How can we understand our world, if we have hardly
a clue about the mini-worlds where planning for our future takes place? Just
the other day, the Washington
Post had one of the odder reports of the year. According to journalist
Rick Weiss, demonstrators at protests in Washington DC and elsewhere have been
independently reporting large "dragonflies" (with a bizarre "row of spheres,
the size of small berries, attached along the tails") hovering near their rallies.
("'I'd never seen anything like it in my life,' the Washington lawyer said.
'They were large for dragonflies. I thought, is that mechanical, or is that
Is this the micro-equivalent of UFO madness? Folie? Philip K. Dick?
Are these actual dragonflies, which do look robotic, or advanced "spy drones"
loosed by some unnamed agency in search of homeland-security troublemakers?
As a matter of fact, militarized insects have been on the Pentagon's drawing
boards for quite a while, as Nick Turse pointed out at Tomdispatch back in 2004.
Most recently, the London Times
reported that the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)
was developing cyborg moths, implanted with computer chips while still in their
cocoons, that might someday soon flutter into an al-Qaeda camp in Pakistan and
beam back video and other information. (The Post's Weiss quotes DARPA
program manager Amit Lal as saying: "You might recall that Gandalf the friendly
wizard in the recent classic 'Lord of the Rings' used a moth to call in air
support?. [T]his science fiction vision is within the realm of reality.") And
don't forget those Pentagon-funded neural-implant experiments involving blue
sharks in hopes that they might someday be turned into stealth
spies of the oceans.
The first robobug, the "insectothopter," was developed by the CIA back in
the 1970s. It "looked just like a dragonfly and contained a tiny gasoline engine
to make the four wings flap," but it couldn't handle the crosswinds. Three decades
later, no agency will fess up to siccing robobugs on crowds of American demonstrators
(as the Cleveland Indians sicced gnats
on the Yankees' Joba Chamberlain in a crucial recent playoff game). And some
experts agree with Vice Admiral Joe Dyer, former head of the Naval Air Systems
Command, who claims: "I'll be seriously dead before that program deploys,"
Whatever the truth of the hovering "dragonflies," planning for new weaponry
and supportive technologies no less strange, no less futuristic, no less implausible
(if it weren't actually happening) is indeed underway – and the number of Americans
who know anything about it, or the uses to which such new militarized technology
is likely to be put, runs to the vanishing point. Fortunately, Tomdispatch's
intrepid Pentagon correspondent Nick Turse – whose new book, The
Complex, on the military-industrial-academic-entertainment-everything
complex, will be out in the spring – spent time behind the closed doors of a
Pentagon-approved conference that had in mind nothing less than planning weaponry,
strategy, and policy for the next hundred years yours, mine, and our
children's. So buckle your seat belt, prepare for G-force, and blast off into
a future only a military planner could possibly love. Tom
The Pentagon Plans for a New Hundred Years' War
By Nick Turse
Duane Schattle doesn't mince words. "The cities
are the problem," he says. A retired Marine infantry lieutenant colonel who
worked on urban warfare issues at the Pentagon in the late 1990s, he now serves
as director of the Joint Urban Operations Office at U.S. Joint Forces Command.
He sees the war in the streets of Iraq's cities as the prototype for tomorrow's
battlespace. "This is the next fight," he warns. "The future of warfare is what
we see now."
He isn't alone. "We think urban is the future," says James Lasswell, a retired
colonel who now heads the Office of Science and Technology at the Marine Corps
Warfighting Laboratory. "Everything worth fighting for is in the urban environment."
And Wayne Michael Hall, a retired Army brigadier general and the senior intelligence
advisor in Schattle's operation, has a similar assessment, "We will be fighting
in urban terrain for the next hundred years."
Last month, in a hotel nestled behind a medical complex in Washington, D.C.,
Schattle, Lasswell, and Hall, along with Pentagon power-brokers, active duty
and retired U.S. military personnel, foreign coalition partners, representatives
of big and small defense contractors, and academics who support their work
gathered for a "Joint Urban Operations, 2007" conference. Some had served
in Iraq or Afghanistan; others were involved in designing strategy, tactics,
and concepts, or in creating new weaponry and equipment, for the urban wars
in those countries. And here, in this hotel conference center, they're talking
about military technologies of a sort you've only seen in James Cameron's
2000-2002 television series Dark Angel.
I'm the oddity in this room of largely besuited defense contractors, military
retirees, and camouflage-fatigue-clad military men at a conference focused
on strategies for battling it out in the labyrinthine warrens of what urbanologist
calls "the planet of slums." The hulking guy who plops down next to me as
the meeting begins is a caricature of just the attendee you might imagine
would be at such a meeting. "I sell guns," he says right off. Over the course
of the conference, this representative of one of the world's best known weapons
manufacturers will suggest that members of the media be shot to avoid bad
press and he'll call a local tour guide he met in Vietnam a "bastard" for
explaining just how his people thwarted U.S. efforts to kill them. But he's
an exception. Almost everyone else seems to be a master of serene anodyne-speak.
Even the camo-clad guys seem somehow more academic than warlike.
In his tour de force book Planet
of Slums, Davis observes, "The Pentagon's best minds have dared to venture
where most United Nations, World Bank or Department of State types fear to go.
[T]hey now assert that the 'feral, failed cities' of the Third World – especially
their slum outskirts – will be the distinctive battlespace of the twenty-first
century." Pentagon war-fighting doctrine, he notes, "is being reshaped accordingly
to support a low-intensity world war of unlimited duration against criminalized
segments of the urban poor."
But the mostly male conference-goers planning for a multi-generational struggle
against the global South's slums aren't a gang of urban warfare cowboys talking
non-stop death and destruction; and they don't look particularly bellicose
either, as they munch on chocolate-chip cookies during our afternoon snack
breaks in a room where cold cuts and brochures for the Rapid
Wall Breaching Kit – which allows users to blast a man-sized hole in
the side of any building – are carefully laid out on the tables. Instead,
these mild-mannered men speak about combat restraint, "less than lethal weaponry,"
precision targeting, and (harking back to the Vietnam War) "winning hearts
The Men of Urban Warfare
Take Dr. Russell W. Glenn, a thin, bespectacled RAND Senior Policy Researcher
who looks for all the world like some bookish college professor Hollywood
dreamed up. You'd never guess he went to the Army's airborne, ranger, and
pathfinder schools and is a veteran of Operation Desert Storm. You'd also
never suspect that he might be the most prolific planner for the Pentagon's
century-long slum fight of tomorrow.
In Planet of Slums, Davis notes that the RAND Corporation, a non-profit
think-tank established by the Air Force in 1948, has been a key player in
pioneering the conceptual framework that has led to the current generation
of what's called, in the jargon of this meeting, "urban operations" or, more
familiarly, UO. Glenn, it so happens, is their main man in the field. He travels
the planet studying counterinsurgency warfare. Of late, he's been to the Solomon
Islands, where an island rebellion occurred in the late 1990s, the Philippines,
where an insurgency has been raging for decades (if not since the U.S. occupation
at the dawn of the twentieth century), and, of course, Iraq. He's co-authored
well over 20 UO studies for RAND including, most recently, ''People Make
the City": Joint Urban Operations Observations and Insights from Afghanistan
and Iraq (publicly available in 86-page executive
summary form) and the still-classified A Tale of Three Cities: Analyzing
Joint Urban Operations with a Focus on Fallujah, Al Amara, and Mosul.
On the technological front, the Pentagon's blue-skies research outfit, the
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)
sent its grandfatherly-looking deputy director, Robert F. Leheny, to talk
about such UO-oriented
technology as the latest in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and sense-through-walls
technologies that allow troops to see people and objects inside buildings.
While Leheny noted that 63% of DARPA's $3 billion yearly budget ($600 million
of it dedicated to UO technologies in the coming years) is funneled to industry
partners, DARPA is only a part of the story when it comes to promoting corporate
assistance in this 100-year-war growth area.
The largest contractors in the military-corporate complex are already hard
at work helping the Pentagon prepare for future urban occupations. Raytheon,
L-3 Communications, and Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC)
– the 5th, 7th, and 10th largest Pentagon contractors last year, taking in
a combined $18.4-plus billion from the Department of Defense – have all signed
Cooperative Research and Development Agreements with the U.S. Joint Forces
Command, according to Berry "Dan" Fox, the Deputy Director of Science and
Technology at its Joint Urban Operations Office.
As you might imagine, smaller contractors are eager to climb aboard the urban
warfare gravy train. At the conference, Lite Machines Corporation was a good
example of this. It was vigorously marketing a hand-launched, low-flying UAV
so light that it resembled nothing more than a large, plastic toy
water rocket with miniature helicopter rotors. The company envisions a profitably
privacy-free future in which urban zones are besieged by "swarms" of such small
UAVs that not only peek into city windows, but even invade homes. According
to a company spokesman, "You could really blanket a ground area with as many
UAVs as you want. Penetrate structures, see through a window or even break a
window," in order to fly inside a house or apartment and troll around.
DARPA'S Leheny also extolled hovering UAVs, specifically the positively
Micro Air Vehicle which brings to mind the "spinners" in Blade Runner
or, even earlier in blow-your-mind futuristic movie history, V.I.N.CENT
from Disney's The Black Hole. This drone, Leheny noted, has "perch
and stare" capabilities that allow it to lie in wait for hours before fixing
on a target and guiding in extended-line-of-sight or beyond-line-of-sight
weapons. He also described in detail another DARPA-pioneered unmanned aerial
vehicle, the WASP – a tiny, silent drone that spies on the sly and can be
carried in a soldier's pack. Leheny noted that there are now "a couple hundred
of these flying in Iraq."
In addition to endless chatter about the devastated "urban canyons" of Iraq
and Afghanistan, the specters of past battleground cities – some of them,
anyway – were clearly on many minds. There were constant references to urban
battle zones of history like Stalingrad and Grozny or such American examples
as Manila in 1945 and Panama City in 1989. Curiously neglected, however, were
the flattened cities of Germany and Japan in World War II, not to speak of
the bombed-out cities of Korea and Vietnam. Perhaps the Korean and Vietnam
Wars weren't on the agenda because "restraint" and "precision" were such watchwords
of the meeting. No one seemed particularly eager to discuss the destruction
visited on the Iraqi city of Fallujah either – three-quarters of its buildings
and mosques were damaged
in an American assault in November 2004.
During James Lasswell's presentation, he was quite specific about the non-Fallujah-like
need to be "very discriminate" in applying firepower in an urban environment.
As an example of the ability of technology to aid in such efforts, he displayed
a photo of the aftermath of an Israeli strike on a three-story Lebanese building.
The third floor of the structure had been obliterated, while the roof above
and the floors below appeared relatively unscathed. In an aside, Lasswell
mentioned that, while the effort had been a discriminating one, the floor
taken out "turned out to be the wrong floor." A rumble of knowing chuckles
swept the room.
Fighting in the City of Your Choice, 2045
Discrimination, it turned out, didn't mean legal constraint. Speakers and
conference-goers alike repeatedly lamented the way international law and similar
hindrances stood in the way of unleashing chemical agents and emerging technologies.
Microwave-like pain rays and other directed energy weapons – such as the
Denial System which inflicts an intense burning sensation on victims –
were reoccurring favorites of the gathering. During their PowerPoint presentation,
the men from Lite Machines, for instance, showed a computer rendering of their
micro-UAVs attacking an unarmed crowd gathered in a town square with a variety
of less-than-lethal weapons like disorienting laser dazzlers
and chemical gases (vomiting and tear-gas agents), while a company spokesman
regretfully mentioned that international regulations have made it impossible
to employ such gases on the battlefield. Undoubtedly, this was a reference
to the scorned Chemical Weapons Convention,
which has been binding for the last decade.
RAND's Glenn similarly brought up the possibility of reassessing such international
conventions and overcoming fears that chemical weapons might fall into the
"wrong hands." Saddam Hussein was his example of such "wrong hands," but the
hands responsible for Abu Ghraib, Mahmudiyah, Hamdania, Haditha, or the invasion
of Iraq itself – to find non-existent banned weapons – seemed to give him
While the various speakers at the conference focused on the burgeoning inhabitants
of the developing world's slum cities as targets of the Pentagon's 100-year
war, it was clear that those in the "homeland" weren't about to escape some
of its effects either. For example, back in 2004, Marines deploying to Iraq
brought the Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) with them. A futuristic non-lethal
weapon alluded to multiple times at the conference, it emits a powerful tone
which can bring agonizing pain to those within earshot. Says Woody Norris,
chairman of the American Technology Corporation, which manufactures the device:
"It will knock [some people] on their knees." That very same year, the LRAD
to the streets of the Big Apple (but apparently not used) by the New York
Police Department as a backup for protests against the Republican National
Convention. In 2005, it was shipped
to "areas hit by Hurricane Katrina" for possible "crowd control" purposes
and, by 2006, was in the hands of U.S. Border Patrol agents. In that same
year, it was also revealed that the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department
had begun testing the use of remote-controlled surveillance UAVs – not unlike
those now operating above Iraqi cities – over their own megalopolis.
When it came to the "homeland," conference participants were particularly
focused on moving beyond weaponry aimed at individuals, like rubber bullets.
Needed in the future, they generally agreed, were technologies that could
target whole crowds at once – not just rioters but even those simply attending
"demonstrations that could go violent."
Other futuristic UO concepts are also coming home. According to Dan Fox
of the Joint Urban Operations Office, the Department of Justice, like the
military, is currently working on sense-through-wall technologies. His associate
Duane Schattle is collaborating with the U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM)
– set up by the Bush administration in 2002 and whose area of operations
is "America's homefront" – on such subjects
as "sharing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, command and control
capabilities." He also spoke at the conference about developing synergy between
the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security in regard to urban-operations
technologies. He, too, expressed his hope that microwave weapon technology
would be made available for police use in this country.
A specific goal of DARPA, as a slide in deputy chief Leheny's presentation
made clear, is to "make a foreign city as familiar as the soldier's backyard."
This would be done through the deployment of intrusive sensor, UAV, and mapping
technologies. In fact, there were few imaginable technologies, even ones that
not so long ago inhabited the wildest frontiers of science fiction, that weren't
being considered for the 100-year battle these men are convinced is ahead
of us in the planet's city streets. The only thing not evidently open to discussion
was the basic wisdom of planning to occupy foreign cities for a century to
come. Even among the most thoughtful of these often brainy participants, there
wasn't a nod toward, or a question asked of, the essential guiding principle
of the conference itself.
With their surprisingly bloodless language, antiseptic PowerPoint presentations,
and calm tones, these men – only one woman spoke – are still planning Iraq-style
wars of tomorrow. What makes this chilling is not only that they envision
a future of endless urban warfare, but that they have the power to drive such
a war-fighting doctrine into that future; that they have the power to mold
strategy and advance weaponry that can, in the end, lock Americans into policies
that are unlikely to make it beyond these conference-room doors, no less into
public debate, before they are unleashed.
These men may be mapping out the next hundred years for urban populations
in cities across the planet. At the conference, at least, which ones exactly
seemed beside the point. Who could know, after all, whether in, say, 2045,
the target would be Mumbai, Lagos, or Karachi – though one speaker did offhandedly
mention Jakarta, Indonesia, a city of nine million today, as a future possibility.
Along with the lack of even a hint of skepticism about the basic premise
of the conference went a fundamental belief that being fought to a standstill
by a ragtag insurgency in Iraq was an issue to be addressed by merely rewriting
familiar tactics, strategy, and doctrine and throwing multi-billions more
in taxpayer dollars – in the form of endless new technologies – at the problem.
In fact, listening to the presentations in that conference room, with its
rows of white-shrouded tables in front of a small stage, it would not have
been hard to believe that the U.S. had defeated North Korea, had won in Vietnam,
had never rushed out of Beirut or fled Mogadishu, or hadn't spent markedly
more time failing to achieve victory in Afghanistan than it did fighting the
First and Second World Wars combined.
To the rest of the world, at least, it's clear enough that the Pentagon
knows how to redden city streets in the developing world, just not win wars
there; but in Washington – by the evidence of this "Joint Urban Operations,
2007" conference – it matters little. Advised, outfitted, and educated by
these mild-mannered men who sipped sodas and noshed on burnt egg rolls between
presentations, the Pentagon has evidently decided to prepare for 100 years
more of the same: war against various outposts of a restless, oppressed population
of slum-dwellers one
billion strong and growing at an estimated rate of 25 million a year.
All of these UO experts are preparing for an endless struggle that history
suggests they can't win, but that is guaranteed to lead to large-scale destruction,
destabilization, and death. Unsurprisingly, the civilians of the cities that
they plan to occupy, whether living in Karachi, Jakarta, or Baghdad, have
no say in the matter. No one thought to invite any of them to the conference.
Nick Turse is the associate editor and research director of Tomdispatch.com.
He has written for the Los
Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Nation, the Village Voice,
and regularly for Tomdispatch.com. His first book, The
Complex, an exploration of the new military-corporate complex in America,
is due out in the American
Empire Project series by Metropolitan Books in 2008. His new website NickTurse.com
(up only in rudimentary form) will fully launch in the coming months.
Copyright 2007 Nick Turse