A Deadly Atmosphere: The Emerging Dronification of Space

Imperial Information Gathering

In one of the most chilling and prescient accounts of the future of drone warfare I have come across in a while, Alfred McCoy, author of Endless Empire: Spain’s Retreat, Europe’s Eclipse, America’s Decline?, and a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, predicts that in the third decade of the 21st century, U.S. drones will have secured three separate layers of the planet’s atmosphere.

As well as expanding horizontally across the globe then–from Afghanistan to Pakistan to Somalia to Yemen–U.S. drones are set to move vertically, securing the heavens in a ‘battlespace’ of ambiguous sovereignties. This ‘triple canopy’, as McCoy deftly argues, shouldn’t come as much of a surprise: the underlying logics of ‘information warfare’ that drives it have been honed for decades – from the Philippines to Vietnam.

In the past century, writes McCoy, the U.S. military has been plunged into three separate counterinsurgencies – the Philippines (after is defeat of the Spanish in 1898), Vietnam, and now Afghanistan. Common to these very specific acts of violence was the fusion of technology with information structures to execute a very specific type of biopower; one aimed at cataloguing “patterns of life” or “signatures“. Each epoch inherits a kernel of the former–crystallized around the management of data.

America’s first information regime: The Philippine Insurrection

File:McKinleyPhilippinesCartoon.jpgThe U.S. ‘acquired’ the Philippines from  Spain in 1898. To pacify a determined guerilla resistance in the decade that followed, the U.S. colonial regime used advanced information technologies to amass empirical data about the Philippine population.

“In this way, they forged an Argus-eyed security apparatus that played a major role in crushing the Filipino nationalist movement. The resulting colonial policing and surveillance system would also leave a lasting institutional imprint on the emerging American state”.

The U.S. entered the First World War  in 1917. Colonel Ralph Van Deman–the ‘father of military intelligence’ drew from the security methods he developed in the Philippines as part of the Army’s Military Intelligence Division. He recruited a staff that grew to 300,000 citizen operatives, who compiled more than a million pages of surveillance reports on U.S. citizens – laying the foundations for the modern surveillance system. During World War II a version of this system was worked into the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA, and the nation’s first spy agency. The Research & Analysis branch was staffed by 2,000 academics who amassed a wealth of indexing tools to articulate countless reams of information. Yet by 1994, the flow of of information was too much, and the fledgling agency buckled under the weight of its own collected materials.

America’s Second Information Regime: Computerizing Vietnam

The counter-insurgency in Vietnam was unyielding. Officials running the U.S. information structure turned to computers to manage their data, powered by advanced IBM mainframes. The U.S. military compiled “Compiled monthly tabulations of security in all of South Vietnam’s 12,000 villages and filed the three million enemy documents its soldiers captured annually on giant reels of bar-coded film”. 

As part of its infamous ‘Phoenix Program’ (between 1965 and 1972 the CIA and other special forces ran a brutal regime of assassination and torture against Vietcong militants and civilians: ‘Provincial Reconnaissance Units’), the CIA computerized a diverse range of data on the communist civilian infrastructure.

This highly specious data became a foundation for the systematic torture and extra-judicial execution of some 41,000 people, few of which were considered of any ‘value’ to the military.

Even more ambitiously, the U.S. Air Force constructed an $800 million-a-year network of 20,000 acoustic, seismic, thermal, and ammonia-sensitive sensors to track patterns of life, such as truck convoys that were shrouded by a dense jungle canopy. This information was then used for bombing sorties to limited effect: “After 100,000 North Vietnamese troops passed right through this electronic grid undetected with trucks, tanks, and heavy artillery to launch the Nguyen Hue Offensive in 1972, the U.S. Pacific Air Force pronounced this bold attempt to build an “electronic battlefield” an unqualified failure”.

Ryan UAV Drone RPV FirebeeAt the same time, USAF introduced the Ryan Firebee target drone to the information system.

Originally a ‘target’ drone, by the close of the war, it was an increasingly agile craft that made 3,500 surveillance missions over China, North Vietnam, and Laois.

All of this computerized data failed to win ‘hearts and mind’ and failed to turn the tide of war. But it was an experiment that would soon become expanded upon in the third ‘robotic’ information age.

The Third Infromation Age: The War on Terror

Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (which for periods of time were forms of counter-insurgency) would see the return of information-centred warfare that had been developed in the Philippines and Vietnam: electronic surveillance, biometric identification, and drone warfare. For example, after six years of faltering COIN in Iraq, the Pentagon turned to biopower to pacify the country’s urban population, constructing a biometric database with “more than a million Iraqi fingerprints and Iris scans”. So too did Afghanistan become a laboratory for testing and extending such biometric databases, as well as a full-scale drone war (the traces of which began in Vietnam).

For more on the history of the Predator drone see an earlier post of mine, ‘The Historical Rise of the Predator Drone‘. In a nutshell, the CIA has become a paramilitary organization that is intimately involved in ‘kinetic operations’ with JSOC, and whose operations are based on surveying, cataloguing, and eliminating patterns of life.

But there is another sense in which war has become ever-more ‘remote’. CyberwarfareThe internet has become a new type of battlespace, where issues of state power, privacy, and even acts of war have proliferated.

In 2009, the Pentagon formed ‘U.S. Cyber Command’, with a HQ in Fort Meade, Maryland. By 2011 it declared cyberspace the same kind of operational domain as air, land, or sea–and the U.S. was ready and capable of offensive operations. Domestically, since 2002, President George W. Bush authorized, illegally, the NSA to scan millions of electronic messages with its top-secret ‘Pinwale’ database. The FBI followed suit, so by 2009, it held a billion individual records.

The Triple Canopy

The Philippine Insurrection, the Vietnam War, the Occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the drone attacks in Pakistan, have mobilized a new form of information regime, uniting the atmosphere with biometrics and robotics. At the start of 2012 the Pentagon announced a cut in troop numbers to pave the way for more robotic, space, and cyber-based capabilities.

“Significantly, both space and cyberspace are new, unregulated domains of military conflict, largely beyond international law.  And Washington hopes to use both, without limitation, as Archimedean levers to exercise new forms of global dominion far into the twenty-first century, just as the British Empire once ruled from the seas and the Cold War American imperium exercised its global reach via airpower”.

The ‘vertical’ has become an increasingly important axis of geopolitical power, and presents an armada of potential issues for sovereignty and international law. That is not to say the horizontal is dead in the water–indeed, the verticality of future American power projection is sought to realize an unprecedented horizontal surveillance capability. There is also a race for space; one driven by the wacky dreams (or nightmares) of DARPA. By 2020, the Pentagon hopes to patrol the globe ceaselessly and seamlessly with “a triple canopy space shield reaching from stratosphere to exosphere, driven by drone armed with agile missiles, linked by a resilient modular satellite system, monitored through a telescopic panopticon, and operated by robotic controls”.

Some of these developments in the lower stratosphere McCoy mentions are as follows:

  • The Pentagon is building 99 Global Hawk drones capable of surveilling terrain within a 100-mile radius, with sensors able to intercept communications.
  • Massive, solar-powered unmanned aircraft such as ‘The Vulture’ and ‘Pathfinder’ will be able to patrol the globe for years on end.

In the upper stratosphere,

  • DARPA and USAF are developing a ‘Falcon Hypersonic Cruise Vehicle’ that is expected to “deliver 12,000 pounds of payload at a distance of 9,000 nautical miles from the continental United States in less than two hours.”

And finally in the exosphere,

  • In April 2010, the Pentagon launched the X-37B ‘space drone’ that orbited 250 miles above the earth.
  • Satellites will be a prime target at the apex of this triple canopy–leading to the very potential of ‘star wars’.

The key contingency to realizing this triple canopy, however, is whether or not the military is able to integrate together all of its expanding combat domains – space, cyberspace, sky, sea, and land. DARPA is already building a wide-angle Space Surveillance Telescope (SST), which could be sited at bases ringing the globe for a quantum leap in “space surveillance.” Yet the potential to be overwhelmed by data is very real – and this will require an increase in those charged with managing surveillance streams.

By 2010, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency had 16,000 employees and a $5 billion budget. Head-quartered at Fort Belvoir, Virgina, its 8,500 staff manage the data that comes from “Predators, Reapers, U-2 spy planes, Global Hawks, X-37B space drones, Google Earth, Space Surveillance Telescopes, and orbiting satellites”. The gaps and blind-spots that will inevitably be part of this ocean of data are hard to ignore.

McCoy finishes by speculating as to how much of this future will come to pass. Will real-life events – friction – put a stop to the U.S. military’s grand plan, or will its technological mastery perpetuate its fractured, even waning global hegemony? Perhaps the more important question is will the U.S. be alone in fabricating the rules of an ‘old new’ geopolitical game–or will a range of other nation states alter the course of history to surprising, and perhaps no less deadly, ends?

What is certain for now is that ‘information’ will be critical in an arms race that moves through a three-dimensional and emergent battlespace, and belongs to a history that lives on in a digital age.

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2 Responses to A Deadly Atmosphere: The Emerging Dronification of Space

  1. Pingback: The Final Frontier: Garrisoning Outer Space | Understanding Empire

  2. Pingback: Police Drones and Autonomy | Understanding Empire

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