New Statesman  [Printer-friendly version]
June 12, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: On orders from the Commander in Chief, the
U.S. military is gearing up to wage perpetual war on a faceless enemy
using radical new weapons that will decide for themselves who to

By Stephen Graham

Already there are killing machines operating by remote control. Soon
the machines will be able to kill on their own initiative. A new
warfare is on its way. War is about to change, in terrifying ways.
America's next wars, the ones the Pentagon is now planning, will be
nothing like the conflicts that have gone before them.
In just a few years, U.S. forces will be able to deal out death, not
at the squeeze of a trigger or even the push of a button, but with no
human intervention whatsoever.

Many fighting soldiers -- those GIs in tin hats who are dying two a
day in Iraq -- will be replaced by machines backed up by surveillance
technology so penetrating and pervasive that it is referred to as
"military omniscience." Any Americans involved will be less likely to
carry rifles than PlayStation-style consoles and monitors that display
simulated streetscapes of the kind familiar to players of Grand Theft
Auto -- and they may be miles from where the killing takes place.

War will progressively cease to be the foggy, confusing, equalising
business it has been for centuries, in which the risks are always
high, everyone faces danger and suffers loss, and the few can humble
the mighty. Instead, it will become remote, semi-automatic and all-
knowing, entailing less and less risk to American lives and taking
place largely out of the sight of news cameras. And the danger is
close to home: the coming wars will be the "war on terror" by other
names, conflicts that know no frontiers. The remote-controlled war
coming tomorrow to Khartoum or Mogadishu, in other words, can happen
soon afterwards, albeit in moderated form, in London or Lyons.

This is no geeky fantasy. Much of the hardware and software already
exists and the race to produce the rest is on such a scale that U.S.
officials are calling it the "new Manhattan Project." Hundreds of
research projects are under way at American universities and defence
companies, backed by billions of dollars, and Donald Rumsfeld's
department of defence is determined to deliver as soon as possible.

The momentum is coming not only from the relentless humiliation of
U.S. forces at the hands of some determined insurgents on the streets
of Baghdad, but also from a realisation in Washington that this is the
shape of things to come. Future wars, they believe, will be fought in
the dirty, mazy streets of big cities in the "global south," and if
the U.S. is to prevail it needs radically new strategies and

Only fragments of this story have so far appeared in the mainstream
media, but enough information is available on the internet, from the
comments of those in charge and in the specialist press to leave no
room for doubt about how sweeping it is, how dangerous and how
imminent. Military omniscience is the starting point. Three months
ago, Tony Tether, director of the Defence Advanced Research Projects
Agency (D.A.R.P.A.), the Pentagon's research arm, described to a U.S.
Senate committee the frustration felt by officers in Iraq after a
mortar-bomb attack. A camera in a drone, or unmanned aircraft,
spotted the attackers fleeing and helped direct U.S. helicopters to
the scene to destroy their car -- but not before some of those inside
had got out. "We had to decide whether to follow those individuals or
the car," he said, "because we simply didn't have enough coverage
available." So some of the insurgents escaped. Tether drew this
moral: "We need a network, or web, of sensors to better map a city and
the activities in it, including inside buildings, to sort adversaries
and their equipment from civilians and their equipment, including in
crowds, and to spot snipers, suicide bombers, or IEDs [improvised
explosive devices]... This is not just a matter of more and better
sensors, but, just as important, the systems needed to make actionable
intelligence out of all the data."

Darpa has a host of projects working to meet those needs, often in
surprising ways. One, called Combat Zones That See, aims to scatter
across cities thousands of tiny CCTV cameras, each equipped with
wireless communication software that will make it possible to link
their data and track the movements of every vehicle on the streets.
The cameras themselves will not be that different from those found in
modern mobile phones.

Seeing Through Concrete

Already in existence are sensors the size of matchboxes which respond
to heat, light, movement or sound; and a variety of programmes,
including one called Smart Dust, are working on further miniaturising
these and improving their ability to work as networks. A dozen U.S.
university teams are also developing micro-aircraft, weighing a few
grams each, that imitate birds and insects and could carry sensor
equipment into specific buildings or rooms.

D.A.R.P.A.'s VisiBuilding programme, meanwhile, is making "X-ray eye"
sensors that can see through concrete, locating people and weapons
inside buildings. And Human I.D. at a Distance is working on software
that can identify individual people from scans of their faces, their
manner of walking or even their smell, and then track them anywhere
they go.

Closely related to this drive are projects involving computer
simulations of urban landscapes and entire cities, which will provide
backdrops essential for using the data gathered by cameras and
sensors. The biggest is Urban Resolve, a simulated war against a
full-scale insurgency in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, in the year

Digitised Cities

Eight square miles of Jakarta have been digitised and simulated in
three dimensions. That will not surprise computer gamers, but Urban
Resolve goes much further: the detail extends to the interiors of 1.6
million buildings and even the cellars and sewers beneath, and it also
includes no fewer than 109,000 moving vehicles and people. Even the
daily rhythms of the city have been simulated. The roads, says one
commentator, "are quiet at night, but during weekday rush hours they
become clogged with traffic. People go to work, take lunch breaks and
visit restaurants, banks, and churches."

Digitise any target city and integrate this with the flow of data from
many thousands of sensors and cameras, stationary and mobile, and you
have something far more powerful than the regular snapshots today's
satellites can deliver. You have continuous coverage, around corners
and through walls. You would never, for example, lose those mortar
bombers who got out of their car and ran away.

All this brings omniscience within reach. The US web-based magazine
"DefenseWatch," which monitors developments in strategy and hardware,
recently imagined the near-future scenario of an operation in the
developing world in which a cloud of minute, networked sensors is
scattered like dust over a target city using powerful fans. Directed
by the sensors, unmanned drones patrol the city, building up a visual
and audio picture of every street and building. "Every hostile person
has been identified and located," continues the scenario. "From this
point on, nobody in the city moves without the full and complete
knowledge of the mobile tactical centre."

Another Darpa project, Integrated Sensor is Structure, is working on
the apex of such a system: huge, unmanned communications and
surveillance airships that will loiter above target areas at an
altitude of 70,000 feet -- far above most airline traffic -- providing
continuous and detailed coverage over a whole city for a year or more.

From these platforms, all the information could be fed down in real
time to soldiers and commanders carrying the hand-held computers being
developed by the Northrop Grumman Corporation with Darpa funding. The
real aim, however, is not to expose flesh-and-blood Americans on the
ground, but where possible to use robots. That way there will be no
"body bag problem"; and in any case machines are better equipped than
human beings to process and make use of the vast quantities of data

In one sense, robots are not new: already, armed drones such as
Predator, piloted" by C.I.A. operators from screens in Florida, have
been responsible for at least 80 assassination raids in Iraq,
Afghanistan, Yemen, and Pakistan (killing many civilians as well).
Defence contractors have also developed ground-based vehicles capable
of carrying cameras and weapons into the battlefield.

But this is only the start. What will make the next generation
different is that they are being designed so that they can choose, all
on their own, the targets they will attack. Operating in the air and
on the ground, they are being equipped with Automated Target
Recognition software capable not only of comparing signals received
from new-generation sensors with databases of targets, but also of
"deciding" to fire guns or launch missiles automatically once there is
a good "fit." Automated killing of this kind hasn't been approved by
anyone yet, but it is certainly being planned. John Tirpak, editor of
Air Force Magazine in the U.S., expects initially that humans will
retain the last word, but he predicts that once robots "establish a
track record of reliability in finding the right targets and employing
weapons properly," the "machines will be trusted to do even that".

Planners believe, moreover, that robot warriors have a doomsday power.
Gordon Johnson, a team leader on Project Alpha, which is developing
robots for the U.S. army, predicts that, if the robot's gun can return
fire automatically and instantly to within a metre of a location from
which its sensors have detected a gunshot, it will always kill the
person who has fired. "Anyone who would shoot at our forces would
die," says Johnson. "Before he can drop that weapon and run, he's
probably already dead. Well now, these cowards in Baghdad would have
to pay with blood and guts every time they shoot at one of our folks.
The costs of poker went up significantly. The enemy, are they going
to give up blood and guts to kill machines? I'm guessing not."

Again, this may sound like the plot of a B-movie, but the U.S.
military press, not a body of people given to frivolity, has been
writing about it for some time. "DefenseWatch," for example, also
featured robots in that future war scenario involving sensors
dispersed by fans. Once a complete picture of the target city is
built up, the scenario predicted, "unmanned air and ground vehicles
can now be vectored directly to selected targets to take them out, one
by one."

The Silver Bullet

It is shocking, but will it happen? The project has its critics, even
in the Pentagon, where many doubt that technology can deliver such a
"silver bullet." But the doubters are not in the ascendant, and it
would be folly, against the background of the Iraq disaster and the
hyper-militarised stance of the Bush administration, to write it off
as a computer gamer's daydream.

One reason Washington finds it so attractive is that it fits closely
with the ideologies of permanent war that underpin the "war on
terror." What better in that war than an army of robot warriors,
permanently cruising those parts of the globe deemed to be "supporting
terrorism"? And what a boon if they destroy "targets" all on their
own, with not a single U.S. soldier at risk. Even more seductively,
this could all take place out of sight of the capricious western

These technologies further blur the line between war and
entertainment. Already, games featuring urban warfare in digitised
Arab cities are everyday suburban entertainment -- some are produced
by the U.S. forces themselves, while a firm called Kuma Reality offers
games refreshed weekly to allow players to simulate participation in
fighting in Iraq almost as it is happening in the real world.

Creepy as this is, it can be worse: those involved in real warfare may
have difficulty remembering they are not playing games. "At the end of
the work day," one Florida-based Predator operator reflected to USA
Today in 2003, "you walk back into the rest of life in America." Will
such people always remember that their "work day," lived among like-
minded colleagues in front of screens, involves real death on the far
side of the world? As if to strengthen the link with entertainment,
one emerging military robot, the Dragon Runner, comes with a gamer's
control panel. Greg Heines, who runs the project, confesses: "We
modelled the controller after the Play Station 2 because that's what
these 18-, 19-year-old marines have been playing with pretty much all
of their lives."

The U.S. aspiration to be able to kill without human involvement and
with minimum risk raises some dreadful questions. Who will decide
what data can be relied on to identify a "target"? Who will be
accountable when there is an atrocity? And what does this say about
western perceptions of the worth and rights of the people whose cities
are no more than killing fields, and who themselves are mere "targets"
to be detected, tracked and even killed by machines?

Finally, the whole process feeds alarmingly into the "homeland
security" drive in the cities of the global north. The same companies
and universities are supplying ideas to both, and the surveillance,
tracking and targeting technologies involved are closely related.
What we are seeing is a militarisation of urban life in both north and
south that helps perpetuate the biggest and most dangerous myth of
all, which is that technical and military solutions can somehow magic
away resistance to George W Bush's geopolitical project.


Stephen Graham is professor of human geography at Durham University.
His latest book, "Cities, Wars and Terrorism," is published by