This past December, I came across an interesting piece on the Russia Today website, detailing how the Pentagon had turned to ESPN for help in dealing with the overwhelming amounts of video footage collected by surveillance drones:
In 2011, unmanned aerial vehicles collected 327,384 hours of video from surveillance cam-equipped UAVs, and understandably that’s a lot to look at, even when you’re sitting on the most expensive and advanced arsenal of equipment in the world. Now USA Today reports that, in order to help simplify the ever-expanding trove of intelligence collected from drones, the Air Force has asked the ESPN sports network for assistance.
According to an article from the paper’s Jim Michaels, the Air Force has reached out to ESPN recently in hopes that the sports station’s video analysts will have some ideas about how to process hours upon hours of sensitive footage captured by drones.
Back in 2010, Nick Turse explained how developing technology in drone “pods” would allow thirty drone operators to track 30 separate video feeds at the same time. “In other words, via video feeds from a single Reaper drone, operators could theoretically track 30 different people heading in 30 directions from a single Afghan compound.” The generation of pods after that would deliver up to 65 simultaneous feeds from a single drone, which in Air Force documents is described as a more than 6000% “increase in effectiveness” over the Predator’s existing video system. According to Turse, the Air Force was already overwhelmed by the incoming amounts of drone video footage then, and Air Force Lieutenant General David Deptula presciently cautioned against the risk of “drowning in data” with the implementation of this new technology.
Deptula was also interviewed for the USA Today report described on RT, and again cautioned against “[drowning] in the data”. He observed that the efficacy of drone strikes was largely predicated on intelligence gathered from these video feeds, remarking that “You can’t catch bad guys unless you know where they are and what they’re doing.” As the report states, drone video footage has gone from 4,806 hours in 2001 to well over a quarter-million hours of footage in just a decade. Evidently, the Air Force has not kept apace of this development and as such, has launched an “aggressive effort to seek out technology or techniques that will help them process video without adding more people to stare at monitors [emphasis own].”
But if humans aren’t the ones analyzing the footage and deciding (accurately or not) whether or not someone is a terrorist (who poses a “grave” threat to America), are we simply to trust the jobs of judge, jury, and executioner to a mere line of software? The US has already evinced a significantly-lacking capacity to analyze this data with all of the people they have on board, resulting in the wrongful deaths of hundreds of civilians. Now it seems that an already flawed process – with a perpetually yawning abyss between the number of persons analyzing the video footage and the hours of video footage collected – is going to be the potential testing grounds for new software designed to kill people.
The Historical Precedents for “drowning in data”
In analyzing the present and prospective state of drone warfare, it is well worth considering the historical precedents of this surveillance infrastructure to see what might be gleaned from past failures and successes. As Alfred W. McCoy noted in his essay Beyond Bayonets and Battleships: Space Warfare and the Future of U.S. Global Power
Over the span of a century, plunged into three Asian crucibles of counterinsurgency — in the Philippines, Vietnam, and Afghanistan — the U.S. military has repeatedly been pushed to the breaking point. It has repeatedly responded by fusing the nation’s most advanced technologies into new information infrastructures of unprecedented power.
McCoy goes onto describe how the first two “information revolutions” – originating in the wars in the Philippines and Vietnam, respectively – would turn out to be abysmal failures. The first of these information revolutions culminated in the establishment of the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, the nation’s first global espionage agency:
Among [the OSS’s] nine branches, Research & Analysis recruited a staff of nearly 2,000 academics who amassed 300,000 photographs, a million maps, and three million file cards, which they deployed in an information system via “indexing, cross-indexing, and counter-indexing” to answer countless tactical questions.
This deluge of information would ultimately prove unsustainable. McCoy quotes fellow historian Robert Winks who describes the OSS as “drowning under the flow of information” [Deptula’s repeated use of the “drowning” metaphor comes across with no mere irony in consideration of Winks’s judgment]. This pattern would be repeated (in computerized form) two decades later in Vietnam, with a noticeably unique psychological development
all this computerized data helped foster the illusion that American “pacification” programs in the countryside were winning over the inhabitants of Vietnam’s villages, and the delusion that the air war was successfully destroying North Vietnam’s supply effort.
Technological developments are unlikely to flower into perfect application in every initial trial. That is what makes the nature of scientific research both challenging and rewarding – that it is perpetually lacunary, but gives just enough to at least motivate further inquiry. So, to dismiss previous American attempts at establishing information infrastructures would be rather short-sighted. However, the alarming development I noted above in McCoy’s narrative is one that goes hand-in-hand with the idea of American Exceptionalism. This imperialist hubris, besides possessing the potential to work very much against our favour (as evidenced in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq) eviscerates any rational challenging of the fallibility of our information. If we are constantly deluded into thinking – whether as a result of media hyping/government declarations or a general cultural miasma – that what we know is true and unquestionably so, we are far more likely to err in judgment, and carry out those flawed judgments to potentially pernicious extremes.
As noted above, drone operators are no longer at risk of being overwhelmed with video footage, but have already reached that precipice and are (presumably) still learning to cope with this inundation of information.
Drones, and the Fallacy of Technological Prowess
The illusions of success McCoy describes abound in public discourse about both the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (though perhaps no longer), and events such as the American air war in Libya. Drones have proven to be no exception to this trend. As noted by Nick Turse:
Remotely piloted aircraft have regularly been touted, in the press and the military, as wonder weapons, the way, not so long ago, counterinsurgency tactics were being promoted as an elixir for military failure. Like the airplane, the tank, and nuclear weapons before it, the drone has been touted as a game-changer, destined to alter the very essence of warfare.
Instead, like the others, it has increasingly proven to be a non-game-changer of a weapon with ordinary vulnerabilities. Its technology is fallible and its efforts have often been counterproductive in these last years. For example, the inability of pilots watching computer monitors on the other side of the planet todiscriminate between armed combatants and innocent civilians has proven a continuing problem for the military’s drone operations, while the CIA’s judge-jury-executioner assassination program is widely considered to have run afoulof international law — and, in the case of Pakistan, to be alienating an entire population. The drone increasingly looks less like a winning weapon than a machine for generating opposition and enemies.
Turse provides further evidence for his claim, opining that
the Predator and the Reaper are little more than expensive, error-prone, overgrown model airplanes remotely “flown” by all-too-human pilots. They tend to crash at an alarming rate due to weather, mechanical failures, and computer glitches, leaving shattered silver-screen techno-dreams of cheap, error-free, futuristic warfare in the dust.
Today’s armed drones are actually the weak sisters of the weapons world. Even the Reaper is slow, clumsy, unarmored, generally unable to perceive threats around it, and — writes defense expert Winslow Wheeler — “fundamentally incapable of defending itself.” While Reapers have been outfitted with missiles for theoretical air-to-air combat capabilities, those armaments would be functionally useless in a real-world dogfight.
Similarly, in a 2011 report, the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board admitted that modern air defense systems “would quickly decimate the current Predator/Reaper fleet and be a serious threat against the high-flying Global Hawk.” Unlike that MQ-1000 of 2030, today’s top drone would be a sitting duck if any reasonably armed enemy wanted to take it on. In this sense, as in many others, it compares unfavorably to current manned combat aircraft.
None of this augurs well for the victims – past and future – of US drone strikes, US foreign policy and military objectives, or American citizens, who will undoubtedly be victims of an enduring campaign of misinformation, conducted by the government and its obsequious mainstream media lackeys, to sell drone strikes to the population. And as clunky as they are now, the proliferation of drones and their almost unrestrained usage by the US government sets a dangerous precedent for other nations to follow. Whatever the future of drones may hold, it is certain that the future of their creators will only be further imperilled as this technology develops.