared at by an angry NSA contractor. Yikes…
2007 – 2012: “We want a fully integrated environment.”With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, it became clear to the Department of Defense that they would have to start planning for the day when most of those drones that they had come to depend on overseas, would have to come home. And they don’t have enough segregated, military airspace in the continental US to fly them all, for training, research, etc.
“With a growing fleet of combat drones in its arsenal, the Pentagon is working with the Federal Aviation Administration to open U.S. airspace to its robotic aircraft.”… “The stuff from Afghanistan is going to come back,” Steve Pennington, the Air Force’s director of ranges, bases and airspace, said at the conference. The Department of Defense “doesn’t want a segregated environment. We want a fully integrated environment.”
“Unmanned military aircraft may soon have a permanent home in U.S. commercial airspace, according to a Defense Department official.
“The Pentagon and the Federal Aviation Administration are carving out between four to 10 “bubbles” in civilian airspace above the United States to test UAS…
“These airspace bubbles will be located across the country and provide DoD and the FAA space to show that UAS can fly in heavily-traveled commercial airspace in all conditions across the United States.”
“The sites will not be co-located with existing DoD sites that have been cleared to fly UAS in the United States, such as Grand Forks Air Force Base, ND, Pennington said. However, he said the new airspace sites will likely butt up against those DoD-owned sites.”
North Carolina Jumps In
According to emails acquired by the organization ‘Muckrock’, the effort to establish a UAS testing site in North Carolina started around that same time in 2011. The Hyde County “Gull Rock Test Site” as it was called, was first proposed by the NC Military Foundation, the state’s defense industry trade group, and the NC National Guard. The NCNG, which operates military drones, specifically endorsed the Gull Rock site because it was “adjacent to our current military operations area”, the DoDs gigantic Navy Dare Bombing Range, suggesting that it’s initial reason for existing at all can be traced to the imperatives spelled out by Mr. Pennington of the DoD.
As predicted by Pennington, there are now somewhere around 10 UAV testing sites across the US. Six attained a special FAA testing designation in 2014 – some, like North Carolina’s, are acting independently.
North Carolina’s “Next Generation Air Transportation (NGAT)” program is launched at NCSU, with support from the NCDOT, and begins to assume control of the UAV program previously run by the military and the defense industry trade group. All FAA “Certificates of Authorization” for drone use in North Carolina are now held by NCSU, including those needed to operate military drones like the RQ-7 Shadow in non-military airspace. The handover wasn’t without at least a little complaining. This from a 2013 email from the commanding General of the NC National Guard:
“Over one year ago I jumped on board in trying to get our UAV units flying, at this “proposed” training facility and was asked to step back in an attempt to not “militarize” this initiative – placating the concerns that a “militarized” approach would… result in erosion of public support.”
An NGAT workshop was held at NC State University. Along with the aforementioned Steve Pennington from the DoD, there was at least one more participant from the military, Jon Gorman – a representative from the NC National Guard.
As of Nov. 2014, that Guard officer has been listed as “Program Manager” at the NCSU/NGAT website, and his LinkedIn page only lists that current job at NCSU, no ‘previous’ employer. But nothing ever disappears from the internet. Before November, that LinkedIn page showed that his occupation was:”Battalion TACOPS Officer, 1 – 130th ARB, United States Army National Guard”. (The “TACOPS”, or “Tactical Operations Officer” is responsible for coordinating air assets like drones in military maneuvers.) Is there some reason his previous military career disappeared from view when he moved over to the NGAT program? Perhaps again, to prevent “the erosion of public support”?
And there was at least one participant at the NGAT workshop whose background was in the private sector NSA/intelligence community: “Chris Estes – North Carolina Chief Information Officer”. (Under a 2013 moratorium on drone use in North Carolina, only the State Chief Information Officer can approve waivers of the sort required by the NGAT testing program, essentially putting him in charge.)
Before joining the Pat McCrory administration, North Carolina’s current “Chief Information Officer” was a “Principal in the Strategy, Technology, and Innovation practice” of Booz Allen Hamilton (BAH). BAH (the former employer of whistlebower Edward Snowden), is widely known as the “private sector NSA”. Along with much of the intelligence-gathering and analysis work for the NSA, they also contract to perform much of the hands-on hi-tech work of the nation’s military. Estes’ principle deputy on the drone issue, Krissy Culler, is also a BAH alumnus, and most recently a “division director for Navy Cyber Forces”, described as the “Navy’s Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Combat systems and Intelligence (C5I) workforce.” (It’s recently been renamed – it’s now called, and I swear I’m not making this up, “Navy Information Dominance Forces”. Take that, information.)
So these are just a few of the people currently in charge of NC’s drone testing program: (former?) high-ranking members of NSA contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, the Navy’s hi-tech surveillance infrastructure, and our local drone-flying military.
But wait, there’s more! DoD, Navy C5ISR, Booz Allen Hamilton, National Guard… What North Carolina-based entity could possibly be added to this stew, to bring it to a full boil? If you answered: “Blackwater”, congratulations.
Two of NGAT’s three testing sites are described in some detail by the State CIO, in a 2014 report to the NCGA. One is the previously-mentioned Gull Rock Test Site. The second is near Butner NC, and is associated with an NC Dept. of Agriculture research station there. The third is described only as “a private airfield in Moyock”. That “private airfield” is, in fact, the 7000-acre private military compound formerly known as Blackwater, now known as ‘Academi’. This comparison between the aerial view of the site, and a Google map view of Moyock, removes any doubt.
If there’s reason to involve a controversial private military contractor like Blackwater in an ostensibly civilian university program (and be secretive about doing so), we haven’t seen it. News reports about the NGAT program focus solely on the potential benefits of drones to agriculture, search and rescue, etc., which to be sure, are many and real. But so far, there has never been a public acknowledgment that an initial, central purpose of North Carolina’s drone testing program appears to have been (and may still be) to facilitate the integration of military drones into domestic airspace. If and when this finally happens, the decision will be made by the Pentagon, the FAA, by Congress, and by the President. But it will only happen after the participation of local drone testing programs like NGAT.
This isn’t being written to suggest that any of the people cited here are bad people, or are doing anything wrong. If there’s reason to cloak a military operation in the rhetoric of jobs and investment, and agricultural uses and firefighting and finding lost kids in the woods, let’s hear it. But in a free society, the military should not be allowed to make this kind of leap, of putting military unmanned vehicles in the skies over our heads, without the public and our local elected representatives being fully informed and engaged. It’s their job to protect us – it’s our job to protect our free society.
Otherwise, one day soon, something that will be bad for the public’s trust in their military will happen: A whole lot of people in North Carolina will look up and say, “Is that a Predator flying over my house? How did that happen?”
This is how that happened.