Protesters gather outside the Des Moines National Guard Base in Des Moines on Jan. 23 to oppose plans to create a military drone control center. Local military and elected officials support the move to operate what are known as ìremotely piloted aircraftî from Iowa, noting that this will preserve most of the roughly 1,000 jobs on the base. (Catherine Lucey / The Associated Press)
DES MOINES, Iowa — Peace activists called Wednesday for the Air Force to drop plans to establish a drone operation center in Des Moines.
Waving signs that said "No War Drones, Des Moines," about 20 activists protested outside the Des Moines Air National Guard Base. The military plans to pilot drone aircraft at the base, now that the 21 F-16 jets based there will be removed.
"The Air Force is now training more unmanned vehicle pilots than manned vehicle pilots. We have killed and continue to kill thousands of people with these drones," said Leah Bolger, national president of Veterans For Peace, who came in from Oregon for the protest. Bolger said there was limited information available to the public about drone operations.
"The drones are especially reprehensible because there's no accountability for them," Bolger said.
Local military and elected officials support the move to operate what are known as "remotely piloted aircraft," noting this will preserve most of the roughly 1,000 full- and part-time jobs on the base. Col. Greg Hapgood, spokesman for the Iowa National Guard, said the team piloting the aircraft would be in Des Moines, while the drones would fly in other locations.
"We have pilots. It's not like you have to bring people in to fly the aircrafts. You have infrastructure, you have people. We need a mission here in Des Moines," Hapgood said.
Hapgood said Maj. Gen. Timothy Orr will release more details on the plans in an address to the Iowa Legislature next week. Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said details on the exact number of jobs available in Iowa are still being worked out. She said an intelligence unit will also be located at the base.
Iowa's congressional delegation opposed removing the jets from Des Moines and worked for months to keep the planes and preserve jobs. But they couldn't stop the effort backed by the Defense Department in the latest defense spending bill.
Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin last month said he was supportive of bringing a drone operation to Iowa.
"While I may have some concerns about this (shutting down F-16 unit), I think we have to recognize what the future is," Harkin said to reporters in December. "And the future, Des Moines now could become sort of the first of the air wings anywhere in the United States to actually be fully drone capable. And that's going to be a growing part of our defense structure in the future."
Rep. Tom Latham, a Republican whose district includes Des Moines, said he was hopeful this would mean secure a future for the unit.
"It would appear that this would give long-term stability for the airmen and the 132nd (unit)," Latham said. "It's what the military is going to look like."
Bases in Nevada, New Mexico, South Dakota and Missouri are already operating drones, Air Force officials said. The military has used these aircraft as part of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Hapgood said having this operation in Des Moines would be a boon to the local economy.
"Certainly the benefits come from a thousand good jobs. The other benefit is that we have a presence with the U.S. military here in Iowa, which provides additional economic benefits to the rest of the state," Hapgood said.