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The Uninhabited United States Air Force

The Uninhabited United States Air Force

Joshuah Bearman
13 Snaps

Owning the Weather

Somewhere on Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, there are file cabinets and databases filled with documents that constitute a report called Air Force 2025. How many file cabinets and databases I do not know, because the report is thousands of pages, and some of it is classified, and, moreover, I’ve never been to Maxwell Air Force Base. But according to what material is available, Air Force 2025 is an attempt to envision a whole new set of strategies and weapons systems for the skies and, ultimately, space. The reports are full of sober assessments, wild speculations, and a whole lot of acronyms, like WICS, which stands for Worldwide Information Control System, and GLASS, a hypothetical Global Area Strike System. In short, Air Force 2025 aspires to what is called Global Battlespace Dominance—controlling every potential medium of warfare, from the vacuum of space to the froth of information circling Earth. It is a fantastic vision. The above illustration is in the report, as sort of a frontispiece. “That’s the Air Force of the future?” my friend John asked when I showed it to him. “Why is it so trippy?” Why indeed? Elsewhere in the report, there is an epigraph, a line from Part 1 of George Bernard Shaw’s unstageable play series Back to Methuselah: “You see things; and say ‘Why?’ But I dream of things that never were; and I say; ‘Why not?’”

If inspired rhetoric cribbed from literature sounds strange coming from the military, think about Donald Rumsfeld for a minute. At first, he really looks the part of a defense bureaucrat, right? With the hair, the glasses, the slight squint behind the glasses, and the swagger behind the squint, he always reminded me of a sixties-era Rand analyst, a smarty-pants, still stoked on grad school, confident that punch cards and new vistas of applied math could keep the country secure. A square, really. Anachronistic.

But then Rumsfeld became the central personality behind the Iraq war, and we realized he’s less square than downright loopy. His elliptical style loosened, veering into metaphysical flourishes and becoming vaguely epistemological. Recall Rumsfeld standing in front of his silk-screened Pentagon backdrop and taking the Washington Press Corps to school about how what-we-are-seeing-is-not-reality-but-one-slice-of-the-totality-of-the-reality, and so on. No longer your average security studies fuddy-duddy, Rumsfeld now seemed more like the odd guy in the Rand office, the one who started mingling with the early Timothy Leary crowd at parties—Rand is in Santa Monica, after all—and thereafter authored game theory studies by day while listening to Alan Watts tapes and “expanding his horizons” at night. I mean, what kind of secretary of defense goes to Brussels and talks to NATO about threat assessment in the form of koan-like epigrams?

The same kind that puts money into something called “Space-Based AI-Driven Intelligence Master Mind System”1 and talks about “owning the weather”2 in twenty years. Like all military futurists, Rumsfeld acts sagelike because that’s how he sees himself. If you think about it,war planning must be a kind of a dream state, a trip to the desert for inspiration. Check out the illustration again. The Air Force of the future looks like the cover of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew album. Or those old Carlos Castaneda book jackets. It’s hallucinatory, a potion uncorked.3 In a report like Air Force 2025 there are a thousand imaginations running wild, all dreaming up technologies and ideas in the service of a single goal: martial supremacy. To do the job right, military strategists must get surreal. They talk about clouds of robotic weapons, warfare at the speed of light, and “omnisensorial” information arrays as “essential to ‘knowing’ in the 21st century.” So they’re kind of like shamans? Sure, they’re kind of like shamans, only they return from the realm beyond not with words of guidance from the Coyote Spirit but with Concept No. 900481: Destructo Swarmbots. Which is why it’s no surprise, for example, that a report heading for the Global Area Strike System reads like Through the Looking GLASS.

DrMidnight: I was just looking at this picture again. What’s with the blue light cone coming out of the plane?

[That’s my friend John again, instant messaging me. His screen name is DrMidnight.4 I’m Whatevski.5]

Whatevski: It’s up to interpretation, I think. Could be Concept No. 200015: Distortion Field Projector.

DrMidnight: !!

Whatevski: Or an attack laser system, which is actually already developed.6 Air Force 2025 is on to new directed energy weapons.7

DrMidnight: Insane in the mainframe. Check these guys out, though—I like their sporty digi-gloves. Couple of information priests. 😀

Whatevski: Or information warrior-priests: where the past meets the future. 😎

DrMidnight: Looks like “Minority Report.” Didn’t Cruise have digi-gloves, too?

Digi-gloves Times Ten

A key element of Air Force 2025, as well as similar studies from other branches of the service,8 is the notion of plugged-in decision makers, virtually inserted into the battlespace by “leveraging the infosphere.” On a limited basis, this is already military doctrine. Next generation, however, it will go for broke, with robo-bugs and satellites and all kinds of new surveillance technologies gathering a panoply of information, including, according to one report, “hyperspectral sensing in acoustic, seismic, olfactory and gustatory areas.” All this data—and it will be a lot9—would then be fused and relayed in real time back to the guys at HQ, with the VR headsets, who would manage the action with their sporty digi-gloves. In fact, the Air Force is one up on Tom Cruise: Concept No. 900385, Holographic Battlefield Display, takes it to the next level—the “21st Century Aerospace Warrior” will float through the virtual battlespace, rocking command and control in 3-D.10

But that’s not all. Forgive me for throwing out more jargon, but you would have been upset if I did not mention that Air Force 2025 also posits the ultimate battlespace integration, a “longer-range solution” that will “integrate humans and machines in a far more intimate fashion.” That’s right: chip in the brain.

The theoretical Information Integration Center (that’s the Air Force’s version) would mean cutting out the middle transistors, as it were, and sending refined data streams to human users through implants, providing them “with computer-generated visualizations.” Included in the outline of the IIC are flow charts with names like “Cyber Situation Connectivity” and “Eye See Everything,” which have arrows zig-zagging between satellites and robots and all pointing back to the human Entity at the center.

Destructo Swarmbots Are Your Friends!

Let me back up for a minute to talk about defense spending and science. A great deal of very important basic research is funded by the Defense Department, through an agency called DARPA. It would be unfair not to point out that a lot of this money winds up leading to scientific and technological advances that improve your quality of life and just might save you on an operating table some day. It’s not all so sinister-sounding.

And by the way, to defense planners, “Destructo Swarmbots” isn’t sinister-sounding either; the name is simply descriptive of a strategic capability. They don’t hear “Destructo Swarmbots”; they hear “a new tool that will help us wield overpowering force, wage war more effectively, end it quickly and save lives.” Look at the illustration: These guys are optimists. Theirs is a brightly colored future, not a dark world inhabited by Hunter-Killers. In fact, it’s kind of religious. Even teleological. It reminds me of Jehovah’s Witnesses tracts, showing the future kingdom with the lambs and lions lying together on green pastures. Same color palette even. Similarly, Air Force 2025 is a hopeful prospect, a vision of a world where superweapons obviate today’s messy wars.

In theory, at least. Let’s not let anyone off the hook: Military planning suffers from a classic case of being blinded by the sun. The technologists of the Pentagon are the last bastion of the high scientism that faded from most scientific culture decades ago. People like the authors of Air Force 2025 still have that unswerving confidence in technology, a spiritual faith in material perfection. Rumsfeld is a believer, which is what makes him (and the illustration) oscillate between comic and menacing. It’s not that Rumsfeld is insane like, say, Sterling Hayden in Dr. Strangelove,11 but rather that he invokes a strangely delirious clarity of thought. Whereas most scientists gave up on building utopias in the sixties, Rumsfeld and company are still livin’ the dream—they’re kicking back on that beach in Santa Monica, staring at the horizon, imagining how to get there. But these masters of possibility always selectively ignore one set of possibilities: the downsides. If I was on that beach, I’d have to ask Rumsfeld, “And what happens if the shaman’s vision becomes a nightmare?”

Case in point for the nightmare scenario is the last major element of Air Force 2025: unmanned warfare. It turns out there’s a hitch to Global Battlespace Dominance. With improved sensors, communication links, and data processing, the exponential explosion of information will soon become too much for the guys at HQ to process. Information overload leads to flawed decision-making. In light of this, the military hopes to have weapons systems that think for themselves. This means moving from automatic to autonomous weapons that can perform their own “search, detect, evaluation, track, engage, and kill assessment functions.”12 We’ve already seen the tactical success of the Predator drones in the past couple years. Imagine a bunch of Predators—sentient, hunting. Now imagine even more of them, but smaller, maybe a group of a few thousand, and there you have what is ultimately meant by Destructo Swarmbots.

There is the unmistakable march of military logic here, which goes like this: (1) To make better decisions, you need to know more, so (2) let’s try to develop systems to know as much as possible. Eventually, however, (3) the system knows more than it can handle, because there is a relatively slow component in there: the human. Rationally, then, you can (4) remove the human to improve system performance. Voila!—robot army.

Air Force 2025 and its companion documents talk about this development matter-of-factly. “Humans may retain symbolic authority,” one of the report’s authors wrote, “but automated systems… are too complex for real human comprehension.” But they fail to consider that there may be other consequences besides tactical efficiency when warfare departs from what military theorists call “human space.” For all of history, warfare has meant people running around throwing things at each other—in recent times, with the help of gunpowder and whatnot. As tragic as war is, we’ve always had only ourselves to blame. Do we want to hand our destiny over to automata? Theoretically, there would always be a human in the loop, but what happens when the robots get so smart they don’t want a human in the loop? Or when they don’t want humans at all…

Sounds like science fiction, but who knows? In this summer’s T3: Rise of the Machines, there’s a legion of armed, autonomous robot planes, called Hunter-Killers. In Air Force 2025, there’s a legion of armed, autonomous robot planes, called Hunter-Killers, or more precisely, Concept No. 90029, Hunter-Killer Attack Platform. And—forgive me for asking—what is the Matrix if not a hyperconnected Information Integration Center turned bad? Dark science-fiction often begins with utopias gone wrong. So refer back to the utopia in the illustration. How would the palette change if the guys with headsets and gloves were no longer in control? This may not be possible in the next quarter century, but what if the report was “Air Force 2050”? Even Air Force 2025 hints that the arrow they’re following could go places unknown. And that’s what’s slightly troubling about the narrative foretold in military planning documents. If you look far enough down the line, the technology always entails the betrayal of its purpose. War will be post-human. It’s the familiar Faustian slippery slope, only with higher stakes, because there might be a horde of crazed robots at the bottom.

“Familiar tale—the creator is always consumed by the Creation,” John offered in response to this thought. “Those guys ought to read Frankenstein.” Or maybe they should just look past the first act of Back to Methuselah. Shaw’s pessimism unfolds in the plays, culminating in the cautionary closing parable, “As Far as the Eye Can See,” where Pygmalion, a scientist who wants to improve on evolution, is killed by the automatons he produces. Had the authors of Air Force 2025 read beyond the first few pages, they might have wound up with another of Shaw’s oft-quoted aphorisms as their epigraph:

When the master has come to do everything through the slave,

the slave becomes his master, since he cannot live without him.

1 Air Force 2025 Concept No. 900522.
2 “Weather As a Force Multiplier: Owning the Weather in 2025,” Air Force 2025, August 1996.
3. I wonder who’s over at the Pentagon cooking up these illustrations. Is there an artist in residence? Does he or she have a studio? Is this painting acrylic, oil, or gouache?
4. Screen name changed.
5. Whatevski is my real screen name.
6. The first YAL-1A system, which is a big laser mounted on a plane, is currently being tested. Boeing built it. A seven-plane fleet could be in the air by 2009.
7. Other directed energy weapons mentioned in the report include high-powered microwaves, charged and neutral particle beams, and even big giant mirrors in space.
8. Air Force 2025 is one of many such documents. Some of the others are Strategic Master Plan, New World Vistas, Long Range Plan, Guardians of the High Frontier, and Spacecast 2020.
9. See Concept No. 200023, Surveillance Swarm.
10. “Like Dance Dance Revolution, but the real deal,” speculated my brother Ethan.
11. “Precious fluids!”
12. The precursors to these systems are here already. The Phalanx is a rapid-fire 20-millimeter gun system deployed on Navy ships that provides a last-chance defense against incoming missiles and other close-range targets. It is meant to scan for and attack targets all on its own.
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