Saturday, September 16, 2017

Alfred W. McCoy: Pentagon Wonder Weapons For World Dominion


tomdispatch |  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 U.S. 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.