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Redesigning the U.S. Military
Controlling global south cities using high-technetwork-centric warfare
W estern military theorists and researchers are increasingly preoccupied with how the rapid growth of cities in the global south undermines their technological advantages over non-state insurgents. In particular, a concerted effort is being made to redesign and re-equip the U.S. military so that its purpose becomes the violent takeover and control of large cities in the global south.
With the bloody results of the urban insurgency in Iraq adding evidence to support their views, many leading military theorists in the U.S. now argue that the urban terrain in poor, global south countries is a great leveler between high-tech U.S. forces and their low-tech and usually informally organized and poorly equipped adversaries. A U.S. Defense Intelligence Reference Document, for example, argues that “the urban environment negates the abilities of present U.S. military communications equipment.”
This results in dead spots, which severely undermine the principles and technologies of network-centric warfare—the style of high-tech targeting and killing that is the preferred mode of operation. Global south cities are thus seen to be refuges that shelter insurgent groups from the overwhelming technological superiority of U.S. forces. The major military think tank RAND reported recently that this is leading to what they call the ‘urbanization of insurgency’.”
Using the usual euphemisms of the military, Major Lee Grubbs of the U.S. Army argued recently in a U.S. military report that U.S. forces need to be redefined so that their main purpose is to “create operational shock in the urban environment. The challenge is the development of an executable operational concept for achieving systematic, across the entire system, effects within the urban environment through the selective use of force.”
Two major areas of work have resulted from such a policy shift. The first involves programs designed to saturate global south cities with small scale surveillance systems so that U.S. forces can build up a full picture of global south cities in real time. The dream of U.S. military theorists is that this can be done to such an extent that any target can be automatically identified at any time and so exposed to high-technology tracking and killing powers of their network-centric weapons. Such visions imagine pervasive and interlinked arrays of loitering and “embedded” sensors overcoming all the limits and interruptions that large city environments place in the way of successfully implementing network-centric warfare.
Combat Zones That See
O ne major example of such a development is the Combat Zones That See project. This is led by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)—the agency responsible for dreaming up futuristic military systems. Made public at the start of the Iraq insurgency in 2003, the launch report for the project claims that it “explores concepts, develops [computer] algorithms, and delivers systems for utilizing large numbers (1,000s) of video cameras to provide the close-in sensing demanded for military operations in urban terrain.” Through installation of thousands of computerized video cameras across whole occupied cities, the project organizers envisage “motion-pattern analysis across whole city scales.” In other words, the movements of cars across whole occupied cities will be tracked in real time.
Once it has been developed (by 2007), CTS “will generate, for the first time, the reconnaissance, surveillance and targeting information needed to provide close-in, continuous, always-on support for military operations in urban terrain.” It will be designed to specifically address the “inherently three-dimensional nature of urban centers, with large buildings, extensive underground passageways, and concealment from above.”
The central challenge of CTS, according to DARPA, will be to build fully representative data profiles on the normal movement patterns of entire subject cities so that computer software could then use statistical modeling to “determine what is normal and what is not.” This will be a purported aid to identifying insurgents’ activities and real or potential attacks, as well as warning of the presence or movement of target or suspect vehicles or individuals.
After a stream of protests from U.S. civil liberties groups, DARPA stressed that, while the initial test of mass, urban tracking will take place at a U.S. Army base within the United States (Fort Belvoir, Virginia), the deployment of CTS will only take place in what DARPA calls “foreign urban battlefields.”
The possibility of saturating occupied or target cities with tiny sensors and cameras is also being investigated by an associated DARPA program labeled HURT. This program centers on the development of a wide range of surveillance and weapons platforms tailored to loiter for long periods within and above global south urban environments. DARPA’s HURT and CTS programs are, in turn, being backed up by major virtual simulations of wide scale future urban wars in cities like Jakarta (an exercise known as Urban Resolve). In these, future suites of surveillance systems, like those under development in HURT, are inputted into the simulations to assess their likely effectiveness.
Fantasies of Robotized Killing
T he second area of work involves a shift towards robotic air and ground weapons, which, when linked to the surveillance and target identification systems just discussed, will be deployed to continually and automatically destroy purported targets in potentially endless streams of state killing. Here, crucially, fantasies of military omniscience and omnipotence, which blur seamlessly into wider sci-fi and cyberpunk imaginations of future weapons, become indistinguishable from major U.S. military research and development programs. The fantasies of linking all-seeing surveillance to automated machines of killing are a central feature here.
Excited by the reports on DARPA’s CTS Program, Defense Watch magazine provides a telling example of such fantasies. In their scenario, swarms of tiny networked sensors pervade the target city. These provide continuous streams of target information to arrays of automated weaponry. Together, these systems produce continuous killing and destruction: a kind of robotized counter-insurgency operation with U.S. commanders and soldiers doing little but overseeing the systems from a safe distance.
Defense Watch thus fantasizes about “a battlefield in the near future” that is wired up with the systems, which result from the CTS program and its followers. The text is so revealing it is worth quoting at length. “Several large fans are stationed outside the city limits of an urban target that our [sic] guys need to take,” they begin: “Upon appropriate signal, what appears like a dust cloud emanates from each fan. The cloud is blown into town where it quickly dissipates. After a few minutes of processing by laptop-size processors, a squadron of small, disposable aircraft ascends over the city. The little drones dive into selected areas determined by the initial analysis of data transmitted by the fan-propelled swarm. Where they disperse their nano-payloads.
“After this, the processors get even more busy,” continues the scenario. “Within minutes the mobile tactical center has a detailed visual and audio picture of every street and building in the entire city. Every hostile [person] has been identified and located.
“From this point on, nobody in the city moves without the full and complete knowledge of the mobile tactical center. As blind spots are discovered, they can quickly be covered by additional dispersal of more nano-devices. Unmanned air and ground vehicles can now be vectored directly to selected targets to take them out, one by one. Those enemy combatants clever enough to evade actually being taken out by the unmanned units can then be captured or killed by human elements who are guided directly to their locations, with full and complete knowledge of their individual fortifications and defenses. When the dust settles on competitive bidding for [the Combat Zones That See program], and after the first prototypes are delivered several years from now, our guys are in for a mind-boggling treat at the expense of the bad guys.”
Such fantasies extend even further to the automated surveillance, through brain scanning, of people’s inner mental attitudes to any U.S. invasion, so that targets deemed to be resistant can be automatically identified and destroyed: “Robotic systems push deeper into the urban area. Behind the fighters, military police and intelligence personnel process the inhabitants, electronically reading their attitudes toward the intervention and cataloguing them into a database immediately recoverable by every fire team in the city (even individual weapons might be able to read personal signatures, firing immediately upon cueing). Smart munitions track enemy systems and profiled individuals. Satellites monitor the city for any air defense fires, curing immediate responses from near-space orbiting guns. Drones track inhabitants who have been read as potentially hostile and tagged.”
Emerging Robotized Killing Systems
D isturbingly, such fantasies are far from the realms of sci-fi. Rather, as with the CTS and HURT programs, they are fuelling very real multimillion dollar research and weapons development programs for ground and aerial vehicles, which not only navigate and move robotically, but which select and destroy targets without humans in the loop based on algorithmically-driven decisions.
Writing in the U.S. military magazine Signal in 2004, U.S. Air Force commentator Maryann Lawlor, for example, discusses the development of “autonomous mechanized combatants” for the U.S. Air Force. These are being designed, she notes, to use “pattern recognition” software for what she calls “time-critical targeting.” This means that automatic sensors will link very quickly to automated weapons so that fleeting targets both within and outside cities can be continually destroyed. Such doctrine is widely termed “compressing the kill chain” or “sensor to shooter warfare” in U.S. military parlance. The “swarming of unmanned systems” project team at U.S. forces Joint Command Experimentation Directorate, based in Suffolk, Virginia, she states, are so advanced in such experimentation that “autonomous, networked and integrated robots may be the norm rather than the exception by 2025.”
By that date, Lawlor predicts that “technologies could be developed that would allow machines to sense a report of gunfire in an urban environment to within one meter, triangulating the position of the shooter and return fire within a fraction of a second” providing a completely automated weapon system devoid of human involvement. She quotes Gordon Johnson, the Unmanned Effects team leader for the U.S. Army’s Project Alpha, as saying of such a system, “If it can get within one meter, it’s killed the person who’s firing. So, essentially, what we’re saying is that anyone who would shoot at our forces would die. Before he can drop that weapon and run, he’s probably already dead. Well now, these cowards in Baghdad would have to play with blood and guts every time they shoot at one of our folks. The costs of poker went up significantly. The enemy, are they going to give up blood and guts to kill machines? I’m guessing not.”
Lawlor predicts that such robo-war systems will “help save lives by taking humans out of harm’s way.” Here, only U.S. forces are considered to fall within the category human.
In addition, unmanned aerial vehicles armed with intelligent munitions are already being designed which will, eventually, be programmed to fire on and kill targets detected by U.S. Air Force’s real-time surveillance grids, in a completely autonomous way. Such munitions will loiter over targets for days at a time, linked into the data links, until targets are detected for destruction. A program called TUDLS (Total Urban Dominance Layered System) for example, is currently underway to provide what Benjamin Plenge of the U.S. Air Force’s Munitions Directorate in Florida, describes in his geek speak as “long hover and loiter propulsion systems, multidiscriminant sensors and seekers, mini- and micro-air vehicles, mini-lethal and non-lethal warheads, autonomous and man-in-the loop control algorithms, and a strong interface with the battlespace in formation network.”
Plenge stresses further that the loitering munitions developed through the TUDLS program will “be capable of completing the entire kill chain with minimal human involvement.” They will be able to cooperate to maximize their autonomous destructive power or, where there are “more stringent rules of engagement,” through referring back each time they strike to humans-in-the-loop when they are “in close proximity to friendly forces.”
Crucially, such munitions will be equipped with algorithms designed to separate targets from non-targets automatically. The ultimate goals, according to Chuck Pinney, an engineer at the Raytheon Corporation, is a “kill chain solution” based on “1st look, 1st feed, 1st kill,” where each armed unmanned vehicle continuously “seeks out targets on its own.” Tirpak, a U.S. Air Force specialist, envisages that humans will be required to make the decisions to launch weapons at targets only “until Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles establish a track record of reliability in finding the right targets and employing weapons properly.” Then, he predicts, the “machines will be trusted to do even that.”
The bombs that will be tasked with such automated killing are already under development. One, termed LOCAAS (Low Cost Autonomous Attack Systems), the USAF has already committed to buy. This loiters and searches over an area of 80 square miles, scanning the area and comparing signals received with what the USAF engineer Greg Marzolf describes as “stored target templates” that use the “advanced [computer] algorithms” of what is known as “automated target recognition” or ATR software. When the signature of a known target is detected, the missile hones in to destroy it.
T here are many people, even within the U.S. military, who are skeptical that the horrors and “fog of war” in bloody urban operations like the Iraqi insurgency, can ever really be automated. With over 1,500 U.S. military dead, mostly through bloody and close urban combat, the technophiliac fantasies of U.S. defense contractors and R&D organizations must look highly unrealistic to the U.S. infantry on the streets of Fallujah or Baghdad. As ever, then, the casualties from the glitzy fantasies of military theorists, who grow ever-fatter on the back of lavish spending increases from the Bush administration, are all of the poor and impoverished of the world’s cities.
Whether such systems will ever function as imagined even in military terms is, then, beside the point. The very existence of an imperial project of launching the world’s military hegemon’s high-tech killing systems into global south cities will inevitably lead to mass civilian carnage. This seems especially so as new computer systems will likely emerge, which are the actual agents of continuous, autonomous killing as “kill chains are compressed,” sensors are linked automatically to shooters, and the fantasies of “persistent area dominance” achieve full expression through the favorable context of Bush’s huge defense spending increases and ideologies of preemptive war. The real worry is that, in bringing the fantasy that U.S. personnel can be withdrawn from risk to supervise automated machines that do the business of killing in global south cities, the barriers to U.S. aggression might be further reduced.
The broader tragedy, of course, is that these military debates and fantasies translate the human richness of whole global south cities and their residents into mere targets to be assaulted and annihilated at will. They reduce the politics of empire to an age-old quest for using the technological advantage of the colonizing power to exterminate those who might politically oppose it. They fundamentally rest on the essentially racist idea that life in the global south is essentially worthless and expendable.
Stephen Graham is a professor of Human Geography at the University of Durham in the UK. His new book is Cities, War and Terrorism (Blackwell).
Z Magazine Archive
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