Personnel work at the Air Force Space Command Network Operations & Security Center at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Reuters/Rick Wilking
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It’s 2025 and an American “triple canopy” of advanced surveillance and armed drones fills the heavens from the lower- to the exo-atmosphere. A wonder of the modern age, it can deliver its weaponry anywhere on the planet with staggering speed, knock out an enemy’s satellite communications system, or follow individuals biometrically for great distances. Along with the country’s advanced cyberwar capacity, it’s also the most sophisticated militarized information system ever created and an insurance policy for US global dominion deep into the twenty-first century. It’s the future as the Pentagon imagines it; it’s under development; and Americans know nothing about it.
They are still operating in another age. “Our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917,” complained Republican candidate Mitt Romney during the last presidential debate.
With words of withering mockery, President Obama shot back: “Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military's changed… the question is not a game of Battleship, where we're counting ships. It's what are our capabilities.”
Obama later offered just a hint of what those capabilities might be: “What I did was work with our joint chiefs of staff to think about, what are we going to need in the future to make sure that we are safe?… We need to be thinking about cyber security. We need to be talking about space.”
Amid all the post-debate media chatter, however, not a single commentator seemed to have a clue when it came to the profound strategic changes encoded in the president’s sparse words. Yet for the past four years, working in silence and secrecy, the Obama administration has presided over a technological revolution in defense planning, moving the nation far beyond bayonets and battleships to cyberwarfare and the full-scale weaponization of space. In the face of waning economic influence, this bold new breakthrough in what’s called “information warfare” may prove significantly responsible should US global dominion somehow continue far into the twenty-first century.
While the technological changes involved are nothing less than revolutionary, they have deep historical roots in a distinctive style of American global power. It’s been evident from the moment this nation first stepped onto the world stage with its conquest of the Philippines in 1898. Over the span of a century, plunged into three Asian crucibles of counterinsurgency—in the Philippines, Vietnam and Afghanistan—the US military has repeatedly been pushed to the breaking point. It has repeatedly responded by fusing the nation’s most advanced technologies into new information infrastructures of unprecedented power.
That military first created a manual information regime for Philippine pacification, then a computerized apparatus to fight communist guerrillas in Vietnam. Finally, during its decade-plus in Afghanistan (and its years in Iraq), the Pentagon has begun to fuse biometrics, cyberwarfare and a potential future triple canopy aerospace shield into a robotic information regime that could produce a platform of unprecedented power for the exercise of global dominion—or for future military disaster.
America’s First Information Revolution
This distinctive US system of imperial information gathering (and the surveillance and war-making practices that go with it) traces its origins to some brilliant American innovations in the management of textual, statistical and visual data. Their sum was nothing less than a new information infrastructure with an unprecedented capacity for mass surveillance.