A landscape of interferences

Uruzgan strike (National Bird reconstruction)

[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’.

ecologies-of-powerPierre 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.’

Keeping WatchThis 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.

You can find the US military’s view of the 71st here – it called the Squadron, since deactivated, its ‘eyes in the sky’ – and on YouTube here.

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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’.

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(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).

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(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).

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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

02:28(Pilot):K. Good.

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.’

were-not-killers-were-isr-001

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).

uruzgan-survivor

[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:

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(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.

Angry Eyes (2)

MAP isaf-rc-south

This is the second installment of my analysis of an air strike orchestrated by a Predator in Uruzgan province, Afghanistan on 21 February 2010; the first installment is here.

(4) Command and control?

What was happening in and around Khod was being followed not only by flight crews and image analysts in the continental United States but also by several Special Forces command posts or Operations Centers in Afghanistan.  In ascending order these were:

(1) the base from which ODA 3124 had set out at Firebase Tinsley (formerly known as Cobra);

(2) Special Operations Task Force-12 (SOTF-12), based at Kandahar;

(3) Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force – Afghanistan (CJSOTF-A) based at Bagram.

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Once the ODA 3124 left the wire, command and support passed to SOTF-12; the OD-B at Tinsley had limited resources and limited (and as it happens intermittent) communications access and could only monitor what was happening.

That was normal, but in fact both higher commands did more or less the same: and the investigating team was clearly appalled.  At SOTF-12 all senior (field grade) officers were asleep during the period of ‘highest density of risk and threatening kinetic activity’ (although they had established ‘wake-up criteria’ for emergency situations).  The Night Battle Captain had been in post for just three weeks and had been given little training in his role; he received a stream of SALT reports from the Ground Force Commander of ODA 3124 (which detailed Size of enemy force, Activity of enemy force, Location and Time of observation) but simply monitored the developing situation – what one investigating officer characterised as ‘a pretty passive kind of watching’.

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The same was true at CJSOTF-A (the staff there monitored 15-25 missions a day, but this was the only active operation that had declared a potential Troops in Contact).

When the more experienced Day Battle Captain entered the Joint Operations Center at Kandahar and was briefed by the Night Battle Captain he was sufficiently concerned to send a runner to ask the Judge Advocate, a military lawyer, to come to the JOC.  He believed the occupants of the vehicles were hostile but was not convinced that they posed an immediate threat to troops on the ground:  ‘I wanted to hear someone who was extremely smart with the tactical directive and use of CAS [Close Air Support] in a situation I hadn’t seen before’.

This was a smart call for many reasons; the commander of US Special Forces, Brigadier General Edward Reeder, told the inquiry: ‘Honestly I don’t take a shit without one [a JAG], especially in this business’.  Significantly, the Safety Observer at Creech testified that there was no ‘operational law attorney’ available onsite for aircrews conducting remote operations; conversely, JAGs were on the operations floor of CENTCOM’s Combined Air and Space Operations Centre at Ul Udeid Air Base and, as this case shows, they were available at operations centers established by subordinate commands in-theatre.

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The JAG at Kandahar was not routinely called in for ‘Troops in Contact’ but on this occasion he was told ‘my Legal Opinion [was] needed at the OPCENT and that it wasn’t imminent but they wanted me to rush over there right away…’

Meanwhile up at Bagram Colonel Gus Benton, the commanding officer of CJSOTF-A, was being briefed by his second-in-command who understood that the Ground Force Commander’s intention was to allow the three vehicles to move closer to his position at Khod.  He thought that made sound tactical sense.

‘I said that … is what we did, we let them come to us so we can get eyes on them. During my time I never let my guys engage with CAS if they couldn’t see it. I said that is great and COL [Benton] said “that is not fucking great” and left the room.’

At 0820, ten minutes after the JAG entered the JOC at Kandahar, while he was watching the Predator feed, the phone rang: it was Benton.  He demanded Lt Colonel Brian Petit, the SOTF-12 commander, be woken up and brought to the phone:

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He spectacularly mis-read the situation (not least because he mis-read the Predator feed).  It was true that the vehicles were in open country, and not near any compounds or villages; but Benton consistently claimed that the vehicles were ‘travelling towards our objective’ whereas – as MG McHale’s investigating team pointed out to him – they were in fact moving away from Khod.

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There had also been some, inconclusive discussion of a possible ‘High Value Target’ when the vehicles were first tracked, but the presence of a pre-approved target on the Joint Prioritised Effects List (Benton’s ‘JPEL moving along this road’) had never been confirmed and the Ground Force Commander had effectively discarded it (‘above my authority’, he said).

Certainly, the JAG at Kandahar read the situation differently:

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When Benton rang off, the JAG went over to the Day Battle Captain and Lt Col Petit and recommended an Aerial Vehicle Interdiction (AVI) team be called in for a show of force to stop the vehicles without engaging the occupants in offensive action.

They agreed; in fact another Task Force also watching the Predator feed called to make the same suggestion, and the Fires Officer set about arranging to use their Apache helicopters to conduct an AVI:

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The Fires Officer had been responsible for setting up the Restricted Operating Zone for aircraft supporting the ODA – de-conflicting the airspace and establishing what aircraft would be available – but its management was de-centralised:

‘I establish the ROZ, give the initial layout of what assets are going on, and then I pass that to the JTAC [Joint Terminal Attack Controller with the Ground Force Commander at Khod].  I pass the frequencies to the assets and the JTAC controls them from there.’

At 0630, long before all this frantic activity at Kandahar, the two OH-58s had arrived at a short hold location beyond the ‘range of enemy visual and audio detection’, and at 0730 they had left to refuel at Tarin Kowt.  The Day Battle Captain and the Fires Officer both thought they were still off station.  In fact, the helicopters had returned to hold at Tinsley/Cobra at 0810 and flat pitched to conserve fuel (which means they landed and left the rotor blades spinning but with no lift); thirty minutes later the JTAC called them forward and the Predator began to talk them on to the target.

The Day Battle Captain had another reason for thinking he and his colleagues in the JOC had more time.  He maintained that the helicopters had been brought in not to engage the three vehicles but to provide air support if and when the ‘convoy’ reached Khod and the precautionary ‘AirTic’ turned into a real TIC or Troops in Contact:

‘… the CAS brought on station for his [the Ground Force Commander’s] use was not for the vehicles but for what we thought was going to be a large TIC on the objective. The weapons team that was pushed forward to his location was not for the vehicles, it was for the possibility of a large TIC on the objective based on the ICOM chatter that we had.’

That chimes with Benton’s second-in-command at Bagram, who also thought the Ground Force Commander was waiting for the ‘convoy’ to reach Khod, but neither witness explained the basis for their belief.  It was presumably a string of transmissions from the JTAC to the Predator crew: at 0538 he told them the Ground Force Commander wanted to ‘keep tracking them and bring them in as close as we can until we have CCA up’ (referring to the Close Combat Attack helicopters, the OH-58s); shortly before 0630 he confirmed that the Ground Force Commander’s intent was to ‘permit the enemy to close, and we’ll engage them closer when they’re all consolidated’; and at 0818 he was still talking about allowing the vehicles to ‘close distance.’

Yet this does not account for the evident urgency with which the Day Battle Captain and the JAG were concerned to establish ‘hostile intent’ and ‘immediate threat’.  When the vehicles were first spotted they were 5 km from Khod, and when they were attacked they were 12 km away across broken and difficult terrain: so what was the rush if the Ground Force Commander was continuing to exercise what the Army calls ‘tactical patience’ and wait for the vehicles to reach him and his force?

In fact, the messages from the Ground Force Commander had been mixed; throughout the night the JTAC had also repeatedly made it clear that the ODA commander’s intent was ‘to destroy the vehicles and the personnel’.  The Ground Force Commander insisted that ‘sometime between 0820 and 0830’ he sent a SALT report to SOTF-12 to say that he was going to engage the target.  Unfortunately there is no way to confirm this, because SOTF’s text records of the verbal SALT reports stopped at 0630 for reasons that were never disclosed (or perhaps never pursued), but it would explain why the JTAC’s log apparently showed the JAG contacting him at 0829 to confirm there were no women and children on the target.  It would also account for testimony by one of the screeners, who realised that the helicopters were cleared to engage at 0835, ten minutes before the strike, when the NCO responsible for monitoring the Predator feed at SOTF-12 ‘dropped’ into the ‘ISR’ (I presume the relevant chat room window), and in response:

‘The MC [Mission Intelligence Co-ordinator at Creech] passed that the OH58 were cleared to engage the vehicles. We were all caught off guard… It seemed strange because we had called out that these vehicles were going west. I don’t know how they determined these vehicles to be hostile… I brought up a whisper [private chat] with the MC, I said are you sure, what are the time frames when they will be coming in, and the MC responded saying we don’t know their ETA and at that moment the first vehicle blew up…’

Should those watching the events unfold have been taken aback when the vehicles were attacked?  According to the pilot of the Predator, he and his crew were surprised at the rapid escalation of events:

‘The strike ultimately came a little quicker than we expected…. we believed we were going to continue to follow, continue to pass up feeds… When he decided to engage with the helos when they did, it happened very quickly from our standpoint. I don’t have a lot of info or situational awareness of why the JTAC decided to use them when they did. When they actually came up … the JTAC switched me on frequencies. So we weren’t talking on the frequency I was talking to him on a different frequency to coordinate with the helos.

But their surprise was as nothing compared to the reaction of most observers when the first vehicle exploded.  The officer in charge of the screeners and imagery analysts who had been scrutinising the Predator feed at Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field in Florida couldn’t believe it:

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The Day Battle Captain testified:

‘I did not feel that the ground force commander would use any kind of close air support whatsoever to engage those vehicles… Based on the information that I had and looking at the vehicles move away it did not appear that they were moving towards the ground forces…

… as we were watching the Predator feed the first vehicles exploded. And everyone in the OPSCEN was immediately shocked… The amount of time from when that course of action approved by the SOTF commander to when we actually saw the strike occur there was no time, there was not adequate time to inform the ground commander that that was the course of action decided by the CJSOTF commander… I have phones ringing left and right, talking to people, trying to explain things, you know we look up on the screen and it happened…’

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The Fires Officer:

‘I don’t think at any time anyone communicated to the GFC [Ground Force Commander] not to strike these vehicles because it is not something that we normally do. We feel that if he is in contact with the Predator and the OH-58s that we sent out to screen which we were not aware of and he is on the ground he generally has a pretty good picture of what is going on. He might be more privy to some conversation that he had with the OH-58 than what we know about. We normally give the GFC pretty big leeway on how they operate and the same with the JTAC because he has control of the assets and I am not going to try to take his assets away.’

In short, the investigation concluded that the Ground Force Commander never knew that an Aerial Vehicle Interdiction was being arranged, and neither of his higher commands were aware that he had cleared the helicopters to attack the three vehicles.

But, as I will show next, what lay behind these failures of communication was 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.  So for example:

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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’.   As one officer at Kandahar put it:

‘We didn’t have eyes on, minus ISR platform, that we can all see, who watches what? All the discrepancies between who watches what. What I see may be different from what someone else might interpret on the ISR… ISR is not reliable; it is simply a video platform.’

He was talking specifically about the multiple lines of communication (and hence bases for interpretation) within his Operations Center: now multiply that across sites scattered across Afghanistan and the continental United States and it becomes clear that the contemporary ‘fog of war’ may be as much the result of too much information as too little.

To be continued.

Irresponsible Eyes

The Left to Die Boat

I’m off to Berlin to give a new version of ‘Angry Eyes‘ at HAU’s Waffenlounge (‘Weapons Lounge’), so I’ve been thinking some more about the dispersed and distributed field of militarized vision.  En route, I’ve read Timothy Raeymaekers‘ thoughtful reflection over at Liminal Geographies on Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani‘s short film Liquid Traces.

Their video retraces the awful journey of 72 desperate people who set out from Tripoli on 27 March 2011.  Two weeks later their boat washed ashore on the Libyan coast again – but with only 11 survivors on board, two of whom later died.

I expect many readers will recognise that Liquid Traces derives from a project at Forensic Architecture called The Left to Die Boat:

The Forensic Oceanography project was launched in summer 2011 to support a coalition of NGOs demanding accountability for the deaths of migrants in the central Mediterranean Sea while that region was being tightly monitored by the NATO-led coalition intervening in Libya. The efforts were focused on what is now known as the “left-to-die boat” case, in which sixty-three migrants lost their lives while drifting for fourteen days within the NATO maritime surveillance area.

By going “against the grain” in our use of surveillance technologies, we were able to reconstruct with precision how events unfolded and demonstrate how different actors operating in the Central Mediterranean Sea used the complex and overlapping jurisdictions at sea to evade their responsibility for rescuing people in distress. The report we produced formed the basis for a number of ongoing legal petitions filed against NATO member states.

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As Tim notes,

The paradox is this: despite its departure during a period of massive Frontex and NATO deployment following the Tunisian and Libyan uprisings, and despite the vicinity of 38 NATO ships (see below) and numerous commercial vessels, the migrants who were traveling across the Mediterranean were left to die while being actively observed through an assemblage of multiple, irresponsible eyes.

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Tim concludes in terms that echo my own invocation of Donna Haraway, though in a radically different context:

Rather than being a God’s eye, which towers high above human activity, as if it were seeing from nowhere, the assemblage that surveys Mediterranean waters constitutes a patchy puzzle of often conflicting and contradictory visions and legislations, and – I might add – quite different and opposing temporalities. As Haraway points out, the main question in this case becomes not what but “how to see? Where to see from? What limits to vision? What to see for? Whom to see with? Who gets to have more than one point of view? Who gets blinded? Who wears blinders? Who interprets the visual field? What other sensory powers do we wish to cultivate besides vision?” And… “with whose blood were my eyes crafted?”

in Berlin, I’ll be presenting a new reading of an air strike orchestrated by an MQ-1 Predator in Uruzgan; here’s the programme note:

In the early hours of 21 February 2010 a team of US Special Forces soldiers and Afghan National Army troops flew in by helicopter to the village of Khod in Uruzgan, Afghanistan. Their job was to search for a factory making Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). In the darkness the headlights of three vehicles were spotted in the far distance, and their movements were tracked by a Predator drone sending back full motion video to its crew at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. Hour after hour, the Predator crew became more and more convinced that they were watching a group of Taliban preparing to attack the Special Forces team. But the Predator only had only one missile left, and so two combat helicopters were ordered in to attack. As the smoke cleared, it became obvious that a dreadful mistake had been made: women and children were visible among the casualties. A subsequent US Army investigation revealed that at least 15 innocent civilians had been killed and another 12 seriously injured; there were no Taliban present. The crew of the Predator were blamed – not least for having a ‘Top Gun’ mentality. But re-reading the 2,000 pages of that investigation reveals another story that dramatically complicates what has become the standard critique of Unmanned Aerial Violence and raises a series of troubling questions about militarized vision and later modern war.

More here on the narrowness of the standard ‘Predator view’, and I’ll post the full essay as soon as it’s finished.