Beyond Bayonets and Battleships

Space Warfare and the Future of U.S. Global Power – Published on ZNet, by Alfred W. McCoy, Nov. 9, 2012.

It’s 2025 and an American “triple canopy” of advanced surveillance and armed drones fills the heavens from the lower- to the exo-atmosphere. A wonder of the modern age, it can deliver its weaponry anywhere on the planet with staggering speed, knock out an enemy’s satellite communications system, or follow individuals biometrically for great distances. Along with the country’s advanced cyberwar capacity, it’s also the most sophisticated militarized information system ever created and an insurance policy for U.S. global dominion deep into the twenty-first century. It’s the future as the Pentagon imagines it; it’s under development; and Americans know nothing about it. 

They are still operating in another age. “Our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917,” complained Republican candidate Mitt Romney during the last presidential debate.

With words of withering mockery, President Obama shot back: “Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed… the question is not a game of Battleship, where we’re counting ships. It’s what are our capabilities.”

Obama later offered just a hint of what those capabilities might be: “What I did was work with our joint chiefs of staff to think about, what are we going to need in the future to make sure that we are safe?… We need to be thinking about cyber security. We need to be talking about space.” … //

… America’s First Information Revolution:

This distinctive U.S. system of imperial information gathering (and the surveillance and war-making practices that go with it) traces its origins to some brilliant American innovations in the management of textual, statistical, and visual data. Their sum was nothing less than a new information infrastructure with an unprecedented capacity for mass surveillance.

During two extraordinary decades, American inventions like Thomas Alva Edison’s quadruplex telegraph (1874), Philo Remington’s commercial typewriter (1874), Melvil Dewey’s library decimal system (1876), and Herman Hollerith’s patented punch card (1889) created synergies that led to the militarized application of America’s first information revolution. To pacify a determined guerrilla resistance that persisted in the Philippines for a decade after 1898, the U.S. colonial regime — unlike European empires with their cultural studies of “Oriental civilizations” — used these advanced information technologies to amass detailed empirical data on Philippine society. 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.

When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, the “father of U.S. military intelligence” Colonel Ralph Van Deman drew upon security methods he had developed years before in the Philippines to found the Army’s Military Intelligence Division. He recruited a staff that quickly grew from one (himself) to 1,700, deployed some 300,000 citizen-operatives to compile more than a million pages of surveillance reports on American citizens, and laid the foundations for a permanent domestic surveillance apparatus.

A version of this system rose to unparalleled success during World War II when Washington established the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) as the nation’s first worldwide espionage agency. Among its nine branches, Research & Analysis recruited a staff of nearly 2,000 academics who amassed 300,000 photographs, a million maps, and three million file cards, which they deployed in an information system via “indexing, cross-indexing, and counter-indexing” to answer countless tactical questions.

Yet by early 1944, the OSS found itself, in the words of historian Robin Winks, “drowning under the flow of information.”  Many of the materials it had so carefully collected were left to molder in storage, unread and unprocessed. Despite its ambitious global reach, this first U.S. information regime, absent technological change, might well have collapsed under its own weight, slowing the flow of foreign intelligence that would prove so crucial for America’s exercise of global dominion after World War II.

Computerizing Vietnam: … //

… The Global War on Terror:

As it found itself at the edge of defeat in the attempted pacification of two complex societies, Afghanistan and Iraq, Washington responded in part by adapting new technologies of electronic surveillance, biometric identification, and drone warfare — all of which are now melding into what may become an information regime far more powerful and destructive than anything that has come before.

After six years of a failing counterinsurgency effort in Iraq, the Pentagon discovered the power of biometric identification and electronic surveillance to pacify the country’s sprawling cities. It then built a biometric database with more than a million Iraqi fingerprints and iris scans that U.S. patrols on the streets of Baghdad could access instantaneously by satellite link to a computer center in West Virginia.

When President Obama took office and launched his “surge,” escalating the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, that country became a new frontier for testing and perfecting such biometric databases, as well as for full-scale drone war in both that country and the Pakistani tribal borderlands, the latest wrinkle in a technowar already loosed by the Bush administration. This meant accelerating technological developments in drone warfare that had largely been suspended for two decades after the Vietnam War.

Launched as an experimental, unarmed surveillance aircraft in 1994, the Predator drone was first deployed in 2000 for combat surveillance under the CIA’s “Operation Afghan Eyes.” By 2011, the advanced MQ-9 Reaper drone, with “persistent hunter killer” capabilities, was heavily armed with missiles and bombs as well as sensors that could read disturbed dirt at 5,000 feet and track footprints back to enemy installations. Indicating the torrid pace of drone development, between 2004 and 2010 total flying time for all unmanned vehicles rose from just 71 hours to 250,000 hours.

By 2009, the Air Force and the CIA were already deploying a drone armada of at least 195 Predators and 28 Reapers inside Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan — and it’s only grown since. These collected and transmitted 16,000 hours of video daily, and from 2006-2012 fired hundreds of Hellfire missiles that killed an estimated 2,600 supposed insurgents inside Pakistan’s tribal areas. Though the second-generation Reaper drones might seem stunningly sophisticated, one defense analyst has called them “very much Model T Fords.” Beyond the battlefield, there are now some 7,000 drones in the U.S. armada of unmanned aircraft, including 800 larger missile-firing drones. By funding its own fleet of 35 drones and borrowing others from the Air Force, the CIA has moved beyond passive intelligence collection to build a permanent robotic paramilitary capacity.

In the same years, another form of information warfare came, quite literally, online. Over two administrations, there has been continuity in the development of acyberwarfare capability at home and abroad. Starting in 2002, President George W. Bush illegally authorized the National Security Agency to scan countless millions of electronic messages with its top-secret “Pinwale” database. Similarly, the FBIstarted an Investigative Data Warehouse that, by 2009, held a billion individual records.

Under Presidents Bush and Obama, defensive digital surveillance has grown into an offensive “cyberwarfare” capacity, which has already been deployed against Iran in history’s first significant cyberwar. In 2009, the Pentagon formed U.S. Cyber Command (CYBERCOM), with headquarters at Ft. Meade, Maryland, and a cyberwarfare center at Lackland Air Base in Texas, staffed by 7,000 Air Force employees. Two years later, it declared cyberspace an “operational domain” like air, land, or sea, and began putting its energy into developing a cadre of cyber-warriors capable of launching offensive operations, such as a variety of attacks on the computerized centrifuges in Iran’s nuclear facilities and Middle Eastern bankshandling Iranian money.

A Robotic Information Regime: … //

… Technological Dominion or Techno-Disaster?

Peering into the future, a still uncertain balance of forces offers two competing scenarios for the continuation of U.S. global power. If all or much goes according to plan, sometime in the third decade of this century the Pentagon will complete a comprehensive global surveillance system for Earth, sky, and space using robotics to coordinate a veritable flood of data from biometric street-level monitoring, cyber-data mining, a worldwide network of Space Surveillance Telescopes, and triple canopy aeronautic patrols. Through agile data management of exceptional power, this system might allow the United States a veto of global lethality, an equalizer for any further loss of economic strength.

However, as in Vietnam, history offers some pessimistic parallels when it comes to the U.S. preserving its global hegemony by militarized technology alone. Even if this robotic information regime could somehow check China’s growing military power, the U.S. might still have the same chance of controlling wider geopolitical forces with aerospace technology as the Third Reich had of winning World War II with its “super weapons” — V-2 rockets that rained death on London and Messerschmitt Me-262 jets that blasted allied bombers from Europe’s skies. Complicating the future further, the illusion of information omniscience might incline Washington to more military misadventures akin to Vietnam or Iraq, creating the possibility of yet more expensive, draining conflicts, from Iran to the South China Sea.

If the future of America’s world power is shaped by actual events rather than long-term economic trends, then its fate might well be determined by which comes first in this century-long cycle: military debacle from the illusion of technological mastery, or a new technological regime powerful enough to perpetuate U.S. global dominion.
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  • (Alfred W. McCoy is the J.R.W. Smail Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A TomDispatch regular, he is the lead author of Endless Empire: Spain’s Retreat, Europe’s Eclipse, America’s Decline (University of Wisconsin, 2012), which is the source for much of the material in this essay.
  • This article first appeared on TomDispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project, author of The End of Victory Culture, as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. His latest book is The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s – Haymarket Books).

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