Drone observations

I’m just back from a lovely week at Dartmouth, so there’s lots to catch up on.  This post is confined to (yet more) notes on writing about drones.  It’s selective, partly because I’m sure I’ve missed all sorts of important recent contributions – and if I have please let me know – but partly because so many supposedly critical interventions retrace familiar steps unburdened by substantive research.

This is far from the case with this one.  Part of the purpose of my stay in Dartmouth was to spend time with Kate Kindervater, one of the first cohort of five post-docs at Dartmouth’s new Society of Fellows (selected from 1700 applicants!).   She completed her PhD at the University of Minnesota last year on ‘Lethal Surveillance: Drones and the Geo-History of Modern War‘.

Interdisciplinary both in scope and method, my dissertation, Lethal Surveillance: Drones and the Geo-History of Modern War, examines the history of drone technology from the start of the 20th century to the present in order to understand the significance of the increasing centrality of drones to current American military engagements and security practices more generally. Much of the scholarship on drones and many other contemporary military technologies tends to view the technology as radically new, missing both the historical development of these objects as well as the perspectives and rationalities that are embedded in their use. For this research, I focused on three main periods of drone research and development: the early years of World War I and II in the UK, the Cold War, and the 1990s. In studying this history of the drone, I found that two key trends emerge as significant: the increasing importance of information to warfare under the rubric of intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance; and a shift toward more dynamic, speedier, and individualized targeting practices. I argue that the widespread use of drones today thus represents the culmination of attempts in war to effectively link these two trends, creating a practice I call lethal surveillance — with the armed Predator effectively closing the loop between identifying and killing targets. The concept of lethal surveillance, which in my dissertation I place squarely within the histories of modern scientific thinking and Western liberal governance, allows us to see how techniques of Western state power and knowledge production are merging with practices of killing and control in new ways, causing significant changes to both the operations of the state and to practices of war. Framing the drone through the lens of lethal surveillance, therefore, allows us to see the longer histories the drone is embedded in as well as other security practices it is connected to.

We had lots of really good conversation, and while I was at Dartmouth Kate had a paper published at Security dialogue, drawing from her thesis: ‘The emergence of lethal surveillance: Watching and killing in the history of drone technology’:

This article examines the history of the development of drone technology to understand the longer histories of surveillance and targeting that shape contemporary drone warfare. Drawing on archival research, the article focuses on three periods in the history of the drone: the early years during World Wars I and II, the Cold War, and the 1990s. The history of the drone reveals two key trends in Western warfare: the increasing importance of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and the development of dynamic targeting. These trends converge today in a practice of lethal surveillance where ISR capabilities are directly linked to targeted killing, effectively merging mechanisms of surveillance and knowledge production with decisions on life and death. Taking this history of lethal surveillance into account not only reframes current debates on drone warfare, but also connects the drone to other practices of security and control.

Kate is absolutely right to trace through the trajectories of ISR and dynamic targeting, and I applaud the way in which she doesn’t move directly from colonial ‘air policing’ and ‘pilotless bombing’ (in the case that interests her the most, in Iraq in the 1920s) to today’s remote operations but insists on the pivotal importance of the Cold War and, post-1989, Kosovo.  Kosovo is particularly interesting, I think, and here is my own summary take on developments there:

Predator precedents in Bosnia.001 Predator precedents in Bosnia.002 Predator precedents in Bosnia.003

Another exceptionally interesting paper is Cara Daggett‘s ‘Drone disorientations: how unmanned weapons queer the experience of killing in war’, which appeared in the International journal of feminist politics 17 (3) (2015) 361-379:

Killing with drones produces queer moments of disorientation. Drawing on queer phenomenology, I show how militarized masculinities function as spatiotemporal landmarks that give killing in war its “orientation” and make it morally intelligible. These bearings no longer make sense for drone warfare, which radically deviates from two of its main axes: the home–combat and distance–intimacy binaries. Through a narrative methodology, I show how descriptions of drone warfare are rife with symptoms of an unresolved disorientation, often expressed as gender anxiety over the failure of the distance–intimacy and home–combat axes to orient killing with drones. The resulting vertigo sparks a frenzy of reorientation attempts, but disorientation can lead in multiple and sometimes surprising directions – including, but not exclusively, more violent ones. With drones, the point is that none have yet been reliably secured, and I conclude by arguing that, in the midst of this confusion, it is important not to lose sight of the possibility of new paths, and the “hope of new directions.”

There have been several commentaries that take the ‘un-manning’ of remote operations literally and seriously, and I drew on several of them in accounting for the moral economy of bombing in my Tanner Lectures last month: the (hideous) claim that bombing is, in all sorts of ways, virile and manly – so that, by extension, those who fly today’s Predators and Reapers are neither since they are never in harm’s way.  It’s an alarming argument, since it inadvertently legitimates (and even celebrates) the masculinism of conventional bombing, misses the new reality of today’s air wars, and ignores a crucial observation made by Robert Gates [the slides below are from my Tanner Lectures]:

Unopposed air war.001Unopposed air war 2.001

Cara’s argument is much more artful than that, and well worth thinking through.

As both writers know, the use of military drones is not confined to targeted killing (though so many continue to write as though that were the case).  That said, Laurie Calhoun‘s We kill because we can: from soldiering to assassination in the drone age (Zed Books, 2015) is as deft an examination of the issues that you can find:

Welcome to the Drone Age. Where self-defense has become naked aggression. Where courage has become cowardice. Where black ops have become standard operating procedure. In this remarkable and often shocking book, Laurie Calhoun dissects the moral, psychological and cultural impact of remote-control killing in the twenty-first century. Can a drone operator conducting a targeted killing be likened to a mafia hitman? What difference, if any, is there between the Trayvon Martin case and the drone killing of a teen in Yemen? We Kill Because We Can takes a scalpel to the dark heart of Western foreign policy in order to answer these and many other troubling questions.

CALHOUN We kill because we canPreface
Introduction

Part I: Find
1. Drone Nation
2. From Black Ops to Standard Operating Procedure
3. The Logic of Targeted Killing
4. Lethal Creep

Part II: Fix
5. Strike First, Suppress Questions Later
6. The New Banality of Killing
7. The Operators
8. From Conscience to Oblivion

Part III: Finish
9. Death and Politics
10. Death and Taxes
11. The Death of Military Virtue
12. Tyrants Are as Tyrants Do

Conclusion
Postface
Appendix: Drone Killing and Just War Theory

You can find an extended interview with Laurie here.

Finally – and as you’ll soon see from an upcoming post – I can’t seem to stop wandering through the nuclear wastelands.  I described the role that drones played in the early development of Strategic Air Command (through its “Project Brass Ring”) and in monitoring US atomic tests in the Marshall Islands in my “Little Boys and Blue Skies” presentation at Toronto last fall (see DOWNLOADS tab and the extended post here), which I reworked for one of my presentations at Dartmouth.  Over at Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone, Dan Gettinger replays the same little-known story – though he doesn’t play it forward to the atomic tests that took place at the Nevada Proving Grounds and the role of Indian Springs as a base for those early drone missions in the continental United States.  Indian Springs is now Creech Air Force Base, of course, one of the central nodes for today’s remote operations.

Little Boys and Blue Skies

These are very preliminary notes and ideas for my presentation at “Through Post-Atomic Eyes” in Toronto next month: I would really – really – welcome any comments, suggestions or advice.  I don’t usually post presentations in advance, and this is still a long way from the finished version, but in this case I am venturing into (irradiated) fields unknown to me until a few months ago…

CHOMSKY On Western terrorismAt first sight, any comparison between America’s nuclear war capability and its drone strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen seems fanciful. The scale of investment, the speed and range of the delivery systems, the nature of the targets, the blast radii and precision of the munitions, and the time and space horizons of the effects are so clearly incommensurable. It’s noticeable that the conversation between Noam Chomsky and Andre Vltchek published as On Western Terrorism: from Hiroshima to drone warfare (2013) says virtually nothing about the two terms in its subtitle.

Yet nuclear weapons and drone strikes have both been attended by intense diplomatic, geopolitical and geo-legal manoeuvres, they have both sparked major oppositional campaigns by activist organisations, and they have both had major impacts on popular culture (as the two images below attest).

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President-Strangelove

But there are other coincidences, connections and transformations that also bear close critical examination.

When Paul Tibbets flew the Enola Gay across the blue sky of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 one of his major concerns was to execute a fast, tight 155 degree turn to escape the effects of the blast from ‘Little Boy’.  There is some dispute over the precise escape angle – there’s an exhaustive discussion in the new preface to Paul Nahin‘s Chases and escapes: the mathematics of pursuit and evasion (second edition, 2007) – but the crucial point is the concern for the survival of the aircraft and its crew.

Enola Gay co-pilot [Robert Lewis]'s sketch after briefing of approach and 155 turn by the B-29s weaponeer William Parsons, 4 August 1945

Tibbets successfully made his escape but four years later, when the US Atomic Energy Commission was developing far more powerful bombs, the Air Force became convinced that escape from those blasts would be impossible. And so it implemented Project Brass Ring which was intended to convert B-47 Stratojet bombers into remotely-piloted aircraft capable of delivering atomic bombs without any loss of American lives.  (What follows is taken from Delmer Trester, ‘Thermonuclear weapon delivery by unmanned B-47: Project Brass Ring‘; it was included in A history of the Air Force Atomic Energy Program, 1949-1953, which can be downloaded here; you can obtain a quick overview here).

‘It appeared that the Air Force would need some method to deliver a 10,000-pound package over a distance of 4,000 nautical miles with an accuracy of at least two miles from the center of the target. It was expected the package would produce a lethal area so great that, were it released in a normal manner, the carrier would not survive the explosion effects. Although not mentioned by name, the “package” was a thermonuclear device – the hydrogen or H-bomb…

B-47 Stratojet bomber (USAF)

‘The ultimate objective was to fashion a B-47 carrier with completely automatic operation from take-off to bomb drop… The immediate plan included the director B-47A aircraft as a vital part of the mission. Under direction from the mother aircraft, the missile would take off, climb to altitude and establish cruise speed conditions. While still in friendly territory, the crew aboard the director checked out the missile and committed its instruments to automatically accomplish the remainder of the mission. This was all that was required of the director. The missile, once committed, had no provision for returning to its base… either the B-47 became a true missile and dived toward the target … or a mechanism triggered the bomb free, as in a normal bombing run.’

This was a re-run of Operation Aphrodite, a failed series of experiments carried out in the closing stages of the Second World War in Europe, and – as the images below show – after the war the Air Force had continued to experiment with B-17 aircraft remotely piloted from both ‘director aircraft’ [top image; the director aircraft is top right] and ‘ground control units’ [bottom image].  These operated under the aegis of the Air Force’s Pilotless Aircraft Branch which was created in 1946 in an attempt to establish the service’s proprietary rights over missile development.

B-17 drones

Ground control unit for B-17 drone

But the Brass Ring team soon discovered that their original task had swelled far beyond its original, taxing specifications: in October 1951 they were told that ‘the super-bomb’ would weigh 50,000 lbs. They modified their plans (and planes) accordingly, and after a series of setbacks the first test flight was successful:

‘The automatic take-off, climb and cruise sequence was initiated remotely from a ground control station. The aircraft azimuth, during take-off, was controlled by an auxiliary control station at the end of the runway. Subsequent maneuvers, descent and landing (including remote release of a drag parachute and application of brakes) were accomplished from the ground control station. The test was generally satisfactory; however, there were several aspects – certain level flight conditions, turn characteristics and the suitability of the aircraft as a “bombing platform” – which required further investigation.’

This was part of a larger imaginary in which, as Life had commented in its issue of 20 August 1945, echoing USAAF General Henry H. ‘Hap’ Arnold, ‘robot planes … and atomic bombs will do the work today done by fleets of thousands of piloted bombers.’ (Arnold thought this a mixed blessing, and in an essay ghost-written with William Shockley he noted that nuclear weapons had made destruction ‘too cheap and easy’ – one bomb and one aircraft could replace hundreds of bombs and vast fleets of bombers – and a similar concern is often raised by critics of today’s Predators and Reapers who argue that their remote, often covert operations have lowered the threshold for military violence).

Henry H Hap Arnold.001

Brass Ring was abandoned on 13 March 1953, once the Air Force determined that a manned aircraft could execute the delivery safely (at least, for those on board).  It would be decades before another company closely associated with nuclear research – General Atomics (more here) – supplied the US Air Force with its first MQ-1 Predators.

1994-august

These were originally conceived as unarmed, tactical not strategic platforms, designed to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for conventional strike aircraft. But the concern with American lives became a leitmotif of both programs, and one of the foundations for today’s remote operations is the ability (as the USAF has it) to ‘project power without vulnerability’.

BOYER By the bomb's early lightThe visible effects of bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the Japanese population were the subject of strict censorship – still photographs were never published, while Japanese media and even US military film crews had their documentary footage embargoed – and public attention in the United States was turned more or less immediately towards visualising ‘Hiroshima USA’ (Paul Boyer is particularly good on this; there are also many images and a good discussion here). Even the US Strategic Bombing Survey indulged in the same speculation: ‘What if the target for the bomb had been an American city?’ it asked in its June 1946 report. ‘The casualty rates at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, applied to the massed inhabitants of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, yield a grim conclusion.’ Although the original targets had been Asian cities it was American cities that were designated as future victims.  ‘Physically untouched by the war’ (apart from Pearl Harbor), Boyer wrote,

‘the United States at the moment of victory perceived itself as naked and vulnerable.  Sole possessors and users of a devastating instrument of mass destruction, Americans envisioned themselves not as a potential threat to other peoples, but as potential victims.’

This was the abiding anxiety instilled by the national security state and orchestrated through its military-industrial-media-entertainment complex throughout the post-war decades.  Perhaps the most famous sequence of images – imaginative geographies, I suppose –accompanied an essay by John Lear in Collier’s Magazine in August 1950, ‘Hiroshima USA: Can anything be done about it?‘, showing a series of paintings by Chesley Bonestell and Birney Lettick imagining the effects of a nuclear strike on New York:

Hiroshima USA 11950-aug-6-colliers-p12-sm

Similar sequences, often accompanied by maps, were produced for many other cities (and the simulations continue: see, for example, here).  The images below, from Life on 19 November 1945, come from ‘The 36-Hour War’ (see here for a commentary) that envisaged a nuclear attack on multiple cities across the USA, including Washington DC, from (presumably Soviet) ‘rocket-launching sites [built] quickly and secretly in the jungle’ of equatorial Africa:

1945-Life-36-Hour-War-2

1945-Life-36-Hour-War-1

Schlosser-Command-and-Control-bookAs it happened, American cities did indeed become targets – for the US Air Force.  According to Eric Schlosser, under General Curtis Le May the goal was

to build a Strategic Air Command that could strike the Soviet Union with planes based in the United States and deliver every nuclear weapon at once. SAC bomber crews constantly trained and prepared for that all-out assault. They staged mock attacks on every city in the United States with a population larger than twenty-five thousand, practicing to drop atomic bombs on urban targets in the middle of the night. San Francisco was bombed more than six hundred times within a month.

VANDERBILT Survival CityTests were also conducted at the Nevada Proving Ground, ‘the most nuclear-bombed place on the planet’, to determine the likely effects.  One of the purposes of the Strategic Bombing Survey’s Physical Damage Division had been to document the effects of the bombs on buildings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki – to read them as ‘blueprints for the atomic future‘ – and both Japanese and American medical teams had been sent in shortly after the blasts to record their effects on bodies (from 1947 their work was subsumed under the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission).  It was now imperative bring the two together and to bring their results home.  And so, starting in 1953 with ‘Operation Doorstep’, mannequins were placed inside single-family houses at the Nevada site to calculate the prospects for the survival of what Joseph Masco calls the American ‘nuclearised’ family in the event of a nuclear attack; they subsequently went on public exhibition around the country with the tag line:

‘These mannikins could have been real people; in fact, they could have been you.’

In the Second World War experimental bombing runs had been staged against mock German and Japanese targets at the Dugway Proving Ground but – significantly – the buildings had no occupants: as Tom Vanderbilt wryly remarks, now ‘the inhabitants had been rewritten into the picture’ because the objective was to calibrate the lives of Americans.

Rachele Riley Mannequins

I have borrowed this image from the mesmerising work of artist Rachele Riley, whose project on The evolution of silence centres on Yucca Flat in the Nevada Test Site and raises a series of sharp questions about both the imagery and the soundscape of the nuclear age.

The power of the image – ‘the nuclear sublime’ – was one of the central objectives of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki: ‘the weapon’s devastating power had to be seen to be believed,’ as Kyo Maclear observed, and it had to be seen and believed in Moscow as well as in Tokyo.  Here the visual economies of nuclear attacks are radically different from drone strikes. In the immediate aftermath there was no shortage of atomic ‘views from the air’ –  aerial photographs of the vast cloud towering into the sky and of Hiroshima before and after the bomb.  Here is Life (sic) on 20 August 1945:

LIFE:Hiroshima 1

LIFE:Hiroshima 2LIFE:Hiroshima 3

Yet for the most part, and with some significant exceptions, aerial views are singularly absent from today’s drone wars. To Svea Braeunert (‘Bringing the war home: how visual artists return the drone’s gaze‘) that is all the more remarkable because drone strikes are activated by what video artist Harun Farocki called operative images: but that is also the reason for the difference. Aerial photographs of Hiroshima or Nagasaki reveal a field of destruction in which bodies are conspicuously absent; the resolution level is too coarse to discern the bomb’s victims.

But the video feeds from a Predator or Reaper, for all their imperfections, are designed to identify (and kill) individuals, and their aerial gaze would – if disclosed – reveal the bodies of their victims. That is precisely why the videos are rarely released (and, according to Eyal Weizman, why satellite imagery used by investigators to reconstruct drone strikes is degraded to a resolution level incapable of registering a human body – which remains ‘hidden in the pixels‘ – and why their forensic visual analysis is forced to focus on buildings not bodies).

OMAR FAST %000 Feet is Best

One might expect visual artists to fill in the blank. Yet – a further contrast with Hiroshima – apart from projects like Omar Fast’s ‘5,000 Feet is Best’ (above) and Thomas van Houtryve’s ‘Blue Sky Days’ (below) there have been precious few attempts to imagine drone strikes on American soil.

van HOUTRYVE Blue Sky Days

Perhaps this is because they are so unlikely: at present these remote platforms can only be used in uncontested air space, against people or states who are unable (or in the case of Pakistan, unwilling) to defend themselves. But there has been a protracted debate about such strikes on American citizens (notably the case of Anwar al-Awlaki) and a concerted attempt to focus on the rules followed by the CIA and JSOC in their programs of targeted killing (which has artfully diverted public attention to Washington and away from Waziristan).

There is also a visceral, visible continuity between the two: just as in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there has been little public concern over the victims of drone strikes, the vast majority of whom have once again been Asian.

If the targeting process continues to be racialised, it also continues to be bureaucratised. After the Second World War the US Air Force was determined to speed up its targeting cycle, and in 1946 started to compile a computerised database of potential targets in the Soviet Union; this was soon extended to Soviet satellites and Korea, and by 1960 the Bombing Encyclopedia of the World (now called the ‘Basic Encyclopedia’) contained 80,000 Consolidated Target Intelligence Files. These were harvested to plan Strategic Air Command’s nuclear strikes and to calibrate Damage and Contamination Models. One of the analysts responsible for nominating targets later described the process as ‘the bureaucratisation of homicide’. Similar criticisms have been launched against the ‘disposition matrix’ used by the CIA to nominate individuals authorised for targeted killing (see here and here); most of these are in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, though there are other kill lists, including Joint Prioritised Effects Lists compiled by the US military for war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq. In both cases the target files are in principle global in reach, and both nuclear strikes and targeted killings (outside established war zones) are judged to be sufficiently serious and ‘sensitive’ to require direct Presidential approval.

Speeding up the targeting cycle has involved more than the pre-emptive identification of targets. In contrast to the fixed targets for nuclear strikes, today’s Predators and Reapers are typically directed against mobile targets virtually impossible to locate in advance. Pursuing these fleeting ‘targets of opportunity’ relies on a rapidly changing and expanding suite of sensors to identify and track individuals in near-real time. In 2004 the Defense Science Board recommended the Pentagon establish ‘a “Manhattan Project”-like program for ID/TTI’ [identification, tagging, tracking and locating], and one year later a Technical Advisor working for the National Security Agency’s Target Reconnaissance and Survey Division posed the following question:

NSA's Little Boy

The onboard sensor suite in the pod has since become ever more effective in intercepting and monitoring electronic communications as part of a vast system of digital data capture, but Predators had already been armed with Hellfire missiles to compress the kill-chain still further, and to many commentators the most radical innovation in later modern war has been the fusion of sensor and shooter in a single platform. The new integrated systems were first trialled – on a Predator flown by test pilots from General Atomics – in February 2000 at Indian Springs Auxiliary Field. The main objective was to hunt and kill Osama bin Laden, and at the request of the Air Force and the CIA a series of tests was carried out.

First, the Air Force wanted to determine whether the Predator could withstand a missile being fired from beneath its insubstantial wings (a ghostly echo of earlier anxieties over the survivability of the Enola Gay and its successors – though plainly much reduced by the absence of any pilot on board).

Second, the CIA wanted to assess the likely effects of a Hellfire strike on the occupants of a single-storey building like those found in rural Afghanistan (nuclear tests had used mannequins and pigs as human surrogates; these used plywood cut-outs and watermelons).

predatorBoth sets of tests were eventually successful (see also here) but, as Richard Whittle shows in consummate detail, a series of legal and diplomatic obstacles remained. In order to secure satellite access over Afghanistan, previous Predator flights to find bin Laden had been flown from a ground control station at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. But using a Predator to kill bin Laden was less straightforward. After protracted debate, US Government lawyers agreed that a Predator armed with a missile would not violate the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which eliminated nuclear and conventional missiles with intermediate ranges but which – unhelpfully for the CIA – defined missiles as ‘unmanned, self-propelled … weapon-delivery vehicles’; the lawyers determined that the Predator was merely a platform and, unlike a cruise missile, had no warhead so that it remained outside the Treaty. But they also insisted that the Status of Forces Agreement with Germany would require Berlin’s consent for the activation of an armed Predator. (The United States stored tactical nuclear warheads at Ramstein until 2005; although the US insisted it retained control over them, in the event of war they were to have been delivered by the Luftwaffe as part of a concerted NATO nuclear strike).

RAMSTEIN English captions

The need to bring Berlin onside (and so potentially compromise the secrecy of the project) was one of the main reasons why the ground control station was relocated to Indian Springs, connected to the satellite link at Ramstein through a fibre-optic cable under the Atlantic:

remote-split-operations-usaf

In fact, since 1952 Indian Springs had been a key portal into the Nevada Test Site – its purpose was to support both US Atomic Energy Commission nuclear testing at the Nevada Proving Grounds and US Air Force operations at the Nellis Air Force Base’s vast Gunnery and Bombing Range – and in June 2005 it morphed into Creech Air Force Base: the main centre from which ‘remote-split’ operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere are flown by USAF pilots. Most of the covert operations are directed by the CIA (some by Joint Special Operations Command), but the Predators and Reapers are used for more than targeted killing; the primary missions are still to provide ISR for conventional strikes and now also close air support for ground troops.

Wfm_area51_map_en

The geographies overlap, coalesce and – even allowing for the differences in scale – conjure up a radically diffuse and dispersed field of military violence.  When Tom Vanderbilt described ‘a war with no clear boundaries, no clear battlefields … a war waged in such secrecy that both records and physical locations are often utterly obscured’ he was talking about nuclear war.  But exactly the same could be said of today’s drone wars, those versions of later modern war in which the body becomes the battle space (‘warheads on foreheads’) and the hunting ground planetary: another dismal iteration of the ‘everywhere war’ (see here and here).

For all these connections and intersections, a key divide is the issue of civilians and casualties. On 9 August 1945 President Truman (below) described Hiroshima as a ‘military base’ selected ‘because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians’.

TRUMAN Hiroshima speech

This was simply untrue, and similar – often no less deceptive – formulations are routinely used to justify US drone strikes and to minimise what is now called ‘collateral damage’. Still, the scale of civilian casualties is clearly different: usually dozens rather than hundreds of thousands.

And yet, there is something irredeemably personal and solitary about the response to death from either cause; parents searching for the bodies of their children in the ruins are as alone in Dhatta Khel as they were in Hiroshima.  When Yukiko Hayashi [her real name is Sachiko Kawamura] describes the anguish of a young woman and her father finding the remains of their family – the poem, ‘Sky of Hiroshima‘, is autobiographical – it is surely not difficult to transpose its pathos to other children in other places:

Daddy squats down, and digs with his hands
Suddenly, his voice weak with exhaustion, he points
I throw the hoe aside
And dig at the spot with my hands
The tiles have grown warm in the sun
And we dig
With a grim and quiet intent

Oh…
Mommy’s bone
Oh…
When I squeezed it
White powder danced in the wind
Mommy’s bone
When I put it in my mouth
Tasted lonely
The unbearable sorrow
Began to rise in my father and I
Left alone
Screaming, and picking up bones
And putting them into the candy box
Where they made a rustle

My little brother was right beside my mommy
Little more than a skeleton
His insides, not burnt out completely
Lay exposed…

NOOR BEHRAM Orphans Dande Darpa Khel 21 August 2009

MASCO Theater of OperationsIn The Theater of Operations Joseph Masco draws a series of distinctions between the US national security state inaugurated by the first atomic bombs and the counter-terror state whose organs have proliferated since 9/11.

He properly (and brilliantly) insists on the affects instilled in the American public by the counter-terror state as vital parts of its purpose, logic and practice – yet he says virtually nothing about the affects induced amongst the vulnerable populations forced to ‘live under drones’ and its other modes of military and paramilitary violence.

In Waziristan no air raid sirens warn local people of a strike, no anti-aircraft systems protect them, and no air-raid shelters are available for them to seek refuge.

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Hence young Zubair Rehman’s (above, top right) heartbreaking admission after a drone killed his grandmother as she tended the fields in Ghundi Kala in North Waziristan (see here and here):

‘I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer grey skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are grey.’

The God trick and the administration of military violence

JOC staring at screen 24afghan-600

Here is the abstract for my keynote at the Lancaster symposium on Security by remote control next month; it’s a development from my presentation at the AAG in Tampa, and I’ll provide more details as I develop the argument.

The God trick and the administration of military violence

Advocates have made much of the extraordinary ability of the full motion video feeds from Predators and Reapers to provide persistent surveillance (‘the all-seeing eye’), so that they become vectors of the phantasmatic desire to produce a fully transparent battlespace.  Critics – myself included – have insisted that vision is more than a biological-instrumental capacity, however, and that it is transformed into a conditional and highly selective visuality through the activation of a distinctively political and cultural technology.  Seen thus, these feeds interpellate their distant viewers to create an intimacy with ground troops while ensuring that the actions of others within the field of view remain obdurately Other.

But the possibility of what Donna Haraway famously criticised as ‘the God-trick’ – the ability to see everything from nowhere in particular – is also compromised by the networks within which these remote platforms are deployed.  In this presentation I re-visit an air strike on three vehicles in Uruzgan province, Afghanistan, in February 2010, in which more than 20 civilians were killed in a helicopter attack prompted, in large measure, by video feeds from a Predator providing support to a Special Forces detachment in the vicinity.  Most commentaries – including mine – have treated this in terms of a predisposition on the part of the Predator crew to (mis)read every action by the victims as a potential threat.  But a close examination of the official investigations that followed, by the US Army and then the US Air Force, reveals a much more complicated situation.  The Predator was not the only ‘eye in the sky’, its feeds entered into a de-centralized, distributed and dispersed geography of vision in which different actors at different locations inside and outside Afghanistan saw radically different things, and the breaks and gaps in communication were as significant as the connections.  In short, much of later modern war may be ‘remote,’ but there’s considerably less ‘control’ than most people think.

Predatory networks

A key moment in the development of the United States’ UAV program was the deployment of a prototype Predator – General Atomics’ GNAT-750 – over Bosnia.  This is how I summarised the accelerated fielding program in ‘Moving targets’ (DOWNLOADS tab):

Even as the GNAT-750 was deployed over Bosnia-Herzegovina, the design was being developed into a new platform, the RQ-1 Predator, which incorporated three major modifications. The original intention had been to provide still imagery and text interpretation, but this was replaced by real-time motion video in colour (by day) and infrared (by night). A more serious limitation was range; the GNAT-750 could only operate 150 miles from the ground control station because it relied on a C-band line of sight data link. The CIA experimented with using relay aircraft to expedite data transmission – the same solution that had been used for the ‘electronic battlefield’ along the Ho Chi Minh Trail – but the breakthrough came with the use of the Ku-band satellite system that dramatically increased the operational range. The upgrade had been tested in the United States, and was retrofitted to Predators in Europe in August 1995. Although data was then rapidly transmitted across the Atlantic, the key intelligence nodes were still in Europe, like the Combined Air Operations Centre at Vicenza in Italy, and the drones were still controlled from ground stations within the region, at first from Gjader in Albania and later from Tazar in Hungary. A third, no less revolutionary innovation was the installation of an onboard global positioning system (GPS); early target imagery had to be geo-located using a PowerScene software program, but the introduction of satellite-linked GPS made a considerable difference to the speed and accuracy of targeting.

But I now think this misses other even more important dimensions that speak directly to the fabrication of the network in which Predators and eventually Reapers become embedded.

My primary source is a remarkable MIT PhD thesis by Lt. Col. Timothy Cullen, The MQ-9 Reaper Remotely Piloted Aircraft: Humans and Machines in Action (2011).  The research involved interviews with 50 pilots, 26 sensor operators, 13 Mission Intelligence Coordinators and 8 imagery analysts between 2009-2010 (so this is inevitably a snapshot of a changing program – but one with a wide field of view) and direct observation of training missions at Holloman Air Force Base; the thesis is also informed by Cullen’s own, considerable experience as a pilot of conventional strike aircraft and by actor-network theory, though most particularly by Edward Hutchins‘ cognitive ethnography and by the work of Lucy Suchman.

CULLEN p. 94I should say, too, that the thesis is irony made flesh, so to speak.  The author notes that:

Missing from public discussions are the details of remote air operations in current conflicts and the role of social networks, organizational culture, and professional practices in the evolution and history of RPA. The public cannot have informed discussions about these topics without empirical observations and descriptions of how RPA operators actually fly and employ the aircraft.

Fair enough, of course, but parts of the thesis are heavily redacted; I realise this isn’t – can’t – be Cullen’s doing, but it is as frustrating for the reader as it surely must be for the author (for Private Eye devotees, the image on the right shows p. 94).  Still, there’s enough in plain sight to provide a series of arresting insights into the development of the UAV program.

First, early Predator crews were remarkably detached from the wider mission and their ability to communicate with people outside their Ground Control Stations was extremely limited.  The pilot’s primary responsibility was to program the aircraft to fly on autopilot from target to target and to monitor the flight path, while two sensor operators identified and tracked the targets whose images were to be captured.  In a tent outside the ground control station a ‘Mission Planning Cell’ (MPC: see photograph below) served as the communications interface; since this was an experimental system, the Ground Control Station was not permitted to receive or transmit sensitive or classified information.  Apart from the transmission of images, all communications between the two were either face-to-face (literally through the tent flaps) or via a telephone link.

GCS and Mission Planning Cell, Hungary 1996

Before a mission the MPC received a set of 50-300 imagery targets (known as ‘Collection Points’) from the Balkans Combined Air Operations Center in Vicenza in Italy, and used this to create a detailed target deck.  The time between the initial requests and final image capture steadily decreased from 72 hours to 48 hours, and eventually re-tasking during a mission became standard: more on the tasking process here.

Bosnia imageryThe video feeds from the Predator were sent via coaxial cable to the MPC where they were digitised and encrypted for onward transmission over a secure network to commanders in the field and to a group of 10-12  imagery analysts in the United States.  The analysts posted video clips and annotated stills on a classified web page, but the quality of the video feeds with which they had to work was significantly less than the raw feeds available in theatre, and the slow response time was another serious limitation on the value of their work.

At the time, of course, all this seemed revolutionary, and the second Annual Report on the UAV program in 1996 declared that:

Even more significant than the Predator performance “firsts” is the wide use made of its imagery, amplified by the increased network of receiving stations both in-theater and back in CONUS [continental US]. The development of this dissemination capability is shown below.

conus

It first used VSATs at selected receiving sites, and then the SATCOM-based Joint Broadcast System (JBS). The Predator-JBS network represents the first time for the simultaneous broadcast of live UAV video to more than 15 users. This provided a common picture of the “battlefield.” Video imagery can be viewed either as full motion video or via a “mosaicking” technique at the ground station. 

[JAC Molesworth was the Joint Analysis Center at RAF Molesworth in the UK, US European Command’s intelligence center, and DISN is the Defense Information Systems Network for data, video and voice services].

But the system was far from responsive; the MPC filtered all communications from commanders and imagery analysts and, as the tasking diagram below shows, whether the cycle followed the standard model or allowed for more flexible re-tasking the Predator crew had very little discretion and was, in a substantial sense, what Cullen calls ‘a passive source of data’.  Its responsibilities were limited to the ‘physical control’ of the platform.

figure8-1

This has been transformed by the cumulative construction of an extended, distributed network in which UAV crews are in direct communication, either by voice or through secure internet chatrooms, with multiple agents: commanders, military lawyers, image analysts, joint terminal attack controllers and ground troops.  But this was not how the system was originally conceived or fielded, and Cullen shows that its transformation depended on the skilled intervention of UAV crews and their commanders who ‘envisioned and used the system as a collaborative network of operators, intelligence analysts, and ground personnel to establish objectives, exchange information, and understand the context of a mission’:

‘RPA [Remotely Piloted Aircraft] operators restructured the ground control station and crew tasks to shift the actions of crewmembers from low status missions of gathering and disseminating data to higher status tasks of integrating and creating information, participating in the assessment of threats, and actively contributing to commanders’ decision-making processes. RPA operators were not satisfied with simple connections to a network of people and tools to accomplish a mission. They sought and fostered social relationships with them and demanded interactive dialog among them in a form they could anticipate, understand, and evaluate’ (Cullen, p. 204).

Second, early Predator operations, not only in the Balkans in the late 1990s but also over southern Iraq and in Afghanistan, were not what would later become known as ‘remote-split operations’.  It was assumed that the Predator had to be operated as close to the combat theatre as possible. This was not only because of the platform’s limited range, important though this is: as I’ve said before, these are not weapons of global reach.  Indeed, it’s still the case that Predators and Reapers have to be physically close to their theatre of operations, which is why the United States has become so alarmed at the implications of a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan for the CIA’s program of targeted killing in Pakistan.  According to David Sanger and Eric Schmitt,

‘Their concern is that the nearest alternative bases are too far away for drones to reach the mountainous territory in Pakistan where the remnants of Al Qaeda’s central command are hiding. Those bases would also be too distant to monitor and respond as quickly as American forces can today if there were a crisis in the region, such as missing nuclear material or weapons in Pakistan and India.’ 

For the ‘no-fly zone’ established over southern Iraq reconnaissance flights were flown by Predators from Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait, and for the initial campaign in Afghanistan from Jacobad in Pakistan, and Cullen explains that the vulnerability of these (‘austere’) sites limited the MPC’s access to secure networks, communications and databases.  But in 2002-3 USAF pilots and sensor operators returning from secondment to – Cullen actually calls it ‘kidnapping’ – ‘other agencies’, which is to say the CIA, successfully argued that the primary execution of remote missions should be consolidated at Nellis Air Force Base and its auxiliary field, Indian Springs (later re-named Creech AFB), in southern Nevada, which would expand and enhance crews’ access to secure intelligence and analysis capabilities.  There would still have to be a forward deployed ‘Launch and Recovery’ element to maintain the aircraft and to control take-off and landing using a line of sight link, but all other mission tasks could be handled from the continental United States using a Ku-band satellite link via a portal at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany.  When remote split operations started in 2003 the MPC disappeared, replaced by a single Mission Intelligence Co-ordinator who was stationed inside the Ground Control Station in constant communication with the pilot and sensor operator and this, in turn, transformed the configuration and equipment inside the GCS.  But, crucially, relations beyond the GCS were also transformed as USAF commanders visited Afghanistan and Iraq and established close relations with ground troops: ‘remote’ and ‘split’ could not imply detachment, and the new technological networks had to be infused with new social interactions for the system to be effective.

Remote-Split Operations (USAF)

Focal to these transformations – and a crucial driver of the process of network construction and transformation – was the decision to arm the Predator and turn it into a ‘hunter-killer’ platform.  At that point, Cullen observes,

‘Predator pilots became decision makers, and Predator’s weapons transformed Predator pilots and sensor operators into war fighters – Predator crews could create effects on the battlefield they could observe, evaluate and adjust… The arming of the Predator was synonymous with the integration of the system – the people, tools and practices of the Predator community – into military operations’ (pp. 245-7).

The reverse was also true: not only was the Predator integrated into the battlespace but, as Cullen notes, the network was ‘infused’ into the Ground Control Station. In consequence, a sensation of what Cullen calls ‘remote presence’ was inculcated amongst UAV crews and, in particular, sensor operators who developed a strong sense of being part of the machinic complex, ‘becoming the camera’ so intimately that they were ‘transported’ above the battlespace.  These transformations were stepped up with the development of the Reaper, reinforced by new practices and by the introduction of a new, profoundly combative discourse that distanced the Reaper from the Predator:

‘[T]o reinforce the power and responsibility of Reaper crews, members of the 42nd Attack Squadron changed the language of their work. Sensor operators did not operate a sensor ball; they flew a “targeting pod” like fighter pilots and weapon system officers. Reaper pilots and sensor operators did not have a “mission intelligence coordinator”; they coordinated strike missions with the support of an “intelligence crewmember.” Reaper crews did not conduct “intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance” missions; they flew “non-traditional” intelligence missions like fighter and bomber crews. Members of the 42nd Attack Squadron used the rhetoric of the fighter community to highlight the strike capabilities of Reaper; to influence the perceptions of Reaper operators; and to shape the priorities, attention, and assertiveness of Reaper crews during a mission’ (p. 264)

The language was performative, but its performative force – the ability to ‘create effects on the battlefield’ – was realised through the developing networks within which and through which it was deployed.

To be continued.

Moving targets

I’ve added a draft of a new essay, ‘Moving targets and violent geographies’, under the DOWNLOADS tab.  It’s a general essay on drones, summarising both their genealogies and geographies, and I would welcome any comments, preferably by e-mail so they don’t get lost in the spam nets: again, this is a draft, so please treat it as such.  I wrote it for a volume of essays in honour of the work of my great friend Allan Pred, though I’ll incorporate a different version in The everywhere war.  This raw draft doesn’t feature any images (despite the references to Figure 1, etc): I’m still trying decide what to include.

You’ll see that it draws on a number of posts on the blog – a large number, now I’ve realised just how how many drone sightings there have been on geographicalimaginations.com! – as well as recent presentations.  I’ve noted before that I find presentations a useful way to prepare for an essay; I treat these visuals as storyboards and, once the essay has been drafted, it’s time to move on to other presentations: reading to an audience from a finalised script seems a waste of time to me.  But I’ve also found those scattered posts immensely helpful too, and I’ve been surprised at the consistent themes that emerged from them once I started to put them together.  This is more than cut-and-paste (or at least I hope so), and there are new arguments in the essay.  Let me know what you think.

f-16-fighter-jet-unmanned-drone

Drones are moving targets in all sorts of ways – not only because, as I explain in the essay, they are currently unable to operate in contested  A2/AD (‘anti-access/area denial’) environments, and not even because Boeing has recently converted some of its mothballed F-16 fighter aircraft into target drones (see the image above; there’s a long history of target drones, of course) – but also because advanced militaries are re-evaluating their role and capabilities.

RPA VectorThe Pentagon issued its first integrated ‘UAS roadmap‘ in 2005, a review of all unmanned systems in 2007 and an update in 2011.  The Air Force produced its own ‘UAS Flight Plan‘ in 2009 (see the briefing slides here) and has promised its new ‘RPA [Remotely Piloted Aircraft] Vector’ report in the very near future.

It’s keenly awaited because there are indications that the Air Force is re-thinking its infatuation with Predators and Reapers. The commander of Air Combat Combat, General Mike Hostage, has made it plain that they are ‘useless in a contested environment‘ and so are unlikely to have a prominent place in Obama’s ‘pivot’ to Asia/Pacific.

While you are waiting, you can get a taste of what is to come from this June 2013 briefing by Jeffrey Eggers.

Drones and ‘the world as free-fire zone’

Fred Kaplan has an interesting essay on the history and use of armed drones by the United States at MIT Technology Review: ‘The world as free-fire zone‘ (June 2013).  Kaplan provides a telling critique of Obama’s May statement about the conduct of targeted killings (though that doesn’t of course exhaust what the military uses UAVs for), but his discussion is muddied by what he says about Vietnam – and what he doesn’t.

GREINER War without frontsThe title of the essay invokes a notorious tactic deployed by the United States in South Vietnam: the creation of free-fire, free-strike or what the Air Force called free-bomb zones (the name was changed in 1967  to ‘specified fire zones’ for PR purposes, though what was specified was the zone not the fire).  This is how historian Bernd Greiner summarises the policy in War without fronts: the USA in Vietnam (2007, trans. 2009):

‘License to destroy and annihilate on a large-scale applied unrestrictedly in the so-called “Free Fire Zones”.  Set by the South Vietnamese authorities – either the civil administration or the commanders of an Army corps or division – the US forces operated within them as though outside the law: “Prior to entrance into the area we as soldiers were told all that was left in the area after civilian evacuation were Viet Cong and thus fair game.” Virtually all recollections of the war contain such a statement or something similar, simultaneously referring to the fact that anyone who did not want to be evacuated had forfeited the right to protection, since in the Free Fire Zones the distinction between combatant and non-combatant was a prior lifted.’

Matters were not quite so simple, at least in principle, since (as Nick Turse notes in Kill anything that moves: the real American war in Vietnam (2013)), ‘the “free-fire” label was not quite an unlimited license to kill, since the laws of war still applied in these areas.’  And yet, as both Greiner and Turse show in considerable detail (and I’ll have more to say about this in another post), in practice those laws and the rules of engagement were serially violated.  Whatever the situation in Vietnam, however, it’s surely difficult to extend this – as Kaplan wants to do – to US policy on targeted killings.  Invoking the Authorization for Use of Military Force passed by Congress on 14 September 2001 (as Obama does himself), Kaplan writes:

‘This language is strikingly broad. Nothing is mentioned about geography. The premise is that al-Qaeda and its affiliates threaten U.S. security; so the president can attack its members, regardless of where they happen to be. Taken literally, the resolution turns the world into a free-fire zone‘ (my emphasis).

A couple of years ago Tom Engelhardt also wrote about Obama hardening George W. Bush’s resolve to create a ‘global free-fire zone’.  Kaplan’s criticism of the conditions that the Obama administration now claims restrict counter-terrorism strikes is, I think, fair – though much of what he says derives directly from a draft Department of Justice memorandum dated 8 November 2011 on ‘the use of lethal force in a foreign country outside the area of active hostilities against a U.S. citizen who is a senior operational leader of al-Qa’ida or an associated force’ rather than Obama’s wider speech on counter-terrorism on 23 May 2013 or the ‘fact sheet on policy standards and procedures’ that accompanied it.  But they are closely connected, and Kaplan’s objections have real substance.

First, the Obama administration insists that the threat posed to the United States must be ‘imminent’, yet since the threat is also deemed to be continuing ‘a broader concept of imminence’ is required that effectively neuters the term.

Second, apprehension of the suspect must be unfeasible, yet the constant nature of the threat means that the ‘window of opportunity’ can always be made so narrow that ‘kill’ trumps ‘capture’.

But what of Obama’s third condition: that ‘before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured’?  Kaplan accepts that this is a ‘real restriction’.  Critics of the programme differ on how successful it has been in practice, and supporters like Amitai Etzioni have turned ‘civilian’ into a weasel word that means whatever they want it to mean (which is not very much).  Still, the most authoritative record of casualties – which I take to be the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London – clearly shows that civilian deaths in Pakistan (at least) have fallen considerably from their dismal peak in 2009-10.  Whatever one makes of all this, however, it hardly turns the world into a ‘free-fire zone’.  The war machine will continue to be unleashed outside declared war zones (or what Obama also called ‘areas of active hostilities’, which may or may not mean the same thing), and Obama and his generals will continue to conjure a battlespace that is global in extent.  But if we take the President at his word – and I understand the weight that conditional has to bear – military violence may occur everywhere but not anywhere: ‘We must define our effort not as a boundless “global war on terror” – but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.’

The question is whether we can take the President at his word.  As Glenn Greenwald points out, ‘Obama’s speeches have very little to do with Obama’s actions’.  Tom Junod says much the same about what he continues to call the Lethal Presidency: ‘When a man is as successful in fusing morality and rhetoric as Barack Obama, there’s always a tendency to think that the real man exists in his words, and all he has to do is find a way to live up to them.’  Performativity is not only conditional, as it always is, but in this case also discretionary.

GIBSON The perfect warKaplan also refers to a notorious metric from the Vietnam war: the body-count.  As James Gibson patiently explains in his brilliant critique of The perfect war: technowar in Vietnam (1986), this was one of the central mechanisms in US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s attempt to wage an appropriately Fordist war (he went to the Pentagon from being President of the Ford Motor Company).  The body-count can be traced back to the Korean War, but it came into its own in Vietnam where it was supposed to be the key metric of success – bizarrely, even of productivity – in a ‘war without fronts’ where progress could not be measured by territory gained.  Here too Turse is illuminating on the appalling culture that grew up around it, including the inflation (and even invention) of numbers, the body-count competitions, and the scores and rewards for what today would no doubt be called ‘excellence in killing’.

But what Kaplan has in mind is not quite this, but the central, absurdist assumption that there is a direct relationship between combatants killed and military success:

‘It is worth recalling the many times a drone has reportedly killed a “number 3 leader of al-Qaeda.” There was always some number 4 leader of al-Qaeda standing by to take his place. It’s become a high-tech reprise of the body-count syndrome from the Vietnam War — the illusion that there’s a relationship between the number of enemy killed and the proximity to victory.’

How else can we interpret John Nagl‘s tangled celebration (on Frontline’s ‘Kill/Capture’) of the importance of targeted killing for counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism?

‘We’re getting so good at various electronic means of identifying, tracking, locating members of the insurgency that we’re able to employ this almost industrial-scale counterterrorism killing machine that has been able to pick out and take off the battlefield not just the top level al Qaeda-level insurgents, but also increasingly is being used to target mid-level insurgents.’

Peter Scheer draws a distinction between the two moments in Nagl’s statement that helps clarify what he presumably intended (though Scheer is writing more generally):

‘The logic of warfare and intelligence have flipped, each becoming the mirror image of the other. Warfare has shifted from the scaling of military operations to the selective targeting of individual enemies. Intelligence gathering has shifted from the selective targeting of known threats to wholesale data mining for the purpose of finding hidden threats.’

In other words, the scale of intelligence has become industrial (or more accurately perhaps, post-industrial: see here), far exceeding the scale of intelligence available in Vietnam [though see here for a discussion of the connections between McNamara’s data-driven war and today’s obsession with Big Data, and here and here for an outline of the ‘security-industrial complex’], whereas the scale of killing has clearly contracted from what most certainly was industrial-scale killing in Vietnam.   Yet the networked connections between the two reveal the instantiation of the same driving logic of technowar in a radically new ‘war without fronts’.

For all these intimation of Vietnam, however, the genealogy of the drone with which Kaplan begins his essay is resolutely post-Vietnam (or at any rate outside it).  And this, I think, is a mistake.

Technological history is shot through with multiple sources of inspiration and no end of false starts, and usually has little difficulty in assembling a cast of pioneers, precursors and parallels, so I’m not trying to locate a primary origin.  Ian Shaw‘s account of the rise of the Predator (more from J.P. Santiago here) homes in on the work of Israeli engineer Abraham Karem, who built his first light-weight, radio-controlled ‘Albatross’ (sic) in his garage in Los Angeles in 1981.

Karem's Albatross (Chad Slattery)

He may have built the thing in his garage, but Karem was no hobbyist; he was a former engineering officer in the Israeli Air Force who had worked for Israel Aircraft Industries, and by 1971 he had set up his own company to design UAVs.  Neither the Israeli government nor the Israeli Air Force was interested, so Karem emigrated to the United States.  The Albatross was swiftly followed by the Amber, which was also radio-controlled, and by 1988 with DARPA seed-funding Karem’s prototype was capable of remaining aloft at several thousand feet for 40 hours or more. But fitting hi-tech sensor systems into such a small, light aircraft proved difficult and both the US Navy and the Army balked at the project.  Karem set about developing a bigger, heavier and in many ways less advanced version for a putative export market: the GNAT-750.

GNAT-750

This was a desperate commercial strategy that didn’t save Karem’s company, Leading Systems Inc., from bankruptcy.  But it was a sound technical strategy.  In 1990 General Atomics bought the company and the development team, and when the CIA was tasked with monitoring the rapidly changing situation in the Balkans it purchased two GNAT-750s (above) for the job.  They were modified to allow for remote control via a satellite link (the first reconnaissance missions over Bosnia in 1995 were managed by the Air Force and controlled from Albania): the new aircraft was re-named the Predator.

It’s a good story – and you can find a much more detailed account by Richard Whittle in ‘The man who invented the Predator’ at Air & Space Magazine (April 2013) here – but in this form it leaves out much of the political in-fighting.  The second part of Ian’s narrative turns to the role of the Predator in the development of the CIA’s counter-terrorism campaign, and while he notes the enlistment of the US Air Force – ‘ultimately, the CIA arranged for Air Force teams trained by the Eleventh Reconnaissance Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base [Indian Springs, now Creech AFB] to operate the agency’s clandestine drones’ – he doesn’t dwell on the ‘arranging’ or the attitude of the USAF to aircraft without pilots on board.

Kaplan does, and his story starts earlier and elsewhere:

‘The drone as we know it today was the brainchild of John Stuart Foster Jr., a nuclear physicist, former head of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (then called the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory), and — in 1971, when the idea occurred to him — the director of defense research and engineering, the top scientific post in the Pentagon.’

Foster was a hobbyist – he loved making model aircraft – and thought it ought to be possible to capitalise on his passion: ‘take an unmanned, remote-controlled airplane, strap a camera to its belly, and fly it over enemy targets to snap pictures or shoot film; if possible, load it with a bomb and destroy the targets, too.’  Two years later DARPA had overseen the production of two prototypes, Praeire [from the Latin, meaning both precede and dictate] and Caler [I have no idea], which were capable of staying aloft for 2 hours carrying a 28 lb payload.  At more or less the same time, the Pentagon commissioned a study from Albert Wohlstetter, a former RAND strategist, to identify new technologies that would enable the US to respond to a Soviet invasion of Western Europe without pressing the nuclear button. ‘Wohlstetter proposed putting the munitions on Foster’s pilotless planes and using them to hit targets deep behind enemy lines, Kaplan explains, ‘Soviet tank echelons, air bases, ports.’  By the end of the decade the Pentagon was testing ‘Assault Breaker’ and according to Kaplan ‘something close to Foster’s vision finally materialized in the mid-1990s, during NATO’s air war over the Balkans, with an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) called the Predator.’

But the use of the mid-altitude, long-endurance (‘MALE’ – really) drones remained largely the preserve of the CIA because the senior officer corps of the Air Force was hostile to their incorporation:

‘All this changed in 2006, when Bush named Robert Gates to replace Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense. Gates came into the Pentagon with one goal: to clean up the mess in Iraq… He was particularly appalled by the Air Force generals’ hostility toward drones. Gates boosted production; the generals slowed down delivery. He accelerated delivery; they held up deployment. He fired the Air Force chief of staff, General T. Michael Moseley (ostensibly for some other act of malfeasance but really because of his resistance to UAVs), and appointed in his place General Norton Schwartz, who had risen as a gunship and cargo-transport pilot in special operations forces… and over the next few years, he turned the drone-joystick pilots into an elite cadre of the Air Force.’

These are both important narratives, which help to delineate multiple lines of descent, but my own inclination is to push the story back and to move it outside the North Atlantic.  It’s not difficult to find precedents for UAVs around the time of the First World War – I’ve discussed some of them here – and towards the end of the Second World War America attempted to develop remote-controlled bombers to use against Germany (see ‘Project Aphrodite’ here and here).  But if we focus less on the object – the aircraft – and more on its dispositions and the practices mobilised through the network in which it is embedded (as Kaplan’s references to ‘free-fire zones’ and ‘body counts’ imply) then I think here Vietnam is the place to look.  For as I’ve argued in ‘Lines of descent’ (DOWNLOADS tab), not only did the Air Force experiment with surveillance drones over North Vietnam, as Ian briefly notes in his own account, but the US military developed a version of ‘pattern of life analysis’ and a sensor-shooter system that would prove to be indispensable to today’s remote operations.  Seen like this, they confirm that we are witnessing a new phase of technowar in exactly the sense that Gibson used the term: except that now it has been transformed into post-Fordist war and, to paraphrase David Harvey, ‘flexible annihilation’.

The politics of drone wars

I’m in the UK this week for – amongst other things – a seminar with Pete Adey, Sara Fregonese and some of the Geopolitics and Security students at Royal Holloway on my bombing project, Killing space; a workshop at Open Democracy for a new series on Cities in Conflict to be curated by Tom Cowan; and a lecture at Nottingham organised by Steve Legg: another outing for “Deadly Embrace”.

At the RHUL meeting the conversation frequently turned to drones; Pete made an audio recording of it, and I think at least part of what we discussed will appear on the Theory, culture & society website in the near future.  But I’d like to try to set out some of my own puzzlements and positions about the politics of drones here.

There are many ways in which individuals can take a stand against war, and there is a long and principled tradition of conscientious objection that includes pacifists in two World Wars through young Americans who resisted the draft in the 1960s and 70s to high school students in Israel who refuse to serve in the army of occupation.  In recent times most popular mobilisations against war have been against particular wars – I’m thinking of the demonstrations against the wars in S.E. Asia in the 60s and 70s, for example, or the millions of people who took to the streets to express their opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 – or against particular objects of violence: campaigns to ban land mines or cluster munitions, for example.  To me, the most effective political response to the use of Predators, Reapers and other UAVs in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere is to move between the two: to use the drone to draw publics into an apprehension of the wider fields of military violence in which they are deployed.

Global Hawk imagery of aftermath of Haiti earthquakeI think it is a mistake to focus on the object itself because, like all objects, a drone is highly unstable: it’s not a fixed, determinate ‘thing’ but its capacities and dispositions depend on the network or assemblage in which it is embedded. To see what I mean, begin by stripping the bombs and the missiles from these platforms: at present most drones are used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), and these capabilities extend far beyond the domain of offensive operations and even beyond those of the military.  In 2010 US Southern Command used a Global Hawk to provide detailed imagery of the damage caused by the Haiti earthquake (above) and the following year another Global Hawk was deployed to assess the damage to the Fukishima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan; other, smaller and far less sophisticated drones have been used to monitor wildfires in California and to track and disrupt Japanese whaling fleets, while a series of other, broadly ecological-humanitarian projects have been proposed with varying degrees of plausibility.  I don’t rehearse these other possibilities to minimise the military and paramilitary uses of the technology – and we surely know, not least from Nick Turse‘s account in The Complex, that the military and the civilian have become ever more hopelessly entangled with one another – and neither am I indifferent to the blurring of military power and NGO relief operations in the humanitarian present,  but we need to acknowledge, to paraphrase Clive Barnett, that not all ISR operations are sinister: ‘presumptively illegitimate, undemocratic or suspect‘.

Dwell Detect Destroy drone ad

Hellfire missile launch (USAF)This is why Drone Wars UK focuses on ‘armed drones’ and Drones Watch on ‘killer drones’.  It’s clear that militarised ISR is part of a continued ‘rush to the intimate’ that is profoundly invasive and, on many occasions, extraordinarily violent. In Afghanistan the US military embeds its UAVs in a networked kill-chain in which their near real-time, high-resolution, full-motion video feeds are routinely used to call in attacks from conventional strike aircraft.  So let’s now put the bombs and missiles back on these platforms, since the Predators and Reapers are usually armed and their manufacturers boast about their capacity to compress the kill-chain: to ‘dwell, detect [and] destroy’. But it then makes no sense to object to the strikes carried out directly from them and to exempt those carried out by conventional means across the network: what is the difference between a Hellfire missile launched from a Reaper and one fired from an Apache helicopter gunship?  (To put this in perspective, according to the most recent airpower summary, USAF Predators and Reapers directly accounted for just 5-6 per cent of its ‘weapons releases’ in Afghanistan in 2009, 2010, and 2011, though the proportion climbed to 9.25 per cent in the first ten months of 2012).

Medea BENJAMIN Drone WarfareTo answer that question critics usually cite the horror of death at a distance.  This is death from thousands of miles away, conducted by operators in the continental United States: ‘killing by remote control’.  And yet there are countless other ways in which militaries have been killing from ever increasing distances ever since the invention of the slingshot and the longbow. If you insist that it is wrong to kill somebody from 7,500 miles away, then over what distance do you think it is acceptable?  If you are determined to absolutize distance in this way, then don’t you need to consider all the other ways in which advanced militaries are able to kill their adversaries (and civilians) without ever seeing them? Again, I don’t raise the spectre of Cruise missiles launched from ships hundreds of miles from their targets, the US ‘Prompt Global Strike’ capability and its Advanced Hypersonic Weapon which is ultimately  intended to hit a target anywhere on the planet in under an hour, or the prospect of ‘frictionless’ cyberwarfare, to minimise the deaths caused by drones.  I simply want our politics to apprehend the larger field of military violence in which they are deployed.

And there is something different about those deaths that draws us back into the killing fields.  I should say at once that I don’t think this is simply war reduced to a video-game – and in any case there are many other military technologies that also depend on hand-eye co-ordination, multi-tasking and spatial acuity, all skill-sets valorized by video-games – but I also think it a mistake to assume that the screen effectively insulates the viewer from the victim.  In this sense there is a parallel between the platforms, because video-games are profoundly immersive, and those who call in or carry out these strikes insist that they are not 7,500 miles from their targets at all (and Launch & Recovery crews are much closer than that) but ‘eighteen inches away’: the distance from eye to screen.  It’s a highly selective process of compression; as I’ve shown in detail in Lines of descent (DOWNLOADS tab), those involved in the remote kill-chain typically feel remarkably close to their own troops on the ground and remain distant from the life-worlds of the population at large (which in part accounts for the civilian casualties when drones are used to provide close air support).  But unlike most other forms of distant death and destruction, the pilots, sensor operators and others who are networked into these kill-chains can see their targets up close – even if their ‘seeing’ is techno-culturally conditioned and often predisposes them to treat innocent actions as hostile intentions – and they typically remain on station to carry out a ‘bomb damage assessment’ and so see for themselves, often in hideous detail, what they have done.

Flying an MQ-9 Reaper over Kandahar, Afghanistan

The most consequential change is that these new modes of air power deal not in the area bombing of cities like Cologne, Hamburg or Dresden, or the blind bombing of target boxes over the rainforests of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, but – in addition to close air support – in the calculated assassination of individuals or groups: so-called ‘targeted killing‘ or what the USAF calls putting ‘warheads on foreheads‘.  This does not mean that the firebombing of cities in the Second World War should become the moral standard against which we judge contemporary military violence. On the contrary, targeted killing raises its own grave legal and ethical questions – and, not incidentally, those video feeds have given military lawyers a pivotal role in these newly networked strikes – that in turn activate two other no less serious concerns about the emergent geographies of fields of military violence.

First is the fear that the use of remote platforms lowers the threshold at which military violence will be launched.  Predators and Reapers are much cheaper than conventional strike aircraft, and if there are no troops on the ground, there are no body bags to come home.  In short, drone war threatens to become risk-transfer war hypostatised; the risk is transferred wholly to the adversary population.  But at present these platforms have high failure rates – they are vulnerable to weather conditions (and I don’t mean hurricanes and monsoons, I mean clouds), they crash all too frequently and they are so slow and noisy that they can easily be shot down so they can only be used in uncontested airspace.  These limitations mean that, at present at any rate, they are less likely to incite conventional state-on-state war – though there is certainly a global arms race to acquire and develop far more advanced drone technologies.

Second and closely connected is the fear that they make it much easier to engage in war by stealth.  If one of the primary foreign policy challenges of the last Bush administration was ‘conducting war in countries we are not at war with‘, Obama’s version is the determination to wage what Martin Libicki calls ‘non-obvious warfare’: hence the Obama administration’s preference for remote operations, Special Forces and cyber-attacks.  To be sure, there are degrees of obviousness: the drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere are hardly covert – since they are hidden in plain sight – but they are, within limits, more deniable than the deployment of thousands of ground troops and so inherently less accountable to the various publics involved in them.  And in all these cases Predators and Reapers dramatically heighten the asymmetry involved in military and paramilitary operations against non-state actors, where they have made a policy of ‘kill’ rather than ‘capture’ a much more tempting (and much more pernicious) US counter-terrorism strategy.

More to come.