Drone training small part of Camp Ripley activities

Tom West, West Words

As fate would have it, last Monday about a third of the Record’s newspaper staff had a tour of Camp Ripley in the morning. Monday, you may recall, was the same day that, in late afternoon just over a dozen anti-war people protested outside Camp Ripley’s gates — along with just over a dozen veterans engaged in a counter demonstration.

We had been trying to find the time all summer for the Record’s tour, and, when we set it up a couple of weeks ago, had no idea it would fall on the same day as a protest. As a result, News Editor Terry Lehrke spent the better part of the day at Camp Ripley, first for the tour and then covering the protest.

I learned several things during the tour that I think readers will find interesting.

First, while everyone knows that Camp Ripley is the largest economic asset in the county, Monday was the day that 4,000 National Guard soldiers from Georgia were returning home after two weeks of training at Camp. First Lt. Blake St. Sauver, a public affairs officer at Ripley, mentioned that it cost the Georgians $9 million for that training exercise. While not all of that money was spent locally, a good chunk of it was.

Second, I came to realize that as important as the military training is that goes on there, the fact is that Camp Ripley is becoming increasingly important as a training facility for government at all levels.

In the wake of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and other catastrophes, it’s become clear that local law enforcement and infrastructure officials need to be prepared, and that means they need to be trained.

Thus, Col. Scott St. Sauver, Camp Ripley commander, noted that one of the developments now under construction is a driver training facility “worthy of Talladega.” The winding, banked course is set up so that law enforcement officials and snow plow operators, for two examples, can learn how to drive on roads that range from flooded to glare ice, paved to gravel.

In addition, the latest state bonding bill contained $19.5 million for a conference center. This facility will include 40 rooms for lodging, plus classrooms and a cafeteria.

State bureaucrats have occasionally come under fire for using tax dollars to hold lavish retreats at resorts. This new facility will give state agencies a place to hold a conference at considerably less expense and a whole lot less embarrassment.

Third, I learned that the U.S. Department of Energy has had employees at Camp for two months, training on how to transport hazardous materials across the country.

Disaster training, saving dollars on government conferences and transmitting materials safely all seem like good things.

But then there was the protest. Robin Hensel, one of the leaders of the Occupy Little Falls movement and a City Council hopeful, was there with her allies. She made it clear later in the week that she is anti-war and opposed to the military training at Camp.  She said among other things, “We are doing a great disservice to our youth by having a military presence at every community event.”

I’m a “peace through strength” advocate, so it probably would be unproductive here to get into a philosophical discussion of mankind’s yearning for peace vs. the best way to protect ourselves. We’ve all heard the arguments on both sides.

I should mention, however, what Col. St. Sauver said during his brief welcoming remarks at our morning tour. “You have the right to protest,” he said, “We guard that freedom.”

Other places in the world, like Syria today, don’t have anyone guarding that right.

Hensel did bring up one issue that I find of interest and that is the use of unmanned aerial vehicles or “drones.” Hensel is concerned that the military has 7,500 such vehicles, and is using them in Afghanistan. She believes drone use violates international law and also notes that they occasionally make mistakes.

Camp Ripley actually doesn’t have any drones of its own, but is building a storage facility so training units can train with them when they visit.

Regulations confne the drone flights only to the air space over Camp Ripley and also only allow their use overseas to fire missiles. One would think if mistakes are a concern, one would want the users of drones to be well-trained.

What I find interesting about drones is not that the military uses them. Warfare has always caused “collateral damage” which is one reason war should be used only as a last resort. However, drones are a lot more accurate than dropping 750- pound bombs from a B-52 at 35,000 feet, as the U.S. did 40 years ago.

Regardless, drones are going to become  a major civil liberties issue in the next few years. In February, President Obama ordered the FAA to begin issuing permits for drones to operate in U.S. airspace. The FAA predicts that within 10 years, 30,000 drones will be flying around the lower 48 states.

Most citizens don’t have a big problem with using them to catch crooks. The bigger issue is how else they may be used. How should they be used to track the movement of otherwise law-abiding people? Should a private detective be allowed to use one to track a person because his client believes his or her spouse is having an affair? Should a divorcee be allowed to use one to keep track of his or her’s ex-spouse’s movements? Should a car dealer be allowed to track customers behind on their payments so the dealer can re-possess a vehicle?

Those issues will quickly dwarf any concerns about drone training at Camp Ripley.

Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. He may be reached at (320) 632-2345 or by e-mail at [email protected].