New Weapons Systems Could Give Pentagon Unprecedented Power Over the Planet ... or Lead to Future Military Disaster
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When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, the “father of U.S. military intelligence” Colonel Ralph Van Deman drew upon security methods he had developed years before in the Philippines to found the Army’s Military Intelligence Division. He recruited a staff that quickly grew from one (himself) to 1,700, deployed some 300,000 citizen-operatives to compile more than a million pages of surveillance reports on American citizens, and laid the foundations for a permanent domestic surveillance apparatus.
A version of this system rose to unparalleled success during World War II when Washington established the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) as the nation’s first worldwide espionage agency. Among its nine branches, Research & Analysis recruited a staff of nearly 2,000 academics who amassed 300,000 photographs, a million maps, and three million file cards, which they deployed in an information system via “indexing, cross-indexing, and counter-indexing” to answer countless tactical questions.
Yet by early 1944, the OSS found itself, in the words of historian Robin Winks, “drowning under the flow of information.” Many of the materials it had so carefully collected were left to molder in storage, unread and unprocessed. Despite its ambitious global reach, this first U.S. information regime, absent technological change, might well have collapsed under its own weight, slowing the flow of foreign intelligence that would prove so crucial for America’s exercise of global dominion after World War II.
Under the pressures of a never-ending war in Vietnam, those running the U.S. information infrastructure turned to computerized data management, launching a second American information regime. Powered by the most advanced IBM mainframe computers, the U.S. military compiled monthly tabulations of security in all of South Vietnam’s 12,000 villages and filed the three million enemy documents its soldiers captured annually on giant reels of bar-coded film. At the same time, the CIA collated and computerized diverse data on the communist civilian infrastructure as part of its infamous Phoenix Program. This, in turn, became the basis for its systematic tortures and 41,000 “extra-judicial executions” (which, based on disinformation from petty local grudges and communist counterintelligence, killed many but failed to capture more than a handfull of top communist cadres).
Most ambitiously, the U.S. Air Force spent $800 million a year to lace southern Laos with a network of 20,000 acoustic, seismic, thermal, and ammonia-sensitive sensors to pinpoint Hanoi’s truck convoys coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail under a heavy jungle canopy. The information these provided was then gathered on computerized systems for the targeting of incessant bombing runs. After 100,000 North Vietnamese troops passed right through this electronic grid undetected with trucks, tanks, and heavy artillery to launch the Nguyen Hue Offensive in 1972, the U.S. Pacific Air Force pronounced this bold attempt to build an “electronic battlefield” an unqualified failure.
In this pressure cooker of what became history’s largest air war, the Air Force also accelerated the transformation of a new information system that would rise to significance three decades later: the Firebee target drone. By war’s end, it had morphed into an increasingly agile unmanned aircraft that would make 3,500 top-secret surveillance sorties over China, North Vietnam, and Laos. By 1972, the SC/TV drone, with a camera in its nose, was capable of flying 2,400 miles while navigating via a low-resolution television image.
On balance, all this computerized data helped foster the illusion that American “pacification” programs in the countryside were winning over the inhabitants of Vietnam’s villages, and the delusion that the air war was successfully destroying North Vietnam’s supply effort. Despite a dismal succession of short-term failures that helped deliver a soul-searing blow to American power, all this computerized data-gathering proved a seminal experiment, even if its advances would not become evident for another 30 years until the U.S. began creating a third -- robotic -- information regime.