While the U.S.’ program of extrajudicial-killings-by-drone is currently underwritten by a land-based infrastructure of remote outposts called “lily pads” that house a skeletal staff, the ocean will increasingly serve as a platform for launching remotely piloted planes.
There are a number of geopolitical push factors for this shift to the sea.
- First, about 98% of the world’s land area lies within 900 nautical miles of ocean coastlines, and using water as a global perimeter is a quick and efficient platform for launching drones “everywhere” and with short-notice.
- Second, the increased autonomy and flying capabilities of next-generation UAVs means that taking-off and landing on a small airstrip is an increasingly feasible option.
- Third, the Realpolitik of Chinese “containment” in the South and East China seas will see U.S. fleets drift East in the much discussed “Asia pivot” that began in early 2012.
- Fourth, launching from the ocean (read: international waters) circumvents the necessity of renting an airbase from a host country – bypassing the legal need for “status of force” agreements.
- Fifth, and more generally, the sanctity of “sovereignty” is becoming ever more contingent on a host nation’s territorial integrity – that is, its ability to exercise control across the extent of its territory. While this has always been somewhat of a “fiction” in international relations, it is frequently mobilized as a prima facie justification for small-scale intervention.
A story posted on the BBC confirms the military-industrial-complex’s rush to the ocean. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) said it needed to increase its airborne “surveillance and reconnaissance”. The new project has been called “Tern” for “Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node” – after a sea bird known for its long-flight endurance.
Darpa programme manager Daniel Patt, said: “Enabling small ships to launch and retrieve long-endurance UAVs on demand would greatly expand our situational awareness and our ability to quickly and flexibly engage in hotspots over land or water.”He added: “It is like having a falcon return to the arm of any person equipped to receive it, instead of to the same static perch every time
The ocean, then, combined with state-of-the-art robotics, will be instrumental in a program of global military containment: from land-to-sea-to-skies, drones are fundamentally rewiring the conduct of military violence, and its geographic logics. While Empires have always criss-crossed the planet with various machines and contraptions, from longbows to gunboats, the geopolitical age of today – what I have elsewhere called the “Predator Empire” – has a distinctly “Terminator” quality to it, and reality is rapidly overtaking science-fiction’s ability for satire.