Notes on the Rise of Remotely-Sensed War

The sustained military engagement by the United States government with “non-state actors” and trans-national armed groups over the past fifteen years has been a semantic issue, as well as it has raised practical problems of defining targets of engagement.  The fight against these unnamed armies less able to be tied to nations hasn’t been easily able to be mapped, or clearly conceived in clear geospatial terms–or limited to a single theater of operations.  The very term “unlawful combatants“–too easily confined to those “without uniform”–has effectively blurred the distinction between soldiers and civilians, in order to not recognize prisoners-of-war under the Geneva Convention.

The result of this shift in definition has threatened to erase the rights of persons in armed conflict, the problem of mapping the engagement of forces without nationality, or of engaging with “non-state actors” has tied warfare to tracking metadata, surveillance and remote sensing–sensing that greatly expanded after the complaints of the limited ability to generate and create the sort of “broad-area photographic coverage” of a theater of war that was necessary to comprehend an operational theater of the scope at which the Iraq War demanded.

Indeed, the expansion of stealth satellite surveillance can be charted back to the Reagan administration, although the demand to expand the scope of stealth satellite surveillance had origins from projects of the covert observations of the “blank spots” on maps of the Soviet Union by reconnaissance satellites on the map.  The expansion of the project of gathering classified information was far more forcefully articulated from 1996, leading the Defense Mapping Agency to expand both its size and include the National Photographic Interpretation center, in a National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) located within brick buildings in Bethesda, MD, that would expand in 2003 to a National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) that was increasingly oriented to the synthesis of geographically organized data collection in easily accessible ways from satellite observations, and a radical expansion of the multibillion dollar budget allocated to stealth satellite observation from satellites combing radar, optical, and infrared signals–but the rising cost of whose almost $10 billion budget temporarily had faced objections for being “ineffective against modern adversaries such as terrorist networks,” but were designed to escape detection among circulating space debris by enemy radar–often actually by concealing themselves behind a conical reflective balloon.

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The new generation of satellites that were developed by the National Reconnaissance Office of the Pentagon There is something fitting that if transnational political actors–Non-State Actors (NSA’s)–are defined as lacking legal ties to any national entity, and are in need of surveilling by the National Security Agency.  While the work of drone warfare promises the required precision to eliminate networks of hidden actors–not present on the map of sovereign actors–such warfare is based on a map that raises numerous ethical–as well as legal–problems of surveillance, targeting, and of the readiness to create and orchestrate theaters of war anywhere in the world.  It is not only that sometimes, in trying to identify these actors, drones inevitably hit, and kill, the wrong folks, but the execution-style mission of such drones, and the sorts of surveillance by which their courses are mapped.

In seeking to locate such networks without nations, the United States has generated some fascinating military maps that track these operations of surveillance that target non-state actors.  At a time when only eleven countries–according to the Institute for Economics and Peace–are not engaged in hostilities, being at war is not only the new normal in the United States–as is the ability to concretize or conjure up the location of the enemy.  The expansion of the remote wars that the current and past US administrations have expanded have created new topographies of warfare, nicely explained in Josh Begley’s map of Drone Warfare, an image that depends more on the mechanics of remote observation than on the ground presence or situated observations.  The remove at which a global war on terror is conducted from control monitors in New Mexico without frontiers, Begley mapped how the practice of “remote split operations” as a technology of engagement that mirrors increased engagement with “non-national” combatants otherwise difficult to define.  Working from John Brennan’s “playbook” of CIA director John Brennan, defender of “enhanced interrogation techniques” at Guantanamo, the focussing on individual operatives has led to a codification of “kill-lists”–enabled by deadly drones–that are based on a broad expansion of what constitutes an “imminent” threat to national security, and an increasing power of the remotely situated pilots of drones who lie at one end of a network of intelligence gathering.

The orientation of such warfare around intercepted data defined “remote split operations” as a way of engaging combatants in surreptitiously observed theaters of war conducted by remotely-operated Predator aircraft.  The extent to which drone warfare creates a new geography of war is based on the warped geography of military engagement by the CIA.  It is enabled by the exchange of information through video feeds from drones beamed by satellites to US Air Force bases in Rammstein, in Germany, ostensibly without knowledge of the German government, that are then dispatched almost instantaneously via coaxial cable to US Bases in the United States, so that pilots located near Indian Springs, Nevada, can target their newly discovered enemies: the collection of information from the Galaxy 26 satellite creates the unique possibility of extraterritorial warfare without any on-the-ground physical presence in the area for the first time.

remotely piloting drones

If we associate remote-sensing satellites with meteorological predictions or weather forecasting–as of the Pakistan monsoons–the range of intelligence-gathering satellites suggests newly expanding abilities for remote engagement in military theaters that side-step engaging human targets at war, as if to silence the static of daily deaths.

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The amazing precision of the drone warfare program that the CIA has steadily conducted seems to take advantage of a new ability for remote mapping, based upon satellite feeds and GSI.  Indeed, the considerable definition of climatological remote sensing of the possibility of precipitation in monsoons within Pakistan’s national boundaries reveals the local degree of detail that satellite surveillance of the same region allows–the same region where the first drone strikes were launched in 2004, long before a subsequent strike would kill the first US citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, Yemen in 2011.

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The expanding use of Remotely Piloted Aircraft at Ground Control Stations a continent away transforms the notion of a “battlefield” to a screen of virtual engagement of the enemy, normalizing the notion of “Remote-Split” Operations as a distinct if disembodied theater of combat in itself, which is in fact premised on a different notion of what constitutes an “imminent” threat than existed before–and is sadly dictated all too often by a database of “kill-lists” that rests on the sustained illusion that “very precise, precision strikes” of targeted killing constitute legally defensible acts of national self-defense, erasing its inevitable effects.  Does the purview of remote mapping allow the counter-terrorism czar, John Brennan, to take the world–rather than any specific theater of combat–as a battlefield?

MCE MAP US Air Force

Such maps are sampled from Jeremy Scahill’s recent intrepid reporting for The Intercept.  They define a terrifying remove of mission control from a remotely observed (and mapped) theater of war, and raise compelling questions of the ethics of remotely observed war.  Begley’s map displays the central role of the Ramstein Air Base in the piloting of drone aircraft in the Middle East, Somalia, and Pakistan demonstrates the central role of the US Base in conducting thousands of remote air strikes–taking advantage of its unique position as a US base able to reach a satellite whose “footprint” included Afghanistan, and which could serve as a crucial pivot in the expansion of a remotely waged war.  (Moving the control of commands of the drones from German soil via undersea cables, so that they would not require the permission of the German or any other government to fire missiles or target enemies by Predators has created “remote split operationsvia undersea cables which were able to conduct lightning fast communications from off-site pilots to individual drones.  The Galaxy 26 satellite was repositioned over the Indian Ocean to link the drones to the German US Air Force base.

But the notion of remote sensing of targets of air strikes are increasingly the new status quo, to judge by recent reports of Kurdish fighters’ geolocation of targets of the Islamic State on iPads and tablets that can locate precise targets of US bombings in occupied areas bordering on Turkey.

Kurds checking targets on tablets' maps to determine where Ameican combat missions may strike

Mauricio Lima/NYT

The increasingly warped space of the targeting of suspected terrorists in ongoing war of drones that struck Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen based on flights remotely piloted from New Mexico, with minimal risk of American life, in ways that have bracketed war from the attention of embedded journalists, photographers, or public scrutiny, as the army increasingly monitors the flight of drones by satellite, and sent via undersea cable to US intelligence in undersea fiber optic cables, in ways that enable a remotely conducted war–so that the ethics of execution would be less readily considered, and the question of permission of routing requests for targeted drone warfare less likely to depend on the permission of other governments–and indeed to allow allow a “don’t ask, don’t tell” to continue where the German Federal government is given no information of the routing of satellite transmissions about the drones though a US Air Force base on German land.  Whereas Pentagon spokesperson Maj. James Brindle noted that “The Air and Space Operations Center at Ramstein Air Base conducts operational level planning, monitoring and assessment of assigned airpower missions throughout Europe and Africa, but does not directly fly or control any manned or remotely piloted aircraft.

Yet the centrality of Ramstein as a nexus for conducting an ongoing war that is remotely fought reveals a new topography of warcraft.  The strategic centrality of the air force base, even as it is removed from the theater of war or the physical positions of pilots, reveals an increased warping of the map of global warfare–as it reveals the central position of US Intelligence in a world where non-national warfare omits scale, coherence, and continuity as criteria of a military map.  The  slide mapping the power of Remotely Piloted Aircraft to fight war with non-national entities preserves a mental geography and spatial imaginary that locates the United States–and the pilots physically located in New Mexico at the Creech Air Force Base–in an armed drone program as a result of one of whose strikes alone, according to a recently released report from the Open Society Foundations, some twenty-six civilians (including children and a pregnant woman) were killed.

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The absence of available recourse and remove of responsibility Remotely Piloted Aircraft encourage makes one wonder what Integrity and Service they actively sanction, and how they remove the excursive of a deadly level of military engagement from public scrutiny or accountability.

The documentation of such expanding use of Remotely Piloted Aircraft from Ground Control Stations a continent away deeply transforms the notion of a “battlefield” to a screen of virtual engagement of the enemy.  The maps reveal a warping not only space–by retaining the centrality of the continental United States, somewhat stubbornly, at its center–but the ethics of international warfare.

Despite the increasing role of non-state actors in our concepts of war, we might ask how the odd new category–is one less an actor when one has no state?–maps onto a world where almost all states (save eleven that are free from conflict) are actually actively engaged in war.

Global Peace Index of coutnries at war

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Filed under international warfare, Non-State Enemies, unlawful combattents

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