Not quite a century ago, on January 7, 1929, newspaper readers across America were captivated by a brand-new comic strip, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. It offered the country its first images of space-age death rays, atomic explosions, and interplanetary travel.
“I was twenty years old,” World War I veteran Anthony “Buck” Rogers told readers in the very first strip, “surveying the lower levels of an abandoned mine near Pittsburgh…when suddenly…gas knocked me out. But I didn’t die. The peculiar gas…preserved me in suspended animation. Finally, another shifting of strata admitted fresh air and I revived.”
Staggering out of that mine, he finds himself in the 25th century surrounded by flying warriors shooting ray guns at each other. A Mongol spaceship overhead promptly spots him on its “television view plate” and fires its “disintegrator ray” at him. He’s saved from certain death by a flying woman warrior named Wilma who explains to him how this all came to be.
“Many years ago,” she says, “the Mongol Reds from the Gobi Desert conquered Asia from their great airships held aloft by gravity Repellor Rays. They destroyed Europe, then turned toward peace-loving America.” As their disintegrator beams boiled the oceans, annihilated the US Navy, and demolished Washington, DC, in just three hours, “government ceased to exist, and mobs, reduced to savagery, fought their way out of the cities to scatter and hide in the country. It was the death of a nation.” While the Mongols rebuilt 15 cities as centers of “super scientific magnificence” under their evil emperor, Americans led “hunted lives in the forests” until their “undying flame of freedom” led them to recapture “lost science” and “once more strike for freedom.”
After a year of such cartoons filled with the worst of early-20th-century Asian stereotypes, just as Wilma is clinging to the airship of the Mongol Viceroy as it speeds across the Pacific, a mysterious metallic orb appears high in the sky and fires death rays, sending the Mongol ship “hissing into the sea.” With her anti-gravity “inertron” belt, the intrepid Wilma dives safely into the waves only to have a giant metal arm shoot out from the mysterious orb and pull her on board to reveal—“Horrors! What strange beings!”—Martians!
With that strip, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century moved from Earth-bound combat against racialized Asians into space wars against monsters from other planets that, over the next 70 years, would take the strip into comic books, radio broadcasts, feature films, television serials, video games, and the country’s collective conscious. It would offer defining visions of space warfare for generations of Americans.
Back in the 21st Century
Now imagine us back in the 21st century. It’s 2030 and an American “triple canopy” of pervasive surveillance systems and armed drones already fills the heavens from the lower stratosphere to the exo-atmosphere. It can deliver its weaponry anywhere on the planet with staggering speed, knock out enemy satellite communications at a moment’s notice, or follow individuals biometrically for great distances. It’s a wonder of the modern age. Along with the country’s advanced cyberwar capacity, it’s also the most sophisticated military information system ever created and an insurance policy for global dominion deep into the 21st century.
That is, in fact, the future as the Pentagon imagines it and it’s actually under development, even though most Americans know little or nothing about it. They are still operating in another age, as was Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential debates when he complained that “our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917.”
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 then offered just a hint of what those capabilities might be: “We need to be thinking about cyber security. We need to be talking about space.”
Indeed, working in secrecy, the Obama administration was presiding over a revolution in defense planning, moving the nation far beyond bayonets and battleships to cyber warfare and the future full-scale weaponization of space. From stratosphere to exosphere, the Pentagon is now producing an armada of fantastical new aerospace weapons worthy of Buck Rogers.
In 2009, building on advances in digital surveillance under the Bush administration, Obama launched the US Cyber Command. Its headquarters were set up inside the National Security Agency (NSA) at Fort Meade, Maryland, and a cyberwar center staffed by 7,000 Air Force employees was established at Lackland Air Base in Texas. Two years later, the Pentagon moved beyond conventional combat on air, land, or sea to declare cyberspace both an offensive and defensive “operational domain.” In August, despite his wide-ranging attempt to purge the government of anything connected to Barack Obama’s “legacy,” President Trump implemented his predecessor’s long-delayed plan to separate that cyber command from the NSA in a bid to “strengthen our cyberspace operations.”
And what is all this technology being prepared for? In study after study, the intelligence community, the Pentagon, and related think tanks have been unanimous in identifying the main threat to future US global hegemony as a rival power with an expanding economy, a strengthening military, and global ambitions: China, the home of those denizens of the Gobi Desert who would, in that old Buck Rogers fable, destroy Washington four centuries from now. Given that America’s economic preeminence is fading fast, breakthroughs in “information warfare” might indeed prove Washington’s best bet for extending its global hegemony further into this century—but don’t count on it, given the history of techno-weaponry in past wars.
Techno-Triumph in Vietnam
Ever since the Pentagon with its 17 miles of corridors was completed in 1943, that massive bureaucratic maze has presided over a creative fusion of science and industry that President Dwight Eisenhower would dub “the military-industrial complex” in his farewell address to the nation in 1961. “We can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense,” he told the American people. “We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions” sustained by a “technological revolution” that is “complex and costly.” As part of his own contribution to that complex, Eisenhower had overseen the creation of both the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, and a “high-risk, high-gain” research unit called the Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA, that later added the word “Defense” to its name and became DARPA.
For 70 years, this close alliance between the Pentagon and major defense contractors has produced an unbroken succession of “wonder weapons” that at least theoretically gave it a critical edge in all major military domains. Even when defeated or fought to a draw, as in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the Pentagon’s research matrix has demonstrated a recurring resilience that could turn disaster into further technological advance.
The Vietnam War, for example, was a thoroughgoing tactical failure, yet it would also prove a technological triumph for the military-industrial complex. Although most Americans remember only the Army’s soul-destroying ground combat in the villages of South Vietnam, the Air Force fought the biggest air war in military history there and, while it too failed dismally and destructively, it turned out to be a crucial testing ground for a revolution in robotic weaponry.
To stop truck convoys that the North Vietnamese were sending through southern Laos into South Vietnam, the Pentagon’s techno-wizards combined a network of sensors, computers, and aircraft in a coordinated electronic bombing campaign that, from 1968 to 1973, dropped more than a million tons of munitions—equal to the total tonnage for the whole Korean War—in that limited area. At a cost of $800 million a year, Operation Igloo White laced that narrow mountain corridor with 20,000 acoustic, seismic, and thermal sensors that sent signals to four EC-121 communications aircraft circling ceaselessly overhead.
At a US air base just across the Mekong River in Thailand, Task Force Alpha deployed two powerful IBM 360/65 mainframe computers, equipped with history’s first visual-display monitors, to translate all those sensor signals into “an illuminated line of light” and so launch jet fighters over the Ho Chi Minh Trail where computers discharged laser-guided bombs automatically. Bristling with antennae and filled with the latest computers, its massive concrete bunker seemed, at the time, a futuristic marvel to a visiting Pentagon official who spoke rapturously about “being swept up in the beauty and majesty of the Task Force Alpha temple.”
However, after more than 100,000 North Vietnamese troops with tanks, trucks, and artillery somehow moved through that sensor field undetected for a massive offensive in 1972, the Air Force had to admit that its $6 billion “electronic battlefield” was an unqualified failure. Yet that same bombing campaign would prove to be the first crude step toward a future electronic battlefield for unmanned robotic warfare.
In the pressure cooker of history’s largest air war, the Air Force also transformed an old weapon, the “Firebee” target drone, into a new technology that would rise to significance three decades later. By 1972, the Air Force could send an “SC/TV” drone, equipped with a camera in its nose, up to 2,400 miles across communist China or North Vietnam while controlling it via a low-resolution television image. The Air Force also made aviation history by test firing the first missile from one of those drones.
The air war in Vietnam was also an impetus for the development of the Pentagon’s global telecommunications satellite system, another important first. After the Initial Defense Satellite Communications System launched seven orbital satellites in 1966, ground terminals in Vietnam started transmitting high-resolution aerial surveillance photos to Washington—something NASA called a “revolutionary development.” Those images proved so useful that the Pentagon quickly launched an additional 21 satellites and soon had the first system that could communicate from anywhere on the globe. Today, according to an Air Force website, the third phase of that system provides secure command, control, and communications for “the Army’s ground mobile forces, the Air Force’s airborne terminals, Navy ships at sea, the White House Communications Agency, the State Department, and special users” like the CIA and NSA.
At great cost, the Vietnam War marked a watershed in Washington’s global information architecture. Turning defeat into innovation, the Air Force had developed the key components—satellite communications, remote sensing, computer-triggered bombing, and unmanned aircraft—that would merge 40 years later into a new system of robotic warfare.
The War on Terror
Facing another set of defeats in Afghanistan and Iraq, the 21st-century Pentagon again accelerated the development of new military technologies. After six years of failing counterinsurgency campaigns in both countries, the Pentagon discovered the power of biometric identification and electronic surveillance to help pacify sprawling urban areas. And when President Obama later conducted his troop “surge” in Afghanistan, that country became a frontier for testing and perfecting drone warfare.
Launched as an experimental aircraft in 1994, the Predator drone was deployed in the Balkans that very year for photo-reconnaissance. In 2000, it was adapted for real-time surveillance under the CIA’s Operation Afghan Eyes. It would be armed with the tank-killing Hellfire missile for the agency’s first lethal strike in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in October 2001. Seven years later, the Air Force introduced the larger MQ-9 “Reaper” drone with a flying range of 1,150 miles when fully loaded with Hellfire missiles and GBU-30 bombs, allowing it to strike targets almost anywhere in Europe, Africa, or Asia. To fulfill its expanding mission as Washington’s global assassin, the Air Force plans to have 346 Reapers in service by 2021, including 80 for the CIA.
Between 2004 and 2010, total flying time for all unmanned aerial vehicles rose sharply from just 71 hours to 250,000 hours. By 2011, there were already 7,000 drones in a growing US armada of unmanned aircraft. So central had they become to its military power that the Pentagon was planning to spend $40 billion to expand their numbers by 35 percent over the following decade. To service all this growth, the Air Force was training 350 drone pilots, more than all its bomber and fighter pilots combined.
Miniature or monstrous, hand-held or runway-launched, drones were becoming so commonplace and so critical for so many military missions that they emerged from the war on terror as one of America’s wonder weapons for preserving its global power. Yet the striking innovations in drone warfare are, in the long run, likely to be overshadowed by stunning aerospace advances in the stratosphere and exosphere.
The Pentagon’s Triple Canopy
As in Vietnam, despite bitter reverses on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington’s recent wars have been catalysts for the fusion of aerospace, cyberspace, and artificial intelligence into a new military regime of robotic warfare.
To effect this technological transformation, starting in 2009 the Pentagon planned to spend $55 billion annually to develop robotics for a data-dense interface of space, cyberspace, and terrestrial battle space. Through an annual allocation for new technologies reaching $18 billion in 2016, the Pentagon had, according to The New York Times, “put artificial intelligence at the center of its strategy to maintain the United States’ position as the world’s dominant military power,” exemplified by future drones that will be capable of identifying and eliminating enemy targets without recourse to human overseers. By 2025, the United States will likely deploy advanced aerospace and cyber warfare to envelop the planet in a robotic matrix theoretically capable of blinding entire armies or atomizing an individual insurgent.
During 15 years of nearly limitless military budgets for the war on terror, DARPA has spent billions of dollars trying to develop new weapons systems worthy of Buck Rogers that usually die on the drawing board or end in spectacular crashes. Through this astronomically costly process of trial and error, Pentagon planners seem to have come to the slow realization that established systems, particularly drones and satellites, could in combination create an effective aerospace architecture.
Within a decade, the Pentagon apparently hopes to patrol the entire planet ceaselessly via a triple-canopy aerospace shield that would reach from sky to space and be secured by an armada of drones with lethal missiles and Argus-eyed sensors, monitored through an electronic matrix and controlled by robotic systems. It’s even possible to take you on a tour of the super-secret realm where future space wars will be fought, if the Pentagon’s dreams become reality, by exploring both DARPA websites and those of its various defense contractors.
Drones in the Lower Stratosphere
At the bottom tier of this emerging aerospace shield in the lower stratosphere (about 30,000 to 60,000 feet high), the Pentagon is working with defense contractors to develop high-altitude drones that will replace manned aircraft. To supersede the manned U-2 surveillance aircraft, for instance, the Pentagon has been preparing a projected armada of 99 Global Hawk drones at a mind-boggling cost of $223 million each, seven times the price of the current Reaper model. Its extended 116-foot wingspan (bigger than that of a Boeing 737) is geared to operating at 60,000 feet. Each Global Hawk is equipped with high-resolution cameras, advanced electronic sensors, and efficient engines for a continuous 32-hour flight, which means that it can potentially survey up to 40,000 square miles of the planet’s surface daily. With its enormous bandwidth needed to bounce a torrent of audio-visual data between satellites and ground stations, however, the Global Hawk, like other long-distance drones in America’s armada, may prove vulnerable to a hostile hack attack in some future conflict.
The sophistication, and limitations, of this developing aerospace technology were exposed in December 2011 when an advanced RQ-170 Sentinel drone suddenly landed in Iran, whose officials then released photos of its dart-shaped, 65-foot wingspan meant for flights up to 50,000 feet. Under a highly classified “black” contract, Lockheed Martin had built 20 of these espionage drones at a cost of about $200 million with radar-evading stealth and advanced optics that were meant to provide “surveillance support to forward-deployed combat forces.”
So what was this super-secret drone doing in hostile Iran? By simply jamming its GPS navigation system, whose signals are notoriously susceptible to hacking, Iranian engineers took control of the drone and landed it at a local base of theirs with the same elevation as its home field in neighboring Afghanistan. Although Washington first denied the capture, the event sent shock waves down the Pentagon’s endless corridors.
In the aftermath of this debacle, the Defense Department worked with one of its top contractors, Northrop Grumman, to accelerate development of its super-stealth RQ-180 drone with an enormous 130-foot wingspan, an extended range of 1,200 miles, and 24 hours of flying time. Its record cost, $300 million a plane, could be thought of as inaugurating a new era of lavishly expensive war-fighting drones.
Simultaneously, the Navy’s dart-shaped X-47B surveillance and strike drone has proven capable both of in-flight refueling and of carrying up to 4,000 pounds of bombs or missiles. Three years after it passed its most crucial test by a joy-stick landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier, the USS George H.W. Bush in July 2013, the Navy announced that this experimental drone would enter service sometime after 2020 as the “MQ-25 Stingray” aircraft.
Dominating the Upper Stratosphere
To dominate the higher altitudes of the upper stratosphere (about 70,000 to 160,000 feet), the Pentagon has pushed its contractors to the technological edge, spending billions of dollars on experimentation with fanciful, futuristic aircraft.
For more than 20 years, DARPA pursued the dream of a globe-girding armada of solar-powered drones that could fly ceaselessly at 90,000 feet and would serve as the equivalent of low-flying satellites, that is, as platforms for surveillance intercepts or signals transmission. With an arching 250-foot wingspan covered with ultra-light solar panels, the “Helios” drone achieved a world-record altitude of 98,000 feet in 2001 before breaking up in a spectacular crash two years later. Nonetheless, DARPA launched the ambitious “Vulture” project in 2008 to build solar-powered aircraft with huge wingspans of 300 to 500 feet capable of ceaseless flight at 90,000 feet for five years at a time. After DARPA abandoned the project as impractical in 2012, Google and Facebook took over the technology with the goal of building future platforms for their customers’ Internet connections.
Since 2003, both DARPA and the Air Force have struggled to shatter the barrier for suborbital speeds by developing the dart-shaped Falcon Hypersonic Cruise Vehicle. Flying at an altitude of 100,000 feet, it was 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 2010 and 2011 crashed mid-flight, they did briefly reach an amazing 13,000 miles per hour, 22 times the speed of sound.
As often happens, failure produced progress. In the wake of the Falcon’s crashes, DARPA has applied its hypersonics to develop a missile capable of penetrating China’s air defenses at an altitude of 70,000 feet and a speed of Mach 5 (about 3,300 miles per hour).
Simultaneously, Lockheed’s secret “Skunk Works” experimental unit is using the hypersonic technology to develop the SR-72 unmanned surveillance aircraft as a successor to its SR-71 Blackbird, the world’s fastest manned aircraft. When operational by 2030, the SR-72 is supposed to fly at about 4,500 mph, double the speed of its manned predecessor, with an extreme stealth fuselage making it undetectable as it crosses any continent in an hour at 80,000 feet scooping up electronic intelligence.
Space Wars in the Exosphere
In the exosphere, 200 miles above Earth, the age of space warfare dawned in April 2010 when the Defense Department launched the robotic X-37B spacecraft, just 29 feet long, into orbit for a seven-month mission. By removing pilots and their costly life-support systems, the Air Force’s secretive Rapid Capabilities Office had created a miniaturized, militarized space drone with thrusters to elude missile attacks and a cargo bay for possible air-to-air missiles. By the time the second X-37B prototype landed in June 2012, its flawless 15-month flight had established the viability of “robotically controlled reusable spacecraft.”
In the exosphere where these space drones will someday roam, orbital satellites will be the prime targets in any future world war. The vulnerability of US satellite systems became obvious in 2007 when China used a ground-to-air missile to shoot down one of its own satellites in orbit 500 miles above the earth. A year later, the Pentagon accomplished the same feat, firing an SM-3 missile from a Navy cruiser to score a direct hit on a US satellite 150 miles high.
Unsuccessful in developing an advanced F-6 satellite, despite spending over $200 million in an attempt to split the module into more resilient microwave-linked components, the Pentagon has opted instead to upgrade its more conventional single-module satellites, such as the Navy’s five interconnected Mobile User Objective Systems satellites. These were launched between 2013 and 2016 into geostationary orbits for communications with aircraft, ships, and motorized infantry.
Reflecting its role as a player in the preparation for future and futuristic wars, the Joint Functional Component Command for Space, established in 2006, operates the Space Surveillance Network. To prevent a high-altitude attack on America, this worldwide system of radar and telescopes in 29 remote locations like Ascension Island and Kwajalein Atoll makes about 400,000 observations daily, monitoring every object in the skies.
The Future of Wonder Weapons
By the mid-2020s, if the military’s dreams are realized, the Pentagon’s triple-canopy shield should be able to atomize a single “terrorist” with a missile strike or, with equal ease, blind an entire army by knocking out all of its ground communications, avionics, and naval navigation. It’s a system that, were it to work as imagined, just might allow the United States a diplomatic veto of global lethality, an equalizer for any further loss of international influence.
But as in Vietnam, where aerospace wonders could not prevent a searing defeat, history offers some harsh lessons when it comes to technology’s trumping insurgencies, no less the fusion of forces (diplomatic, economic, and military) whose sum is geopolitical power. After all, the Third Reich failed to win World War II even though it had amazingly advanced “wonder weapons,” including the devastating V-2 missile, the unstoppable Me-262 jet fighter, and the ship-killing Hs-293 guided missile.
Washington’s dogged reliance on and faith in military technology to maintain its hegemony will certainly guarantee endless combat operations with uncertain outcomes in the forever war against terrorists along the ragged edge of Asia and Africa and incessant future low-level aggression in space and cyberspace. Someday, it may even lead to armed conflict with rivals China and Russia.
Whether the Pentagon’s robotic weapon systems will offer the United States an extended lease on global hegemony or prove a fantasy plucked from the frames of a Buck Rogers comic book, only the future can tell. Whether, in that moment to come, America will play the role of the indomitable Buck Rogers or the Martians he eventually defeated is another question worth asking. One thing is likely, however: That future is coming far more quickly and possibly far more painfully than any of us might imagine.
This piece has been adapted and expanded from Alfred W. McCoy’s new book, In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power.