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Belmont Club

The Onrushing Future

October 21st, 2011 - 4:15 pm

As US officials hailed Libya as the model for future military actionHillary Clinton warned Pakistan: ‘you can’t keep snakes in your backyard’.   After Clinton was told of the death of the Libyan dictator Mohammar Khadaffy she told a reporter, ‘We came, we saw, he died’.  There was she implied, a moral in there somewhere.

Khadaffy himself was making no comment. He was busy  literally cooling his heels. The AP reported that the body of the former Libyan leader was stashed in a commercial freezer at a shopping center in Misrata. “Outside the shopping center, residents waited in line for their chance enter the freezer and have their picture taken with Gadhafi’s body. Different visiting hours have been set for women and children and for men.” The Duck has become in death something of a parable. But what exactly the lesson is has  not been fully articulated.

Danger Room says the intensity of US drone strikes in Libya far surpassed that of Afghanistan. Attacks since April alone amount to twice the number of attacks in Afghanistan. Now that the Pentagon confirms that drones were involved in the attack on the convoy in which Khadaffy was last trying to escape, and in which the French have admitted only to firing ‘warning shots’ there is more than a small hint that snakes may be found elsewhere than in the Libyan desert.

The Predators did not let up after Libyan rebels captured Tripoli in late August. By then, the U.S. drones had dropped their Hellfire missiles 92 times in four months. In the remaining two months, the Predators slightly stepped up their deadly pace during the residual hunt for Moammar Gadhafi, with 52 more strikes.

And now the US is ramping up its rhetoric with Pakistan. According to the Strategy Page Washington is trying to send the message that this time they are serious, really they are, and have dispatched two weapons, the Secretary of State and a flurry of drones to emphasize the point.

This transpired as Coalition forces mounted a major effort to clear the Taliban off a major supply route through Kunar province. The intensity of the fight can be deduced from the firepower employed.  Unlike the drone campaign which featured the application of relatively small amounts of targeted firepower, the operations in Afghanistan were of a much higher combat power.

Civilians in the area, as well as American and Afghan soldiers, described an exceptionally intense fight, which was still going on, in which long-range bombers have flown in from as far away as the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar, the southern Afghan province of Kandahar and Bagram Air Base outside Kabul, the Afghan capital.

The Americans have also fired long-range rockets from more than 100 miles away as the troops have struggled to oust large numbers of insurgents who month after month have attacked convoys on the road and dominated much of this corner of Kunar Province.

“We had too many F16s and F15s to count, almost continuous coverage,” said Capt. Ron Hopkins, 27, the fire support officer of the Second Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, who was in the command center for the fight.

That is a reminder that on the battlefield, drones can be slow, vulnerable and weak weapons platforms. But for now, drone-hunting leaders is the surgical political strike tool of the hour. NPR says that the Syrians are warning President Bashir Assad that there may be a freezer in his future. “Inspired by the scenes of euphoria in Libya, Syrian protesters poured into the streets Friday and shouted that President Bashar Assad’s regime will be the next to unravel now that ousted Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi is dead.”

Of course this implies that someone will provide the drones or the “F16s and F15s” too numerous to count to the Syrian protesters.  And the most likely source of that in the world today is the USA. “Death from Above” has become a real growth industry. Defense Web says  that the US is watching stuff on the ground on a scale that is unprecendented. “The United States is being overwhelmed by a rapidly growing amount of surveillance data, something that cannot be fixed by hiring more data analysts, according to the head of the US Strategic Command.” According to General Robert Kehler things have gotten to the point where data analysis has to be offloaded to machines. “Let machines handle the data so that humans can handle the decision,” he said.  Those decisions, from Yemen to Libya, can determine whether a 100 vehicle convoy of SUVs gets to its destination is turned into an ashpile.

Yet the worst for America’s enemies is still to come. The Pentagon is now about to turn zombies loose on its foes.  Never mind the data acquisition overload. If machines will help analyze it, then zombies will help collect it. Since launching satellites is expensive, “Darpa has devised a system to recycle the $300 billion worth of orbiting dead satellites into a zombie antenna array”, according to Wired.

The Phoenix system, as it has been dubbed, consists of a primary Tender/Servicer satellite and multiple smaller mini-satellites called “Satlets.” As the plan goes, after the Tender has reached geosynchronous orbit (GEO), the Satlets are launched aboard a commercial communications satellite from which the Tender will collect them and store them on-board itself.

The Tender will then transfer to the GEO “graveyard” orbit and begin picking apart dead satellites, focusing on the antennas which are the largest and most expensive pieces to get into orbit….

Once the antenna is free the Tender will install a Satlet, which acts as a new controller for the antenna, and guide it into position to create “communications farms” of recycled satellites. “If this program is successful, space debris becomes space resource,” Darpa Director Regina Dugan noted in a press release.

The only question is whether this creative recycling will be counted as a Green Job. It might.  Policy makers will take current trends and extrapolate them into the future in absurd ways.  But just because computing power and robotics have changed the face of warfare it doesn’t mean they have changed it in predictable ways.  Technological developments and emergent events pull surprises of their own.

They drive events in unpredictable directions but create problems that are often unanticipated at the start. In 1894, the world was facing a the Great Horse Manure crisis. “London in 1900 had 11,000 cabs, all horse-powered. There were also several thousand buses, each of which required 12 horses per day, a total of more than 50,000 horses. … In New York in 1900, the population of 100,000 horses produced 2.5 million pounds of horse manure per day, which all had to be swept up and disposed of.” Informed opinion was of the belief that within a few short years the great cities of the world world be buried in sh*t. Thirty years later there was no Horse Manure Crisis. It had become an obsolete concept as perhaps will Green Jobs.

A hundred years later it is informed opinion that the world faced a climate change crisis. But maybe and maybe not. The future has a way of being unpredictable because it hasn’t happened yet. Hillary may be on a political high because ‘we came, we saw, he died’. But she should always ask herself about things yet to come: what could go wrong? What might possibly go wrong?

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