Tag Archives: drone warfare

Gulfs of Meaning

In a world where borders don’t often correspond landmarks or terrain, tensions of incursions on new forms of territoriality multiply. Tensions of violations of airspace and national waters pose questions of the accuracy reliance on mapping systems, moreover, difficult to contest or resolve on a single map, as, at the same time, the frictionless nature of drone flights–here embodied by the costly RQ-4A Global Hawk, whose price as a high-end unmanned surveillance tool reflects its abilities to transgress borders without detection, flying at over 20,000 feet across borders at a speed of five hundred miles per hour, embodies an ability to remap a space of surveillance by superior mapping technologies than other countries. With literally hours remaining before devastating military airstrikes on Iran, amidst fears that a slight miscalculation or misinterpretation of mapping systems could precipitate an unwanted war of massive scale, the strikes were canceled at 7:30 p.m. Washington time, and the threat that Iran had “made a very big mistake” de-escalated; Trump suddenly allowed for the margin of human error, even as he maintained that the drone had been flying “clearly over international waters,” rather than Iranian airspace just 750 miles southeast of Tehran, refusing to relinquish his own map of where the Global Hawk was downed.

The trust in this unmanned drone may possess its own almost hubristic quality. For its downing by Iranian missiles downed not only a costly military surveillance tool, but punctured a space of surveillance of the Persian Gulf and Iranian territory, and a sense of security in a precarious geopolitical region–at the same time as the American government seems to be bent on increasing tensions about the continued flow of crude petrochemicals to much of the industrialized world. For the downing of the drone punctured confidence in a continuous space of surveillance. Radar systems the United States Military didn’t think Revolutionary Guards possessed or could acquire marked not only a threats of war, but of shattering an imagined space of global dominance by which the United States was effectively able to extend its sovereignty into international waters to protect traffic across the Strait of Hormuz–not only by a new surface-to-air missile, but a new radar system able to detect the drone–

–that effectively ended a map of surveillance that will no longer exist in the face of new Iranian defense systems allowing Revolutionary Guards to protect their territorial claims. If the region has long been planned and imagined to be a new theater of possible war, the nature at which each side is compelled to map the potential battle field has been forced to be remapped, in ways that rightly gave pause to the possibility of American air strikes, as the guidance systems of surface-to-air missiles that Iran possesses to target drones, aircraft and unmanned vehicles are no longer clearly understood by the U.S. Army or U.S. military intelligence. And as an American “upper hand” in mapping technologies has been punctured, the battlefield may well need to be remapped.

Airspace and territorial waters are more difficult to map on earlier maps, and difficult to map on top of shorelines, or in navigational routes, perhaps, for an untrained eye, but the proliferation of alternate readings of sovereign space have become especially fraught in the waters of the Strait of Hormuz, where overcrowded traffic turns on hairpin turns, seems to have been detected entering Iranian airspace–if one trusts the maps tweeted out in self-defense by Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif–who argued the unmanned surveillance drone had crossed the “red line” of its sovereign airspace without warning, ignoring alerts from Revolutionary Guards, and interpreted as threats to its sovereignty.

Coming on the heels of Iranian threats to shut the Strait of Hormuz to all traffic, as Iranian speedboats patrolled the waters, as if tempting to assert their control over the narrow passage-way out of belief that “if our oil does not go through the Strait, other countries’ will certainly not cross the Strait,” the jockeying for power over the transit of oil in international waters set up a conflict between where national sovereign interests began and ended, and what power the United States regained on a global geopolitical stage, even as the United States openly asserted the upper hand of global surveillance over what is one of the narrowest maritime site of petroleum transit in the world wildly out of proportion to the millions of barrels that cross the narrow strait daily, a transit that wildly dwarfs the petroleum carried to global markets by other maritime routes–despite the quite narrow nature of its passage, and the even narrower space of international waters by which oil tankers navigate the Strait.

NASA/Public Domain
Shipping Lanes of Strait of Hormuz

Where the unmanned vehicle flying American colors flew–and whether it crossed into a sovereign space–bedcame a flash-point of regional tensions, so much that the downing of the $110M drone, long celebrated by the U.S. Army as covering surveillance needs over the Gulf, embarrassingly became a target of Iranian defenses, as it was downed on June 20, even as it was flying at over 60,000 feet, or above what American forces believed that Iranian Revolutionary Guards could detect. The illusion that American unmanned surveillance drone RQ-4A Global Hawk could itself move frictionlessly across national boundaries without being downed was itself unmanned, creating a small catastrophe or large disruption in the international balance of powers.

Did it cross the red line?

Or, as the U.S. Military’s Central Command tried to assert with its own parallel graphic of where the drone was downed, showed the apparent intensity with which Iran was able to pursue the dominance in a theater of oil transport vital to the global energy economy, and to the global economy that was attached to it, signaling a real Achilles heel in the continued image of American global invulnerability. which the United zStastes was determined to map as occurring outside Iranian sovereignty as an attack on American property and super-costly military hardware–starting a war of maps on the heels of a renewal to past Tanker Wars, both possibly poised to escalate into actual military bombardment.

It certainly seemed that the downed Global Hawk would constitute something akin to the arrow fired by the Trojan Pandarus into the groin of the Spartan Menelaus, the great warrior and husband of Helen of Troy, causing blood two streak down his legs, in an image of the fraught virility of the fabled warrior to incite the wrath of the leader Agamemnon, if not reveal newfound imbalance of military relations which Athena seemed to use to provoke the shattering military disaster of the Trojan War by starting the siege of Ilium. Would the downing of the jet provide the occasion of the bombing of Iran that Donald J. Trump has hoped to begin, matching his heightened bellicose rhetoric with the presence of a violent escalation of arms?

What happened was not clear, as was evident in the difficulty of mapping the event. When the costly U.S. Army Global Hawk drone looped back in the course of its surveillance of the Strait’s coasts, possibly entering Iranian airspace, after it was shot down, reverberations spread across the world, quite quickly. President Trump declared that Iran had shown itself by this act to be “ready for war” before plans for a miltirary reprisal were called off with but hours before it was poised to begin–perhaps saving the world from a global catastrophe, although U.S. Secretary of State was later dispatched to forge an improvised alliance against Iran in the coming weeks. Although war was averted on a global scale, the question of whose map was more authoritative, and whose could be trusted, reveals much about the contested status of authoritative maps in the globalized world, beyond being a debate waged across social media. The debate turned on different ways of reading space–or of wanting to read space; one hinged upon a notion of national boundaries and sovereign space, whereas the other relied upon the frictionless space of a notion of regional surveillance.

The downing of the drone lifted a corner on the shifting tensions in globalization, and indeed the increased problems of lamination of multiple maps over the increased density of economic traffic across the Strait of Hormuz, and indeed the conflicts between national and international waters along which petrochemical and crude petroleum leaves the increasingly blurry–if much mapped and over-patrolled–region of the Persian Gulf. The tensions were not about the drone. At least not only. The ratcheting up of tensions with a policy of “maximum prsssure” and rhetorical escalation has ratcheted up tensions, as Iran policy has been transformed into a flag-waving exercise of defense against a perceived infidel enemy–one that has disdained civil discourse and alleged overtures of open negotiation–in ways that are about American desires to map “international waters” and international airspace–

–rather than recognize even the potential legitimacy of a sovereign state’s defence. For all the mapping of “national” spaces on new maps of the region–that for all their identification of names of nations affirm the abilities and potentials of U.S. surveillance maps.

The Strait of Hormuz exists on the borders of several nations, and might be mapped in multiple ways. While the central waters of the Strait–which narrows to just twenty-one nautical miles, or less than forty kilometers–nonetheless retains a thin band designated as international waters, which puts it outside of local sovereignty. But the Strait increasingly is mapped in radically different global and local contexts, making the question of its territoriality and international status a question of increased tensions in the past weeks–when one American Global Hawk, a pretty fancy piece of surveillance, was downed. The cost was not only limited to the fourteen million dollar piece of military hardware, or to its symbolic loss, but the casualty of a sense of security in the frictionless policing of an economically vital transit routes–and the hegemony of mapping and ensuring the safety of the movement of crude oil from the Persian Gulf to global energy markets.

What appears to be a navigational course, in an era when territoriality is designed by points, rather than either landscapes or terrain, created an increasingly serious a quandary for measuring locations along a nautical map alone, or in reference to a mainland. For the question of incursion in territoriality–as the high-grade U.S. Army drone that was shot down in Iranian airspace–is not so evident from the Gulf waters, or the landscape over which it flew, approaching the Islamic Republic of Iran’s sovereign region of Hormogazan Province, or appearing to stray outside of the path of international airspace, or at least doing so at a height of 20,000 meters, higher than Americans’ expected Iranian radar systems could detect, but in fact just within the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s radar detection abilities.

Was it an incursion of sovereignty? It depends less on whose maps you are looking at, than what sort of landscape of military conflict and geospatial intelligence you followed, or what side of the cat and mouse game of mapping the nature of the international status of the navigational paths of the Strait you follow to understand how securing “free passage” through he Strait of Hormuz became rooted in the security of abilities of mapping energy transit. If the Strait has emerged as a hotspot in an increasingly irrevocably globalized world, the conflict between Iran and American interests arose as abilities of local mapping temporarily shifted, and the hegemony of American mapping of gulf waters was challenged, as Iran accused the United States of crossing a long drawn “red line” of sovereignty in spying on the banks of a Strait that Iran has increasingly asserted its ability to close, and indeed to monitor the escalating American surveillance of its waters and shores.

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Filed under aerial bombardment, globalization, Middle East, military intelligence, Persian Gulf

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