Make no mistake: we’re entering a new world of military planning. Admittedly, the latest proposed Pentagon budget manages to preserve just about every costly toy-cum-boondoggle from the good old days when MiGs still roamed the skies, including an uncut nuclear arsenal. Eternally over-budget items like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, cherished by their services and well-lobbied congressional representatives, aren’t leaving the scene any time soon, though delays or cuts in purchase orders are planned. All this should reassure us that, despite the talk of massive cuts, the U.S. military will continue to be the profligate, inefficient, and remarkably ineffective institution we’ve come to know and squander our treasure on.
Still, the cuts that matter are already in the works, the ones that will change the American way of war. They may mean little in monetary terms — the Pentagon budget is actually slated to increase through 2017 — but in imperial terms they will make a difference. A new way of preserving the embattled idea of an American planet is coming into focus and one thing is clear: in the name of Washington's needs, it will offer a direct challenge to national sovereignty.
The Marines began huge amphibious exercises — dubbed Bold Alligator 2012 — off the East coast of the U.S. last week, but someone should IM them: it won’t help. No matter what they do, they are going to have less boots on the ground in the future, and there’s going to be less ground to have them on. The same is true for the Army (even if a cut of 100,000 troops will still leave the combined forces of the two services larger than they were on September 11, 2001). Less troops, less full-frontal missions, no full-scale invasions, no more counterinsurgency: that's the order of the day. Just this week, in fact, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta suggested that the schedule for the drawdown of combat boots in Afghanistan might be speeded up by more than a year. Consider it a sign of the times.
Like the F-35, American mega-bases, essentially well-fortified American towns plunked down in a strange land, like our latest “embassies” the size of lordly citadels, aren't going away soon. After all, in base terms, we’re already hunkered down in the Greater Middle East in an impressive way. Even in post-withdrawal Iraq, the Pentagon is negotiating for a new long-term defense agreement that might include getting a little of its former base space back, and it continues to build in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Washington has typically signaled in recent years that it’s ready to fight to the last Japanese prime minister not to lose a single base among the three dozen it has on the Japanese island of Okinawa.
But here’s the thing: even if the U.S. military is dragging its old habits, weaponry, and global-basing ideas behind it, it’s still heading offshore. There will be no more land wars on the Eurasian continent. Instead, greater emphasis will be placed on the Navy, the Air Force, and a policy “pivot” to face China in southern Asia where the American military position can be strengthened without more giant bases or monster embassies.
For Washington, “offshore” means the world’s boundary-less waters and skies, but also, more metaphorically, it means being repositioned off the coast of national sovereignty and all its knotty problems. This change, on its way for years, will officially rebrand the planet as an American free-fire zone, unchaining Washington from the limits that national borders once imposed. New ways to cross borders and new technology for doing it without permission are clearly in the planning stages, and U.S. forces are being reconfigured accordingly.
Think of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden as a harbinger of and model for what’s to come. It was an operation enveloped in a cloak of secrecy. There was no consultation with the “ally” on whose territory the raid was to occur. It involved combat by an elite special operations unit backed by drones and other high-tech weaponry and supported by the CIA. A national boundary was crossed without either permission or any declaration of hostilities. The object was that elusive creature “terrorism,” the perfect global will-o'-the-wisp around which to plan an offshore future.
All the elements of this emerging formula for retaining planetary dominance have received plenty of publicity, but the degree to which they combine to assault traditional concepts of national sovereignty has been given little attention.
Since November 2002, when a Hellfire missile from a CIA-operated Predator drone turned a car with six alleged al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen into ash, robotic aircraft have led the way in this border-crossing, air-space penetrating assault. The U.S. now has drone bases across the planet, 60at last count. Increasingly, the long-range reach of its drone program means that those robotic planes can penetrate just about any nation’s air space. It matters little whether that country houses them itself. Take Pakistan, which just forced the CIA to remove its drones from Shamsi Air Base. Nonetheless, CIA drone strikes in that country’s tribal borderlands continue, assumedly from bases in Afghanistan, and recently President Obama offered a full-throated public defense of them. (That there have been fewer of them lately has been a political decision of the Obama administration, not of the Pakistanis.)
Drones themselves are distinctly fallible, crash-prone machines. (Just last week, for instance, an advanced Israeli drone capable of hitting Iran went down on a test flight, a surveillance drone — assumedly American — crashed in a Somali refugee camp, and a report surfaced that some U.S. drones in Afghanistan can’t fly in that country’s summer heat.) Still, they are, relatively speaking, cheap to produce. They can fly long distances across almost any border with no danger whatsoever to their human pilots and are capable of staying aloft for extended periods of time. They allow for surveillance and strikes anywhere. By their nature, they are border-busting creatures. It’s no mistake then that they are winners in the latest Pentagon budgeting battles or, as aheadline at Wired’s Danger Room blog summed matters up, “Humans Lose, Robots Win in New Defense Budget.”
And keep in mind that when drones are capable of taking off from and landing on aircraft carrier decks, they will quite literally be offshore with respect to all borders, but capable of crossing any. (The Navy's latest plans include a future drone that will land itself on those decks without a human pilot at any controls.)
War has always been the most human and inhuman of activities. Now, it seems, its inhuman aspect is quite literally on the rise. With the U.S. military working to roboticize the future battlefield, the American way of war is destined to be imbued with Terminator-style terror.
Already American drones regularly cross borders with mayhem in mind in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Because of a drone downed in Iran, we know that they have also been flying surveillance missions in that country's airspace as — for the State Department — they are in Iraq. Washington is undoubtedly planning for far more of the same.
American War Enters the Shadows
Along with those skies filled with increasing numbers of drones goes a rise in U.S. special operations forces. They, too, are almost by definition boundary-busting outfits. Once upon a time, an American president had his own “private army” — the CIA. Now, in a sense, he has his own private military. Formerly modest-sized units of elite special operations forces have grown into a force of 60,000, a secret military cocooned in the military, which is slated for further expansion. According to Nick Turse, in 2011 special operations units were in 120 nations, almost two-thirds of the countries on Earth.
By their nature, special operations forces work in the shadows: as hunter-killer teams, night raiders, and border-crossers. They function in close conjunction with drones and, as the regular Army slowly withdraws from its giant garrisons in places like Europe, they are preparing to operate in a new world of stripped-down bases called “lily pads” — think frogs jumping across a pond to their prey. No longer will the Pentagon be building American towns with all the amenities of home, but forward-deployed, minimalist outposts near likely global hotspots, like Camp Lemonnier in the North African nation of Djibouti.
Increasingly, American war itself will enter those shadows, where crossings of every sort of border, domestic as well as foreign, are likely to take place with little accountability to anyone, except the president and the national security complex.
In those shadows, our secret forces are already melding into one another. A striking sign of this was the appointment as CIA director of a general who, in Iraq and Afghanistan, had relied heavily on special forces hunter-killer teams and night raiders, as well as drones, to do the job. Undoubtedly the most highly praised general of our American moment, General David Petraeus has himself slipped into the shadows where he is presiding over covert civilian forces working ever more regularly in tandem with special operations teams and sharing drone assignments with the military.
And don’t forget the Navy, which couldn’t be more offshore to begin with. It already operates 11 aircraft carrier task forces (none of which are to be cut — thanks to a decision reportedly made by the president). These are, effectively, major American bases — massively armed small American towns — at sea. To these, the Navy is adding smaller “bases.” Right now, for instance, it’s retrofitting an old amphibious transport docking ship bound for the Persian Gulf either as a Navy Seal commando “mothership” or (depending on which Pentagon spokesperson you listen to) as a “lily pad” for counter-mine Sikorsky MH-53 helicopters and patrol craft. Whichever it may be, it will just be a stopgap until the Navy can build new "Afloat Forward Staging Bases" from scratch.
Futuristic weaponry now in the planning stages could add to the miliary's border-crossing capabilities. Take the Army’s Advanced Hypersonic Weapon or DARPA’s Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2, both of which are intended, someday, to hit targets anywhere on Earth with massive conventional explosives in less than an hour.
From lily pads to aircraft carriers, advanced drones to special operations teams, it’s offshore and into the shadows for U.S. military policy. While the United States is economically in decline, it remains the sole military superpower on the planet. No other country pours anywhere near as much money into its military and its national security establishment or is likely to do so in the foreseeable future. It’s clear enough that Washington is hoping to offset any economic decline with newly reconfigured military might. As in the old TV show, the U.S. has gun, will travel.
Onshore, American power in the twenty-first century proved a disaster. Offshore, with Washington in control of the global seas and skies, with its ability to kick down the world's doors and strike just about anywhere without a by-your-leave or thank-you-ma'am, it hopes for better. As the early attempts to put this program into operation from Pakistan to Yemen have indicated, however, be careful what you wish for: it sometimes comes home to bite you.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com, where this article first appeared. His latest book, The United States of Fear (Haymarket Books), has just been published.
[Note: I couldn’t have written this piece without the superb reportage of TomDispatch Associate Editor Nick Turse on bases, drones, and special operations forces. I offer him a deep bow of thanks. Tom]
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