George Bush’s Personal Spy Drone

By Sharon Weinberger

DARPA, the Pentagon’s far-side research agency, has a plan to send a robotic surveillance drone anywhere in the world within an hour. And it is apparently intended for one particular user: The President of the United States. Space News reports on this “Rapid Eye” unmanned aerial vehicle project:

071031techfuturemars01_2 The idea is to give the U.S. president a first, quick look at the scene, DARPA Director Tony Tether said, following his talk at the Geoint 2007 Symposium in San Antonio.

“We got this idea from NASA,” Tether said.

Engineers from NASA’s Ames Research Center in California and Langley Research Center in Virginia, who are working on competing concepts for “planetary aircraft,” began speaking with DARPA officials earlier this year about adapting some of their concepts for needs on Earth.

The concept of using rockets to deploy sensors as rapidly as possible to any hot spot throughout the world also is a goal of the U.S. Air Force’s Operationally Responsive Space initiative.

“We didn’t have that in mind,” Tether said, noting that DARPA’s concept for Rapid Eye is to support “the president.” Nevertheless, the same concept could be used to support military personnel in the field, Tether said.

Sounds interesting. Now, I’m hoping there’s an obvious answer to this question: How will Russia’s early warning system know — prior to reentry — that the zillion-mile-per-hour projectile is carrying a drone, and not, say, a nuclear warhead? 

This is the debate that’s tangled up in any number of the Pentagon’s so-called “Global Strike” projects. There have been various schemes for a conventional version of either a land- or submarine-launched ballistic missile — both ideas that Congress has been reluctant to fund. The benefit is clear: The Pentagon would like to be anywhere in the world within an hour, and it seems the only way to do this is with something that looks like a ballistic missile. Rapid Eye is somewhat different, of course, because it’s supposed to drop a surveillance platform somewhere, and not a weapon. In any case, putting things on ICBMs is an idea that just doesn’t seem to go away.

The essential problem is that you have to convince Russia that the thing on the missile is not a nuke, and calling it “Drone One” might not be enough.