May 22, 2013
Beyond Bayonets and Battleships
Posted on Nov 8, 2012
By Alfred W. McCoy, TomDispatch
If things go according to plan, in this same lower tier at altitudes up to 12 miles unmanned aircraft such as the “Vulture,” with solar panels covering its massive 400-foot wingspan, will be patrolling the globe ceaselessly for up to five years at a time with sensors for “unblinking” surveillance, and possibly missiles for lethal strikes. Establishing the viability of this new technology, NASA’s solar-powered aircraft Pathfinder, with a 100-foot wingspan, reached an altitude of 71,500 feet altitude in 1997, and its fourth-generation successor the “Helios” flew at 97,000 feet with a 247-foot wingspan in 2001, two miles higher than any previous aircraft.
For the next tier above the Earth, in the upper stratosphere, DARPA and the Air Force are collaborating in the development of the Falcon Hypersonic Cruise Vehicle. Flying at an altitude of 20 miles, it is expected to “deliver 12,000 pounds of payload at a distance of 9,000 nautical miles from the continental United States in less than two hours.” Although the first test launches in April 2010 and August 2011 crashed midflight, they did reach an amazing 13,000 miles per hour, 22 times the speed of sound, and sent back “unique data” that should help resolve remaining aerodynamic problems.
At the outer level of this triple-tier aerospace canopy, the age of space warfare dawned in April 2010 when the Pentagon quietly launched the X-37B space drone, an unmanned craft just 29 feet long, into an orbit 250 miles above the Earth. By the time its second prototype landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in June 2012 after a 15-month flight, this classified mission represented a successful test of “robotically controlled reusable spacecraft” and established the viability of unmanned space drones in the exosphere.
At this apex of the triple canopy, 200 miles above Earth where the space drones will soon roam, orbital satellites are the prime targets, a vulnerability that became obvious in 2007 when China used a ground-to-air missile to shoot down one of its own satellites. In response, the Pentagon is now developing the F-6 satellite system that will “decompose a large monolithic spacecraft into a group of wirelessly linked elements, or nodes [that increases] resistance to… a bad part breaking or an adversary attacking.” And keep in mind that the X-37B has a capacious cargo bay to carry missiles or future laser weaponry to knock out enemy satellites—in other words, the potential capability to cripple the communications of a future military rival like China, which will have its own global satellite system operational by 2020.
For a new global optic, DARPA is building the wide-angle Space Surveillance Telescope (SST), which could be sited at bases ringing the globe for a quantum leap in “space surveillance.” The system would allow future space warriors to see the whole sky wrapped around the entire planet while seated before a single screen, making it possible to track every object in Earth orbit.
Operation of this complex worldwide apparatus will require, as one DARPA official explained in 2007, “an integrated collection of space surveillance systems—an architecture—that is leak-proof.” Thus, by 2010, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency had 16,000 employees, a $5 billion budget, and a massive $2 billion headquarters at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, with 8,500 staffers wrapped in electronic security—all aimed at coordinating the flood of surveillance data pouring in from Predators, Reapers, U-2 spy planes, Global Hawks, X-37B space drones, Google Earth, Space Surveillance Telescopes, and orbiting satellites. By 2020 or thereafter—such a complex techno-system is unlikely to respect schedules—this triple canopy should be able to atomize a single “terrorist” with a missile strike after tracking his eyeball, facial image, or heat signature for hundreds of miles through field and favela, or blind an entire army by knocking out all ground communications, avionics, and naval navigation.
Technological Dominion or Techno-Disaster?
Peering into the future, a still uncertain balance of forces offers two competing scenarios for the continuation of U.S. global power. If all or much goes according to plan, sometime in the third decade of this century the Pentagon will complete a comprehensive global surveillance system for Earth, sky, and space using robotics to coordinate a veritable flood of data from biometric street-level monitoring, cyber-data mining, a worldwide network of Space Surveillance Telescopes, and triple canopy aeronautic patrols. Through agile data management of exceptional power, this system might allow the United States a veto of global lethality, an equalizer for any further loss of economic strength.
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