Marine Corps unmanned aerial vehicle squadron may move to islands

Senator Sam Slom
Senator Sam Slom

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The U.S. Marine Corps is looking at moving an unmanned aerial vehicle squadron to its base in Kaneohe Bay.

The possible move comes after increased discussion about drones and similar vehicles being used for domestic surveillance.

The Marine Corps is currently working on an environmental assessment to move the VMU-3 Squadron to Hawaii from its current base in California, with a decision possible early next year.

The squadron consists of about 270 military personnel and 12 RQ-7B Shadow unmanned aerial vehicle for surveillance, with another 45 RQ-21A Integrators at a later date. The Marines said the squadron would achieve a balance in the Marine Corps' capabilities in the Pacific and to ensure that Marine forces are sufficiently manned, trained and equipped to meet any crisis or conflict.

The possible move comes as controversy surrounds the U.S. use of drones. "In many of these places the surveillance drones turn into weaponized drones and people are killed, many of them innocent civilians, men, women and children," said activist Jim Albertini of the Malu Aina Center for Non-Violent Education and Action on the Big Island. He said he doesn't want Hawaii to play a role in that.

There are also domestic concerns regarding unmanned surveillance drones and privacy. There are currently no restrictions on such vehicles in Hawaii. State Sen. Sam Slom (R-Diamond Head, Kahala, Hawaii Kai) introduced a bill in the last legislative session to change that.

"All I'm proposing is that in fact we have public hearings on this, that we have knowledge and transparency, and the military agencies in particular give us a report to let us know exactly what they are doing," said Slom.

"We're seeing already with the NSA (National Security Agency) how there's been such intrusive surveillance on civilians, and with drones I think there's a similar risk," said Albertini.

The Marine Corps said civilian surveillance is not part of its mission, and that the squadron would only used controlled airspace, training at Wheeler Army Air Field, the Pohakuloa Training Area on the Big Island, and the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai.

Drones have already been used in Hawaii for commercial and military purposes. There was even one drone purchased by the State Department of Transportation for surveillance at Honolulu Harbor, but it was never used because of airspace conflicts with Honolulu International Airport.

"I know that there are legitimate uses for drones and we're going to see more of them," said Slom. "Search and rescue, for example, comes to mind. And defense. That's fine."

But Slom and others want to make sure that drones or other unmanned aerial vehicles aren't used to invade privacy.

Slom's bill stalled in the legislature, but it is still alive and could come up again in the next session.

Follow Ben Gutierrez:   

Copyright 2013 Hawaii News Now. All rights reserved.