Drones, baby, drones

Andrew Cockburn on Obama’s remote-controlled wars

It’s generally assumed that with the Iraq War officially over and troops withdrawing from Afghanistan, US defence spending will drop. Obama’s reference in his State of the Union address to ‘saving half a trillion dollars’ from the defence budget encouraged this assumption, as have Republican complaints that such cuts would ‘decimate’ the nation’s defences. But, as the president himself pointed out when introducing the new strategy, the Pentagon will get more money, not less: ‘Over the next ten years, the growth in the defence budget will slow, but the fact of the matter is this, it will still grow.’ In the past five years the US has spent $2.59 trillion on defence. The new plans call for an allocation of $2.725 trillion between 2013 and 2017 – less than the $3 trillion envisaged in previous budget plans but still an increase of 5 per cent.

The budget will grow, but the military will shrink. There will be no more ‘nation-building’, with its long and expensive occupations. Overall troop levels will be cut by about a hundred thousand soldiers and marines. Fewer new planes will be built. America will no longer be equipped to fight two full-scale wars at the same time – an official requirement for decades. Falling into Pentagon-speak, Obama talked of an ‘agile, flexible’ military that would ‘invest in the capabilities that we need for the future, including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), counter-terrorism, countering weapons of mass destruction and the ability to operate in environments where adversaries try to deny us access’. The defence secretary, Leon Panetta, echoed the president, promising a ‘leaner’ force that would be ‘more agile, more flexible … innovative’, especially in ‘new technologies like ISR and unmanned systems’.

The bin Laden mission was a particular coup f0r Obama, along with other actions by elite commando units such as the recent hostage rescue mission in Somalia. ‘Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example,’ he said in the State of the Union speech. One supportive commentator, Michael Lind of Salon, called the new strategy, with its stress on agility and flexibility, ‘the greatest revolution in American foreign policy in a generation’.

Yet the president’s words have a familiar ring. In September 1999 George W. Bush, then a presidential candidate, introduced his defence programme at the Citadel military school in Charleston. ‘Our forces in the next century must be agile, lethal, readily deployable,’ he said. ‘Our military must be able to identify targets by a variety of means, then be able to destroy those targets almost instantly … We must be able to strike from across the world with pinpoint accuracy … with unmanned systems.’ Bush was taking his cue from a concept known as the ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’. The phrase had been popularised in defence circles in the 1980s by Andrew Marshall, a former Rand analyst who headed the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment. Marshall believed that new technologies in surveillance, communication and missile targeting had fundamentally changed the nature of warfare because they made it possible to locate, identify and strike enemies by remote control. American initiatives in Vietnam had anticipated this development. Igloo White, which cost $7 billion, was an early attempt to automate the battlefield: tens of thousands of sensors, designed to pick up sound or movement, each one in radio contact with computers in Thailand, were scattered around the jungles of Vietnam and Laos in the hope of locating and targeting enemy supply columns on the Ho Chi Minh trail. But the Vietnamese quickly learned to move the sensors or make them send false signals and the experiment was abandoned in 1972.

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