Matters of definition

Since my post on the use of drones to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance over Iraq and Syria I’ve been thinking about the image stream provided by Predators and Reapers.  Then I used an image from what I think must be an MQ-9 Reaper operated by France which was in full colour and – this is the important part – in high definition.  Over the weekend the New York Times published a report, culled from the Italian magazine L’Espresso, which – together with the accompanying video clip (the link is to the Italian original not the Times version) – confirmed the power of HD full motion video, this time from a Reaper operated by Italy:

The footage … begins with grainy black-and-white images of an airstrike on what appears to have been a checkpoint on a road in northern Iraq, beneath a huge black flag.

Then there is something altogether different: high-resolution, color video of four distinct armed figures walking out of a house and along the streets of a town. At one stage, the picture suddenly zooms in on two of the suspected militants to reveal that one of them is almost certainly a child, propping a rifle on his shoulder that indicates how small he is relative to the man next to him. The images are so clear that even the shadows of the figures can be examined.

Italian Drone video BItalian drone video CItalian drone video AItalian drone video DItalian drone video I

But the significance of all this is less straightforward than it might appear.

First, not all drones have this HD capability.  We know from investigations into civilian casualty incidents in Afghanistan that the feeds from Predators but also early model (‘Block’) Reapers are frequently grainy and imprecise.  Sean Davies reports that the video compression necessary for data transmission squeezed 560 x 480 pixel resolution images into 3.2 MBps at 30 frames per second whereas the newer (Block 5) Reapers provide 1280 x 720 pixel resolution images resolution images at 6.4 MBps.  The enhanced video feeds can be transmitted not only to the Ground Control Stations from which the aircraft are flown – and those too have been upgraded (see image below) – but also to operations centres monitoring the missions and, crucially, to ruggedized laptops (‘ROVERs’) used by special forces and other troops on the ground.

ground-control-stations

The significance of HD full-motion video is revealed in the slide below, taken from a briefing on ‘small footprint operations’ in Somalia and Yemen prepared in February 2013 and published as part of The Intercept‘s Drone Papers, which summarises its impact on the crucial middle stage of the ‘find, fix, finish‘ cycle of targeted killing:

HD FMV impact on Fix

As you can see, HD FMV was involved in as many as 72 per cent of the successful ‘fixes’ and was absent from 88 per cent of the unsuccessful ones.

Second, Eyal Weizman cautions that the image stream shown on the Italian video was captured ‘either very early or very late in the day.  Without shadows we could not identify these as weapons at all.’  Infra-red images captured at night could obviously not provide definition of this quality, but even so-called ‘Day TV’ would not show clear shadows at most times of the day. In Eyal’s view, ‘showing these rare instances could skew our understanding of how much can be seen by drones and how clear what we see is.’

Third, no matter how high the resolution of the video feeds, we need to remember that their interpretation is a techno-cultural process.  One of the figures shown in the Italian video ‘is almost certainly a child’, reports the New York Times.  So bear in mind this exchange between the crew of a Predator circling over three vehicles travelling through the mountains of Uruzgan in February 2010 (see also here and here):

1:07 􏰀(MC):􏰀 screener􏰀 said 􏰀at least 􏰀one 􏰀child 􏰀near 􏰀SUV􏰀

1:07 􏰀(Sensor):􏰀 bull􏰀 (expletive 􏰀deleted)…where!?􏰀

1:07 􏰀(Sensor): 􏰀send 􏰀me 􏰀a 􏰀(expletive􏰀deleted) 􏰀still,􏰀􏰀 I􏰀 don’t 􏰀think 􏰀they 􏰀have 􏰀kids 􏰀out 􏰀at 􏰀this 􏰀hour, 􏰀I 􏰀know􏰀 they’re 􏰀shady 􏰀but􏰀 come􏰀 on􏰀

1:07􏰀 (Pilot):􏰀 at 􏰀least 􏰀one 􏰀child…􏰀Really?􏰀 Listing 􏰀the􏰀 MAM [Military-Aged Male], 􏰀uh, 􏰀that 􏰀means 􏰀he’s 􏰀guilty􏰀

1:07􏰀 (Sensor):􏰀 well 􏰀may be􏰀 a 􏰀teenager 􏰀but 􏰀I 􏰀haven’t􏰀 seen􏰀 anything 􏰀that 􏰀looked 􏰀that 􏰀short, 􏰀granted 􏰀they’e􏰀 all 􏰀grouped 􏰀up 􏰀here,􏰀 but.􏰀..

1:07 􏰀(MC): 􏰀They’re 􏰀reviewing􏰀

1:07 􏰀(Pilot):􏰀Yeah 􏰀review 􏰀that􏰀 (expletive 􏰀deleted)…why􏰀 didn’t 􏰀he 􏰀say􏰀 possible􏰀 child,􏰀 why􏰀 are􏰀 they􏰀 so 􏰀quick􏰀 to 􏰀call 􏰀(expletive􏰀 deleted) 􏰀kids 􏰀but􏰀 not 􏰀to 􏰀call 􏰀(expletive􏰀deleted) 􏰀a 􏰀rifle􏰀….

03:10 􏰀(Pilot):􏰀 And 􏰀Kirk􏰀97, 􏰀good 􏰀copy􏰀 on􏰀 that.􏰀 We 􏰀are 􏰀with 􏰀you.􏰀 Our 􏰀screener􏰀 updated􏰀 only􏰀 one􏰀 adolescent 􏰀so 􏰀that’s 􏰀one􏰀 double 􏰀digit􏰀 age 􏰀range.􏰀 How􏰀 Copy?􏰀

03:10 􏰀(JAG25):􏰀We’ll􏰀 pass 􏰀that 􏰀along 􏰀to 􏰀the 􏰀ground 􏰀force􏰀 commander.􏰀 But 􏰀like 􏰀I 􏰀said, 􏰀12 􏰁13 􏰀years 􏰀old 􏰀with􏰀 a 􏰀weapon 􏰀is􏰀 just 􏰀as􏰀 dangerous.􏰀􏰀

In other words – it’s more than a matter of high definition; it’s also a matter of political and cultural definition.

A lack of intelligence

Harim Air Strike MAP annotated

The second of the three recent US air strikes I’ve been looking at took place near Harim [Harem on the map above] in Syria on the night of 5-6 November 2014.  The report of the military investigation into allegations of civilian casualties is here.

The aircraft launched multiple strikes against two compounds which had been identified as sites used as meeting places for named (though redacted) terrorists and sites for the manufacture and storage of explosives by the al-Qaeda linked ‘Khorasan Group’ (if the scare-quotes puzzle you, compare here and here).

The compounds each contained several buildings and had previously been on a No Strike List under a category that includes civilian housing; they lost their protected status when ‘they were assessed as being converted to military use’ but ‘other residential and commercial structures were situated around both targets’.  An annotated image of the attack on the first compound is shown below:

Harim Air Strike on Compound 001

Although the report argues that ‘the targets were engaged in the early morning hours when the risk to civilians was minimized’ – a strange statement, since most civilians would have been asleep inside those ‘residential structures’ – US Central Command subsequently received open-source reports of from three to six civilian casualties, together with still and video imagery.  By the end of December 2014 the Combined Joint Task Force conducting ‘Operation Inherent Resolve’ had completed a preliminary ‘credibility assessment’ of the claims and found sufficient evidence to establish a formal investigation into the allegations of civilian casualties.  The investigating officer delivered his final report on 13 February 2015.

He also had access to a report from the Syrian Network for Human Rights that provided a ground-level perspective (including video) unavailable to the US military.  Its narrative is different from US Central Command, identifying the targets as being associated with An-Nussra:

The warplanes launched, at first, four missiles that hit three military points, which are located next to each other, in the northeast of the town:

1 – The Agricultural Bank, which is used by An-Nussra front as a center.
2 – The central prison checkpoint, where An-Nussra fighters were stationed.
3 – An ammunition depot in the same area.

The shelling destroyed and burned the Agricultural Bank’s building completely in addition to damaging a number of building nearby. Furthermore, a number of cars were burned while a series of explosions occurred after an explosion in the ammunition depot..
Afterwards, the warplanes targeted a fourth center with two missiles. [This target] was a building by an old deserted gas station located near the industrial school in the south of the town. The shelling destroyed the center completely as well as the gas station in addition to severely damaging the surrounding buildings. Harem residents were aided by the civil-defense teams to save people from underneath the rubble.

SNHR documented the killing of two young girls; one could not be unidentified but the other was Daniya, aged 5, who was killed along with her father who was said to be one of the An-Nussra fighters living in a house near the Agricultural Bank.  Daniya’s mother and her brother Saeed, aged 7, were seriously wounded.

The report also included post-strike imagery from YouTube videos and Twitter feeds:

Harim VIDEO 1 jpeg

Harim VIDEO 2 jpeg

In contrast to the report on the air strike in Iraq I discussed in my previous post, this one includes no details of the attack, nor the procedures through which it was authorised and conducted – though we do know that there is a considerable military bureaucracy behind all these strikes, especially in the administration of what in this case was clearly a pre-planned rather than emergent target.  For more on the bureaucratisation of targeting, incidentally, see  Astrid Nordin and Dan Öberg, ‘Targeting the ontology of war: From Clausewitz to Baudrillard’, Millennium 43 (2) (2015) 392-410; analytically it’s right on the mark, I think, and I’ll be advancing similar arguments in my Tanner Lectures – though stripped of any reference to Baudrillard…

But there is one revealing sentence in the report.  Although the investigating officer had no doubt that the Harim strikes were perfectly legal, everything worked like clockwork and nothing need be changed –

Harim conclusion

– there is nevertheless a recommendation for ‘sustained ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] whenever practicable based on operational requirements, to ensure that no civilians are entering or exiting a facility.’  The clear implication is that these strikes – pre-planned, remember: these were not fleeting targets of opportunity – were not supported by real-time ISR.  When you add to that the reliance placed by the investigation on ground imagery from YouTube and Twitter, you begin to realise how little the US military and its allies must know about many of the targets they strike in Iraq and Syria.  (I might add that the US has not been averse to using Twitter feeds for targeting too: see Robert Gregory‘s compelling discussion in Clean bombs and dirty wars: air power in Kosovo and Libya, where he describes the central role played by Twitter feeds from Libyan rebels in identifying targets for the US Air Force and its NATO allies: by the closing months of the campaign France was deriving 80 per cent of its intelligence from social media contacts on the ground).

All this gives the lie to the cheery ‘let ’em have it’ guff from Robert Caruso, commenting on US air strikes in Syria last September:

By relying so heavily on drones in our recent counter-terror campaigns we’ve been fighting with one hand tied behind our back. But a key to the success of Monday’s strikes was the use of manned aircraft with pilots who can seek out enemy targets and make on-the-spot decisions…

it’s time to drop the drone fetish, and the limitations it imposed, and go back to using manned airpower, which is more powerful and better suited to hunting down elusive targets like ISIS.

Regular readers will know that I’m not saying that drones are the answer, or that their ability to provide persistent, real-time, full-motion video feeds in high definition makes the battlespace transparent; on the contrary (see my ‘Angry Eyes’ posts here and especially here: more to come soon).

But the absence of their ISR capability can only make a bad situation worse.  In February, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center conceded that that US had not ‘closed the gap on where we need to be in terms of our understanding, with granularity, about what is going on on the ground in Syria.’  Indeed, during the first four months of this year ‘nearly 75 percent of U.S. bombing runs targeting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria [a total of more than 7,000 sorties] returned to base without firing any weapons’, and reports claimed that aircrews held their fire ‘mainly because of a lack of ground intelligence.’

Full-motion video cannot compensate for that absence, of course, and in any case there are serious limitations on the number of ISR orbits that are possible over Iraq and Syria given the demands for drones over Afghanistan and elsewhere: each orbit requires three to four aircraft to provide 24/7 coverage, and the global maximum the US Air Force can provide using its Predators and Reapers varies between 55 and 65 orbits (or ‘combat air patrols’).

In late August 2014 Obama authorised both manned and unmanned ISR flights over Syria, and since then the United States has been joined by the UK and France in deploying MQ-9 Reapers over Iraq and Syria, where their video feeds have helped to orchestrate missions carried out by conventional strike aircraft (see, for example, here).  In August 2015 France claimed that all its air strikes in Iraq had to be validated by ISR provided by a drone:

reaper-20150508

But that was in August, before Hollande threw caution to the winds and ramped up French air strikes in response to the Paris attacks in November – an escalation that relied on targeting packages supplied by the United States.

In any case, Predators and Reapers are also armed and in their ‘hunter-killer’ role they had executed around one quarter of all airstrikes conducted by the United States in Iraq and Syria by June 2015 and more than half the air strikes conducted by the UK in Iraq.  Although the UK only extended its bombing campaign against Islamic State to Syria this month, its Reapers had been entering Syrian airspace in steadily increasing numbers since November 2014 to provide ISR (in part, presumably, to enable the United States to orchestrate its air strikes) and in September 2015 it used one of them to carry out the UK’s first acknowledged targeted killing near Raqqa (see also here and here); the United States has also routinely used the aircraft in the extension of its multi-sited targeted killing program to Syria (see also here).

All this bombing, all this blood: and yet strategically remarkably little to show for it.   And all for a lack of intelligence…

Big Data and Bombs on Fifth Avenue

Big Data, No Thanks

James Bridle has posted a lightly edited version of the excellent presentation he gave to “Through Post-Atomic Eyes” in Toronto last month – Big Data, No Thanks – at his blog booktwo.  It’s an artful mix of text and images and, as always with James, both repay close scrutiny.

If you look at the situation we are in now, a couple of years after the Snowden revelations, most if not all of the activities which they uncovered have been, if not secretly authorised already, signed into law and continued without much fuss.

As Trevor Paglen has said: Wikileaks and the NSA have essentially the same political position: there are dark secrets at the heart of the world, and if we can only bring them to light, everything will magically be made better. One legitimises the other. Transparency is not enough – and certainly not when it operates in only one direction.  This process has also made me question my own practice and that of many others, because making the invisible visible is not enough either.

James talks about the ‘existential dread’ he feels caused not ‘by the shadow of the bomb, but by the shadow of data’:

It’s easy to feel, looking back, that we spent the 20th Century living in a minefield, and I think we’re still living in a minefield now, one where critical public health infrastructure runs on insecure public phone networks, financial markets rely on vulnerable, decades-old computer systems, and everything from mortgage applications to lethal weapons systems are governed by inscrutable and unaccountable softwares. This structural and existential threat, which is both to our individual liberty and our collective society, is largely concealed from us by commercial and political interests, and nuclear history is a good primer in how that has been standard practice for quite some time.

newyorker-720-loIt’s a much richer argument than these snippets can convey.  For me, the high spot comes when James talks about IBM’s Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator (really), which turns out to be the most explosive combination of secrecy and visibility that you could possibly imagine.

I’m not going to spoil it – go and read it for yourself, and then the title of this post will make horrible sense.  You can read more in George Dyson‘s absorbingly intricate account of Turing’s Cathedral: the origins of the digital universe (Allen Lane/Penguin, 2012).

Art in another age of mechanical destruction

Paglen (Untitled, Predators, Indian Springs)

Anthony Downey‘s beautifully illustrated and generously hyperlinked essay on The legacy of the war on terror for Tate Etc (34) (2015) is here.

For centuries artists have both responded to and reflected on political actions and events that shape society. Now they have risen to the challenge of questioning the moral ambiguity and culpability of governments waging the war on terror, whose methods may, according to this writer, have done more to weaken democracy than any terrorist.

The essay considers the art works of Trevor Paglen (see his Untitled, Predators, Indian Springs, above) Christoph Büchel and Gianni Motti, Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri, Gregor Schneider, (see his Passageway No 1 from White Torture below), Wafaa Bilal, Coco Fusco, Hasan Elahi and Gerhard Richter.

20150519_photo1

If you know Anthony’s previous work (for example his essay on ‘Exemplary subjects: Camps and the politics of representation’), or his Art and Politics now (2014), you will not be surprised to find that – as the image above suggests – there’s much in this essay about Guantanamo — but also much more besides.

Here is the Introduction:

In the months after the attacks on the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001 a significant number of artists and cultural practitioners compared the events, in all their visual impact and operatic pitching of good against evil, with a work of art. These comments were dismissed at the time as reactionary and in bad taste, but they did reveal an imminent desire to develop a degree of distance – be it aesthetic or otherwise – from the emotive, ‘spectacular’ and brutal realities that unfolded on that fateful day. In the months and years that followed, under the political logic of a so-called war on terror, we saw yet another unprecedented attack, this time on the legal systems protecting basic civil rights. The war on terror segued, in short order, into an assault on human rights. For some, terrorism has become the single biggest challenge facing democratically elected governments worldwide. For others, it is the political reaction to it that has done more to weaken democracy than any act of terror.

Executed as it was in the name of justice, the war on terror has resulted in a nominal state of emergency being declared across North America and Europe. Since 2001 we have witnessed the repeated suspension of due legal process, the revocation of constitutional law, the institutionalisation of torture, the withdrawal of civil rights, the deployment of mass surveillance, the routine collection of information on innocent citizens and arbitrary detention without trial for countless people worldwide.

Contemporary artists, in examining the ambiguity of this state of affairs, often create narratives and forms of speculative visual rhetoric that expose the anxieties surrounding these acts.

War against the people

I’ve long admired Jeff Halper‘s work with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (though to me, haunted by the passages from The poetics of place that Edward Said invokes in Orientalism,  ‘home demolition’s would carry even more resonance: it’s so much more than buildings that the Israelis so brutally turn to rubble).

ICAHD

Jeff’s classic, even canonical essay on ‘the matrix of control‘ (see also here) was a constant reference point for my chapters on occupied Palestine in The Colonial Present, and on my first visit to the West Bank I was part of a group that Jeff generously spent a day showing the materialities of military occupation and illegal colonisation: you think you know what you’re going to see, but all the reading in the world can’t prepare you for what Israel has done – and continues to do – to the people of Palestine.

the-matrix-of-control

So I’m really pleased to hear from Jeff that his new book, War against the people: Israel, the Palestinians and global pacification, will be out in September (from Pluto Press in the UK and via the University of Chicago Press in the USA):

Modern warfare has a new form. The days of international combat are fading. So how do major world powers maintain control over their people today?

HALPER War against the peopleWar Against the People is a disturbing insight into the new ways world powers such as the US, Israel, Britain and China forge war today. It is a subliminal war of surveillance and whitewashed terror, conducted through new, high-tech military apparatuses, designed and first used in Israel against the Palestinian population. Including hidden camera systems, sophisticated sensors, information databases on civilian activity, automated targeting systems and, in some cases, unmanned drones, it is used to control the very people the nation’s leaders profess to serve.

Drawing from years of research, as well as investigations and interviews conducted at international arms fairs, Jeff Halper reveals that this practice is much more insidious than was previously thought. As Western governments tighten the grip on their use of private information and claw back individual liberties, War Against the People is a timely reminder that fundamental human rights are being compromised for vast sections of the world, and that this is a subject that should concern everyone.

I’ve noted before the ways in which Israel has used its continuing occupation of Palestine as a laboratory to test new technologies of military violence – and as a series of test cases designed to push the envelope of what is permissible under international humanitarian law and even international human rights law – but here Jeff radicalises the argument to develop a deeply disturbing vision of what he calls ‘securocratic wars in global battlespace’.  It’s vitally necessary to remember that later modern war is not the exclusive artefact of the United States and its military-academic-industrial-media (MAIM) complex, and that what happens in Israel/Palestine has desperately important implications for all of us.

Many commentators have claimed – I think wrongly – that one of the new characteristics of war in the twenty-first century is that it has become ‘war amongst the people’: as though No Man’s Land on the Western Front was somehow roped off from the gas attacks and shells that assaulted farms, villages and towns behind the front lines, for example, and air raids were limited to exclusively military-industrial targets.  Even if we confine ourselves to the trajectory of ostensibly modern warfare and track forward through the Second World War, Korea, Malaya, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia…. the story is the same: modern war has long been fought amongst the people (though increasingly amongst ‘their’ people).  The deconstruction of the battlefield, as Frédéric Mégret calls it, is clearly visible in Palestine and is inseparable from its globalization.  It’s hardly surprising, then, that ‘war amongst the people’ should so easily turn into what Jeff describes as ‘war against the people’.

Here is the list of contents:

Introduction : How Does Israel Get Away With It?

Part I: The Global Pacification Industry
1. Enforcing Hegemony: Securocratic Wars in Global Battlespace

Part II: A Pivotal Israel
2. Why Israel? The Thrust Into Global Involvement
3. Niche-Filling in a Global Matrix of Control

Part III: Weaponry of Hybrid Warfare and Securocratic Control (Niche 1)
4. Niche 1: Weaponry of Hybrid Warfare and Securocratic Control
5. Dominant Maneuver
6. Precision Engagement

Part IV: Securitization and “Sufficient Pacification” (Niche 2)
7. Niche 2: The Securocratic Dimension: A Model of “Sufficient Pacification”
8. Operational Doctrines and Tactics

Part V: Serving Hegemons Throughout the World-System
9. Serving the Hegemons on the Peripheries: The “Near” Periphery
10. Security Politics on the “Far” Periphery
11. The Private Sector

Part VI: Domestic Securitization and Policing
12. Serving the Core’s Ruling Classes “At Home”

Conclusions: Mounting Counterhegemonic Challenges and Resisting Pacification
Resisting Capitalist Hegemony and Pacification: The Need for Infrastructure
Resistance to Pacification: Focusing on the MISSILE Complex

Future imperfect and tense

A clutch of forthcoming books on war that seek, in different ways, to illuminate dimensions of what I’ve been calling ‘later modern war’:

Antonia ChayesBorderless Wars (due in August at an eye-popping price from Cambridge University Press):

9781107109346In 2011, Nasser Al-Awlaki, a terrorist on the US ‘kill list’ in Yemen, was targeted by the CIA. A week later, a military strike killed his son. The following year, the US Ambassador to Pakistan resigned, undermined by CIA-conducted drone strikes of which he had no knowledge or control. The demands of the new, borderless ‘gray area’ conflict have cast civilians and military into unaccustomed roles with inadequate legal underpinning. As the Department of Homeland Security defends against cyber threats and civilian contractors work in paramilitary roles abroad, the legal boundaries of war demand to be outlined. In this book, former Under Secretary of the Air Force Antonia Chayes examines these new ‘gray areas’ in counterinsurgency, counter-terrorism and cyber warfare. Her innovative solutions for role definition and transparency will establish new guidelines in a rapidly evolving military-legal environment.

Christopher Coker‘s Future War (due in September from Polity):

COKER Future WarWill tomorrow’s wars be dominated by autonomous drones, land robots and warriors wired into a cybernetic network which can read their thoughts? Will war be fought with greater or lesser humanity? Will it be played out in cyberspace and further afield in Low Earth Orbit? Or will it be fought more intensely still in the sprawling cities of the developing world, the grim black holes of social exclusion on our increasingly unequal planet? Will the Great Powers reinvent conflict between themselves or is war destined to become much ‘smaller’ both in terms of its actors and the beliefs for which they will be willing to kill?

In this illuminating new book Christopher Coker takes us on an incredible journey into the future of warfare. Focusing on contemporary trends that are changing the nature and dynamics of armed conflict, he shows how conflict will continue to evolve in ways that are unlikely to render our century any less bloody than the last. With insights from philosophy, cutting-edge scientific research and popular culture, Future War is a compelling and thought-provoking meditation on the shape of war to come.

Brian Massumi‘s Ontopower: War, Powers, and the State of Perception (due in September from Duke University Press):

MASSUMI OntopowerColor coded terror alerts, invasion, drone war, rampant surveillance: all manifestations of the type of new power Brian Massumi theorizes in Ontopower. Through an in-depth examination of the War on Terror and the culture of crisis, Massumi identifies the emergence of preemption, which he characterizes as the operative logic of our time. Security threats, regardless of the existence of credible intelligence, are now felt into reality. Whereas nations once waited for a clear and present danger to emerge before using force, a threat’s felt reality now demands launching a preemptive strike. Power refocuses on what may emerge, as that potential presents itself to feeling. This affective logic of potential washes back from the war front to become the dominant mode of power on the home front as well. This is ontopower—the mode of power embodying the logic of preemption across the full spectrum of force, from the “hard” (military intervention) to the “soft” (surveillance). With Ontopower, Massumi provides an original theory of power that explains not only current practices of war but the culture of insecurity permeating our contemporary neoliberal condition.