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On thin ice

How far will McGill go to keep drone research under wraps?

It is a matter on which the authority of Empire tends to go uncontested – that of establishing which means of indiscriminate killing are acceptable and which are not. Sarin gas, bad; drones armed with Hellfire missiles, generally alright.

The lethal unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is methodical; it is civilized. Unless, that is, the pilot in a Nevada bunker slips up, or it hits stormy weather and crashes under the weight of ice accretion. Fortunately, a vast network of military agencies, defense contractors, and university research labs is refining the science of winged robots that kill people.

This network extends to McGill and its Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) Lab, chaired by Dr. Wagdi G. Habashi. The CFD Lab researches and develops advanced 3D simulation software for planes, helicopters, UAVs, and jet engines. Down the hall from the CFD Lab in 688 Sherbrooke, Habashi sells the product of his lab’s research, a software package called FENSAP-ICE, to military drone manufacturers through the company he owns, Newmerical Technologies.

In 2004, Habashi co-authored research with the unmanned air combat division of Northrop Grumman, which makes drones for the U.S. military. In 2009 he suggested that “unforeseen […] icing encounters” in UAV missions in Afghanistan signaled a need for new forms of ice protection, to be modeled and refined with FENSAP-ICE.

Among the corporate partners of the CFD Lab is CAE, a Montreal flight-simulation company that will be training U.S. Air Force drone pilots in a deal potentially worth $100 million.

The CFD Lab’s military aspirations reach beyond drones. Habashi’s known clients include Lockheed Martin, which purchased FENSAP-ICE for the development of the F-35 fighter jet. Meanwhile, defense contractor Pratt & Whitney, manufacturer of the F-35’s engine and buyer of FENSAP-ICE, has enlisted Habashi as a senior research fellow.

In the fall of 2012, questions surrounding what had emerged about the CFD Lab’s activities prompted some members of Demilitarize McGill to submit targeted requests to the University under Quebec’s access to information (ATI) law. Rather than provide the information requested, the University has taken these, and other, students to court. The University alleges that they orchestrated a “complex system for acquiring documents” as “retaliation” for unspecified events during the 2012 student strike, and seek the authority to deny outstanding and future requests. The hearings began Thursday. We would like to know how much of our tuition money McGill is spending in legal fees on this case, but we don’t think our ATI request would be answered.

Whether McGill will be compelled to disclose the requested documents remains to be seen. Yet the University has already failed, insofar as its battle to suppress inconvenient information only draws more attention to the fact that when, hours or days from the time of writing, the U.S. Air Force bombs targets in Syria, it will in all likelihood benefit from technology developed at McGill.

U.S. imperialism is a genocidal regime, killing and destroying the lives of poor people of colour on a scale that statistics cannot communicate. It is also a for-profit business, one in which this university is an active partner.

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