New Weapons Systems Could Give Pentagon Unprecedented Power Over the Planet ... or Lead to Future Military Disaster
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The Global War on Terror
As it found itself at the edge of defeat in the attempted pacification of two complex societies, Afghanistan and Iraq, Washington responded in part by adapting new technologies of electronic surveillance, biometric identification, and drone warfare -- all of which are now melding into what may become an information regime far more powerful and destructive than anything that has come before.
After six years of a failing counterinsurgency effort in Iraq, the Pentagon discovered the power of biometric identification and electronic surveillance to pacify the country’s sprawling cities. It then built a biometric database with more than a million Iraqi fingerprints and iris scans that U.S. patrols on the streets of Baghdad could access instantaneously by satellite link to a computer center in West Virginia.
When President Obama took office and launched his “surge,” escalating the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, that country became a new frontier for testing and perfecting such biometric databases, as well as for full-scale drone war in both that country and the Pakistani tribal borderlands, the latest wrinkle in a technowar already loosed by the Bush administration. This meant accelerating technological developments in drone warfare that had largely been suspended for two decades after the Vietnam War.
Launched as an experimental, unarmed surveillance aircraft in 1994, the Predator drone was first deployed in 2000 for combat surveillance under the CIA’s “Operation Afghan Eyes.” By 2011, the advanced MQ-9 Reaper drone, with “persistent hunter killer” capabilities, was heavily armed with missiles and bombs as well as sensors that could read disturbed dirt at 5,000 feet and track footprints back to enemy installations. Indicating the torrid pace of drone development, between 2004 and 2010 total flying time for all unmanned vehicles rose from just 71 hours to 250,000 hours.
By 2009, the Air Force and the CIA were already deploying a drone armada of at least 195 Predators and 28 Reapers inside Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan -- and it’s only grown since. These collected and transmitted 16,000 hours of video daily, and from 2006-2012 fired hundreds of Hellfire missiles that killed an estimated 2,600 supposed insurgents inside Pakistan’s tribal areas. Though the second-generation Reaper drones might seem stunningly sophisticated, one defense analyst has called them “very much Model T Fords.” Beyond the battlefield, there are now some 7,000 drones in the U.S. armada of unmanned aircraft, including 800 larger missile-firing drones. By funding its own fleet of 35 drones and borrowing others from the Air Force, the CIA has moved beyond passive intelligence collection to build a permanent robotic paramilitary capacity.
In the same years, another form of information warfare came, quite literally, online. Over two administrations, there has been continuity in the development of a cyberwarfare capability at home and abroad. Starting in 2002, President George W. Bush illegally authorized the National Security Agency to scan countless millions of electronic messages with its top-secret “Pinwale” database. Similarly, the FBI started an Investigative Data Warehouse that, by 2009, held a billion individual records.
Under Presidents Bush and Obama, defensive digital surveillance has grown into an offensive “cyberwarfare” capacity, which has already been deployed against Iran in history’s first significant cyberwar. In 2009, the Pentagon formed U.S. Cyber Command (CYBERCOM), with headquarters at Ft. Meade, Maryland, and a cyberwarfare center at Lackland Air Base in Texas, staffed by 7,000 Air Force employees. Two years later, it declared cyberspace an “operational domain” like air, land, or sea, and began putting its energy into developing a cadre of cyber-warriors capable of launching offensive operations, such as a variety of attacks on the computerized centrifuges in Iran’s nuclear facilities and Middle Eastern banks handling Iranian money.