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     Nov 15, 2012


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DISPATCHES FROM AMERICA
US moves above battleship warfare
By Alfred W McCoy

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 US Cyber Command (CYBERCOM), with headquarters at Fort 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 banks handling Iranian money.

A robotic information regime
As with the Philippine Insurrection and the Vietnam War, the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have served as the catalyst for a new information regime, fusing aerospace, cyberspace, biometrics, and robotics into an apparatus of potentially unprecedented power. In 2012, after years of ground warfare in both countries and the continuous expansion of the Pentagon budget, the Obama administration announced a leaner future defense strategy. It included a 14% cut in future infantry strength to be compensated for by an increased emphasis on investments in the dominions of outer space and cyberspace, particularly in what the administration calls "critical space-based capabilities."

By 2020, this new defense architecture should theoretically be able to integrate space, cyberspace, and terrestrial combat through robotics for - so the claims go - the delivery of seamless information for lethal action.

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 21st century, just as the British Empire once ruled from the seas and the Cold War American imperium exercised its global reach via airpower.

As Washington seeks to surveil the globe from space, the world might well ask: just how high is national sovereignty? Absent any international agreement about the vertical extent of sovereign airspace (since a conference on international air law, convened in Paris in 1910, failed), some puckish Pentagon lawyer might reply: only as high as you can enforce it.

Washington has filled this legal void with a secret executive matrix - operated by the CIA and the clandestine Special Operations Command - that assigns names arbitrarily, without any judicial oversight, to a classified "kill list" that means silent, sudden death from the sky for terror suspects across the Muslim world.

Although US plans for space warfare remain highly classified, it is possible to assemble the pieces of this aerospace puzzle by trolling the Pentagon's websites, and finding many of the key components in technical descriptions at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). As early as 2020, the Pentagon hopes to patrol the entire globe ceaselessly, relentlessly via a triple canopy space shield reaching from stratosphere to exosphere, driven by drones armed with agile missiles, linked by a resilient modular satellite system, monitored through a telescopic panopticon, and operated by robotic controls.
At the lowest tier of this emerging US aerospace shield, within striking distance of Earth in the lower stratosphere, the Pentagon is building an armada of 99 Global Hawk drones equipped with high-resolution cameras capable of surveilling all terrain within a 100-mile radius, electronic sensors to intercept communications, efficient engines for continuous 24-hour flights, and eventually Triple Terminator missiles to destroy targets below.

By late 2011, the Air Force and the CIA had already ringed the Eurasian land mass with a network of 60 bases for drones armed with Hellfire missiles and GBU-30 bombs, allowing air strikes against targets just about anywhere in Europe, Africa, or Asia.

The sophistication of the technology at this level was exposed in December 2011 when one of the CIA's RQ-170 Sentinels came down in Iran. Revealed was a bat-winged drone equipped with radar-evading stealth capacity, active electronically scanned array radar, and advanced optics "that allow operators to positively identify terror suspects from tens of thousands of feet in the air".

If things go according to plan, in this same lower tier at altitudes up to 12 miles unmanned aircraft such as the "Vulture", with solar panels covering its massive 400-foot wingspan, will be patrolling the globe ceaselessly for up to five years at a time with sensors for "unblinking" surveillance, and possibly missiles for lethal strikes.

Establishing the viability of this new technology, NASA's solar-powered aircraft Pathfinder, with a 100-foot wingspan, reached an altitude of 71,500 feet altitude in 1997, and its fourth-generation successor the "Helios" flew at 97,000 feet with a 247-foot wingspan in 2001, two miles higher than any previous aircraft.

For the next tier above the Earth, in the upper stratosphere, DARPA and the Air Force are collaborating in the development of the Falcon Hypersonic Cruise Vehicle. Flying at an altitude of 20 miles, it 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". Although the first test launches in April 2010 and August 2011 crashed midflight, they did reach an amazing 13,000 miles per hour, 22 times the speed of sound, and sent back "unique data" that should help resolve remaining aerodynamic problems.

At the outer level of this triple-tier aerospace canopy, the age of space warfare dawned in April 2010 when the Pentagon quietly launched the X-37B space drone, an unmanned craft just 29 feet long, into an orbit 250 miles above the Earth. By the time its second prototype landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in June 2012 after a 15-month flight, this classified mission represented a successful test of "robotically controlled reusable spacecraft" and established the viability of unmanned space drones in the exosphere.

At this apex of the triple canopy, 200 miles above Earth where the space drones will soon roam, orbital satellites are the prime targets, a vulnerability that became obvious in 2007 when China used a ground-to-air missile to shoot down one of its own satellites. In response, the Pentagon is now developing the F-6 satellite system that will "decompose a large monolithic spacecraft into a group of wirelessly linked elements, or nodes [that increases] resistance to... a bad part breaking or an adversary attacking."

Keep in mind that the X-37B has a capacious cargo bay to carry missiles or future laser weaponry to knock out enemy satellites - in other words, the potential capability to cripple the communications of a future military rival like China, which will have its own global satellite system operational by 2020.

Ultimately, the impact of this third information regime will be shaped by the ability of the US military to integrate its array of global aerospace weaponry into a robotic command structure that would be capable of coordinating operations across all combat domains: space, cyberspace, sky, sea, and land.

To manage the surging torrent of information within this delicately balanced triple canopy, the system would, in the end, have to become self-maintaining through "robotic manipulator technologies", such as the Pentagon's FREND system that some day could potentially deliver fuel, provide repairs, or reposition satellites.

For a new global optic, DARPA is building the wide-angle Space Surveillance Telescope (SST), which could be sited at bases ringing the globe for a quantum leap in "space surveillance". The system would allow future space warriors to see the whole sky wrapped around the entire planet while seated before a single screen, making it possible to track every object in Earth orbit.

Operation of this complex worldwide apparatus will require, as one DARPA official explained in 2007, "an integrated collection of space surveillance systems - an architecture - that is leak-proof".

Thus, by 2010, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency had 16,000 employees, a $5 billion budget, and a massive $2 billion headquarters at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, with 8,500 staffers wrapped in electronic security - all aimed at coordinating the flood of surveillance data pouring in from Predators, Reapers, U-2 spy planes, Global Hawks, X-37B space drones, Google Earth, Space Surveillance Telescopes, and orbiting satellites.

By 2020 or thereafter - such a complex techno-system is unlikely to respect schedules - this triple canopy should be able to atomize a single "terrorist" with a missile strike after tracking his eyeball, facial image, or heat signature for hundreds of miles through field and favela, or blind an entire army by knocking out all ground communications, avionics, and naval navigation.

Technological dominion or techno-disaster?
Peering into the future, a still uncertain balance of forces offers two competing scenarios for the continuation of US 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 US preserving its global hegemony by militarized technology alone. Even if this robotic information regime could somehow check China's growing military power, the US 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 US global dominion.

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.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse's The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.

(Copyright 2012 Alfred W McCoy)

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