[Still image from NATIONAL BIRD © Ten Forward Films; the image is of the film’s re-enactment of the Uruzgan air strike based on the original transcript of the Predator crew’s radio traffic.]
I’ve been reading the chapter in Pierre Bélanger and Alexander Arroyo‘s Ecologies of Power that provides a commentary on what has become the canonical US air strike in Uruzgan, Afghanistan in February 2010 (‘Unmanned Aerial Systems: Sensing the ecology of remote operational environments’, pp. 267-320). In my own analysis of the strike I emphasised the production of
a de-centralised, distributed and dispersed geography of militarised vision whose fields of view expanded, contracted and even closed at different locations engaged in the administration of military violence. Far from being a concerted performance of Donna Haraway‘s ‘God-trick’ – the ability to see everything from nowhere – this version of networked war was one in which nobody had a clear and full view of what was happening.
Part of this can be attributed to technical issues – the different fields of view available on different platforms, the low resolution of infra-red imagery (which Andrew Cockburn claims registers a visual acuity of 20/200, ‘the legal definition of blindness in the United States’), transmission interruptions, and the compression of full-colour imagery to accommodate bandwidth pressure…
But it is also a matter of different interpretive fields. Peter Asaro cautions:
‘The fact that the members of this team all have access to high-resolution imagery of the same situation does not mean that they all ‘‘see’’ the same thing. The visual content and interpretation of the visual scene is the product of analysis and negotiation among the team, as well as the context given by the situational awareness, which is itself constructed.’
The point is a sharp one: different visualities jostle and collide, and in the transactions between the observers the possibility of any synoptic ‘God-trick’ disappears. But it needs to be sharpened, because different people have differential access to the distributed stream of visual feeds, mIRC and radio communications. Here the disposition of bodies combines with the techno-cultural capacity to make sense of what was happening to fracture any ‘common operating picture’.
Pierre and Alexander’s aim is to ‘disentangle’ the Electromagnetic Environment (EME), ‘the space and time in which communications occur and transmissions take place’, as a Hertzian landscape. The term is, I think, William J. Mitchell‘s in Me++:
‘Every point on the surface of the earth is now part of the Hertzian landscape – the product of innumerable transmissions and of the reflections and obstructions of those transmissions… The electronic terrain that we have constructed is an intricate, invisible landscape.’
(Other writers – and artists – describe what Anthony Dunne called Hertzian space).
The Hertzian landscape is often advertised – I use the world deliberately – as an isotropic plane. Here, for example, is how one commercial company describes its activations (and its own product placement within that landscape) in a scenario that, in part, parallels the Uruzgan strike:
A bobcat growls over the speaker, and Airmen from the 71st Expeditionary Air Control Squadron [at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar] spring into action within the darkened confines of the Battlespace Command and Control (C2) Center, better known as ‘Pyramid Control.’
This single audio cue alerts the Weapons Director that an unplanned engagement with hostile force – referred to as Troops in Contact, or TIC – has occurred somewhere in Afghanistan. On the Weapons Director’s computer monitor a chat room window ashes to distinguish itself from the dozens of rooms he monitors continuously.
More than a thousand kilometers away, a Joint Terminal Attack Controller on the ground has called for a Close Air Support (CAS) aircraft to assist the friendly forces now under assault. The Weapons Director has minutes to move remotely piloted vehicles away from the CAS aircraft’s ight path, to de-conict the air support and ground re from other aircraft, and to provide an update on hostile activity to all concerned.
The Weapons Director has numerous communication methods at his disposal, including VoIP and tactical radio to quickly get the critical information to operators throughout southwest Asia and across the world, including communicating across differently classied networks. This enables key participants to assess the situation and to commence their portions of the mission in parallel.
In practice, the Hertzian landscape is no isotropic plane. Its heterogeneous in space and inconstant in time, and it has multiple, variable and even mobile terrestrial anchor points: some highly sophisticated and centralised (like the Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid), others improvisational, even jerry-rigged (see above), and yet others wholly absent (in the Uruzgan case the Joint Terminal Attack Controller with the Special Forces Detachment had no ROVER, a militarized laptop, and so he was unable to receive the video stream from the Predator).
Pierre and Alexander provide an ‘inventory of interferences’ that affected the Uruzgan strike:
‘Saturating the battlefield with multiple electro-magnetic signals from multiple sources, a Hertzian landscape begins to emerge in relief. In this sense, it is interference – rather than clarity of signal – that best describes a synoptic and saturated environment according to the full repertoire of agencies and affects through which it is dynamically composed, transformed and reconstituted.’ (p. 276)
In fact, they don’t work with the ‘full repertoire of agencies’ because, like most commentators, their analysis is confined to the transcript of radio communications between the aircrews tracking the vehicles and the Joint Terminal Attack Controller on the ground. Although this excludes testimony from the ground staff in superior command posts (‘operations centres’) in Kandahar and Bagram and from those analysing the video feeds in the continental United States, these actors were subject to the same interferences: but their effects were none the less different. The catastrophic air strike, as Mitchell almost said, was ‘smeared across multiple sites’… a ‘smearing’ because the time and space in which it was produced was indistinct and inconstant, fractured and febrile.
Here, in summary form, are the interferences Pierre and Alexander identify, an inventory which they claim ‘renders the seemingly invisible and neutral space of the electromagnetic environment extremely social and deeply spatial’ (p. 319). It does that for sure, but the the exchanges they extract from the transcripts do not always align with the general interferences they enumerate – and, as you’ll see, I’m not sure that all of them constitute ‘interferences’.
(1) Thermal interference: The Predator started tracking the three vehicles while it was still dark and relied on infrared imagery to do so (so did the AC-130 which preceded them: see the images above). Movement turns out to be ‘the key signature that differentiates an intensive landscape of thermal patterns into distinct contours and forces’, but it was not only the movement of the vehicles that mattered. The crew also strained to identify the occupants of the vehicles and any possible weapons – hence the Sensor Operator’s complaint that ‘the only way I’ve ever been able to see a rifle is if they move them around when they’re holding them’ – and the interpretation of the imagery introduced ‘novel semiotic complexities, discontinuities and indeterminacies’ (p. 280).
(2) Temporal interference: Times throughout the radio exchanges were standardised to GMT (‘Zulu time’), though this was neither the time at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada (-8 hours) nor in Uruzgan (+4 1/2 hours). Hence all of those involved were juggling between multiple time zones, and the Sensor Operator flipped between IR and ‘full Day TV’. ‘Yet this technical daylighting of the world [the recourse to Zulu time] is not always a smooth operation, always smuggling back in local, contingent temporalities into universal time from all sides’ (p. 281).
(3) Electromagnetic interference: The participants were juggling multiple forms of communication too – the troops on the ground used multi-band radios (MBITRs), for example, while the aircrew had access to secure military chatrooms (mIRC) to communicate with bases in the continental United States and in Afghanistan and with other aircraft but not with the troops on the ground, while the screeners analysing the video stream had no access to the radio communications between the Ground Force Commander and the Predator crew – and the transcripts reveal multiple occasions when it proved impossible to maintain ‘multiple lines of communication across the spectrum against possible comms failure.’ But this was not simply a matter of interruption: it was also, crucially, a matter of information in one medium not being made available in another (though at one point, long before the strike, the Predator pilot thought he was on the same page as the screeners: ‘I’ll make a radio call and I’ll look over [at the chatroom] and they will have said the same thing.’)
(4) Informational interference: The transcript reveals multiple points of view on what was being seen – and once the analysis is extended beyond the transcript to those other operations centres the information overload (sometimes called ‘helmet fire’) is compounded.
(5) Altitudinal, meteorologic interference: The Predator’s altitude was not a constant but was changed to deconflict the airspace as other aircraft were moved into and out of the area; those changes were also designed to improve flight operations (remote platforms are notoriously vulnerable to changing weather conditions) and image quality. There were thus ‘highly choreographed negotiations of and between contingently constituted spatial volumes – airspace – and [electro-magnetic] spectral spaces, both exploiting and avoiding the thickened electromagnetic atmospheres of communications systems and storms alike’ (p. 288).
(6) Sensorial interference: When two strike aircraft (‘fast movers’) were sent to support the Special Forces, the Ground Force Commander ordered them out of the area in case they ‘burn’ (warn) the target; similarly, the OH-158 helicopters did not move in ‘low and slow’ to observe the three vehicles more closely in case that alerted their occupants.
‘While the acoustic space of [the Predator] personnel is characterised by speech and static, the occupation of spectral space generates another acoustic space for surface-bound targets of surveillance. Each aircraft bears a particular acoustic signature … [and] in the absence of visual contact the whines, whirs and wails of encroaching aircraft warn targets of the content of communications… These disparate acoustic spaces reveal the asymmetry of sensory perception and heightened awareness between the graphic (visual) and acoustic channels’ (p. 289).
That asymmetry was accentuated because, as Nasser Hussain so brilliantly observed, the video feeds from the Predator were silent movies: none of those watching had access to the conversations between the occupants of the vehicles, and the only soundtrack was provided by those watching from afar.
(7) Orbital interference: The crowded space of competing communications requires ‘specific orbital coordinations between patterns of “orbiting” (circling) aircraft and satellites’ (p. 292), but this is of necessity improvisational, involving multiple relays and frequently imperfect – as this exchange cited by Pierre and Alexander indicates (it also speaks directly to (3) above):
02:27 (Mission Intelligence Coordinator MIC): Alright we need to relay that.
02:27 (Pilot): Jag that Serpent 12 can hear Fox 24 on sat in (muffled) flying
02:27 (Pilot): Jag 25 [JTAC on the ground], Kirk97 [Predator callsign]
02:27 (Unknown):..Low thirties, I don’t care if you burn it
02:27 (Sensor): “I don’t care if you burn it”? That really must have been the other guys talking [presumably the ‘fast movers’]
02:27 (JAG 25): Kirk 97, Jag 25
02:28 (Pilot): Kirk 97, go ahead
02:28 (Pilot): Jag 25, Kirk 97
02:28 (JAG 25):(static) Are you trying to contact me, over?
0228 (Pilot): Jag 25, Kirk97, affirm, have a relay from SOTF KAF [Special Operations Task Force at Kandahar Airfield] fires [Fires Officer], he wants you to know that he uhh cannot talk on SAT 102. Serpent 12 can hear Fox 24 on SATCOM, and is trying to reply. Also ,the AWT [Aerial Weapons Team] is spooling up, and ready for the engagement. How copy?
02:28 (JAG 25): Jag copies all
02:29(Pilot): Can’t wait till this actually happens, with all this coordination and *expletive*
(agreement noises from crew)
02:29 (Pilot): Thanks for the help, you’re doing a good job relaying everything in (muffled), MC. Appreciate it
(8) Semantic interference: To expedite communications the military relies on a series of acronyms and shorthands (‘brevity codes’), but as these proliferate they can obstruct communication and even provoke discussion about their meaning and implication (hence the Mission Intelligence Controller: ‘God, I forget all my acronyms’); sometimes, too, non-standard terms are introduced that add to the confusion and uncertainty.
(9) Strategic, tactical interference: Different aerial platforms have different operational envelopes and these both conform to and extend ‘a strategic stratigraphy of airspace and spectral space alike’ (p. 296). I confess I don’t see how this constitutes ‘interference’.
(10) Occupational interference: The knowledge those viewing the Full Motion Video feeds bring to the screen is not confined to their professional competences but extends into vernacular knowledges (about the identification of the three vehicles, for example): ‘The casual fluency with which particular visuals signals are discussed, interpreted and mined for cultural information shows a broad base of vernacular technical knowledge’ (p. 297). The example Pierre and Alexander give relates to a discussion over the makes of the vehicles they are tracking, but again I don’t see how this constitutes ‘interference’ – unless that vernacular knowledge collides with professional competences. The most obvious examples of such a collision are not technical at all but reside in the assumptions and prejudices the crew brought to bear on the actions of those they were observing. Some were ostensibly tactical – the investigation report noted that the crew ‘made or changed key assessments [about the intentions of those they were observing] that influenced the decision to destroy the vehicles’ and yet they had ‘neither the training nor the tactical expertise to make these assessments’ – while others were cultural (notably, a marked Orientalism).
(11) Physiological interference: Here Pierre and Alexander cite the corporeality of those operating the Predator: the stresses of working long shifts (and the boredom), the rest breaks that interrupt the ‘unblinking stare’, and the like.
(12) Organizational interference: At one point the Sensor Operator fantasised about having ‘a whole fleet of Preds up here… ripple firing missiles right and left’ but – seriously, ironically, grumpily: who knows? – adds ‘we’re not killers, we are ISR.’
Pierre and Alexander see a jibing of these two missions (though whether that justifies calling this ‘interference’ is another question): ‘Despite the blurry, hairline differences between [Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance] and kill-chain operations, the ontologies of informational and kinetic environments make for different occupational worlds altogether’ (p. 301). I’m not sure about that; one of the key roles of Predators – as in this case – has been to mediate strikes carried out by other aircraft, and while those mediations are frequently complicated and fractured (as Pierre and Alexander’s inventory shows) I don’t think this amounts to occupying ‘different occupational worlds’ let alone provoking ‘interference’ between them.
(13) Geographic, altitudinal interference: This refers to the problems of a crowded airspace and the need for deconfliction (hence the pilot’s call: ‘I got us new airspace so even if they do keep heading west we can track them’).
(14) Cognitive interference: Remote operations are characterised by long, uneventful periods of watching the screen interrupted by shorter periods of intense, focused strike activity – a cyclical process that Pierre and Alexander characterise as an ‘orbital tension of acceleration and deceleration [that] lies at the heart of the killchain’ that profoundly affects ‘cognitive processing in and of the volatile operational environment’ (p. 305). For them, this is epitomised when the Mission Intelligence Coordinator typed ‘Killchain’ into mIRC and immediately cleared the chat window for all but essential, strike-related communications.
(15) Topographic, organizational interference: Pierre and Alexander claim that ‘the complex relief of the ground, that is terrain and topography, is magnified in remote-split operations’ – this is presumably a reference to the restricted field of view of those flying the platforms – and that this is paralleled by the different levels of command and control to which the crews are required to respond: ‘navigating competing command pyramids is taken in stride with maneuvering around mountains’ (p. 308). These are important observations, but I don’t see what is gained by the juxtaposition; in the Uruzgan case the Predator was navigating mountainous terrain (‘You got a mountain coming into view,’ the Safety Observer advises, ‘keep it in a turn’) but the crew was not responding to directives from multiple operations centres. In fact, that was part of the problem: until the eleventh hour staff officers were content to watch and record but made no attempt to intervene in the operation.
(16) Demographic, physiologic interference: Here Pierre and Alexander cite both the composition of the crews operating the remote platforms – predominantly young white men who, so they say, exhibit different inclinations to those of ‘conventional’ Air Force pilots – and the repeated identification of the occupants of the suspect vehicles as ‘Military-Aged Males (‘statistical stereotyping’) (p. 309).
[Still image from NATIONAL BIRD © Ten Forward Films]
(17) Motile interference: Pierre and Alexander treat the crew’s transition from a gung-ho desire to strike and an absolute confidence in target identification to confusion and disquiet once the possibility of civilian casualties dawns on them as a disjunctive moment in which they struggle to regain analytical and affective control: ‘The revelation of misinterpretation exposes the persistence of interference all along, and generates its own form of cognitive shock’ (p. 312). This feeds directly into:
(18) Operational, ecological interference: As the crew absorbed new information from the pilots of the attack helicopters about the presence of women and children in the vehicles they registered the possibility of a (catastrophic) mistake, and so returned to their ISR mission – taking refuge in their sensors, what they could and could not have seen, and bracketing the strike itself – in an attempt to screen out the discordant information: ‘The optic that initially occasioned the first identifiable instances of misinterpretation is re-activated as a kind of prosthetic inducer of cognitive distance’ (p. 313). The exchange below (beautifully dissected by Lorraine de Volo) captures this almost therapeutic recalibration perfectly:
(19) Political, epistemological interference: Here the target is the cascade of redactions that runs through the unclassified version of the transcripts (and, by extension, the investigation report as a whole). ‘That redaction and the strategic project it serves – secrecy in the form of classification – is not necessarily deployed electromagnetically does not mean its effects are limited to analog media’ since the objective is to command and control a whole ‘ecology of communication'(p. 316) (see my posts here and here).
This inventory is derived from a limited set of transactions, as I’ve said, but it’s also limited by the sensing and communication technology that was available to the participants at the time, so some caution is necessary in extrapolating these findings. But the general (and immensely important) argument Pierre and Alexander make is that the catastrophic strike cannot be attributed to ‘miscommunication’ – or at any rate, not to miscommunication considered as somehow apart from and opposed to communication. Hence their focus on interference:
‘Defined by moments of incoherence or interruption of a dominant signal that is itself a form of interference, interferences can take on different and often banal forms such as radio static, garbled signals, forgotten acronyms, misread gestures or even time lapses, which in the remote operational theaters of military missions result in disastrous actions. Moreover, interference indexes the common media, forms, processes, and spaces connecting apparently disparate communication and signals across distinct material and operational environments.
In this sense, interference is not a subversion of communication but rather a constitutive and essential part of it. Interference is thus both inhibitor and instigator. Interference makes lines of communication read, alternatively, as field of interactions. In this expanded field, interference may complexify by cancelling out communications, blocking or distorting signals, but conversely it may also amplify and augment both the content of sensed information and sensory receptions of the environment of communications. Interference is what makes sensing ecologies make sense.’ (p. 318)
They also emphasise, more than most of us, that the ‘networks’ that enable drone strikes are three-dimensional (so reducing them to a planar map does considerable violence to the violence), that the connections and communications on which they rely are imperfect and inconstant in time and space, and that these extend far beyond any conventional (or even unconventional) ‘landscape’. In general, I think, the critical analysis of drone warfare needs to be thickened in at least two directions: to address what happens on the ground, including the preparation of the ground, so to speak; and to reconstruct the fraught geopolitics of satellite communications and bandwidth that so materially shapes what is seen and not seen and what is heard and not heard. More to come on both.