As Washington seeks to surveil the globe from space, the world might well ask: Just how high is national sovereignty? Absent any international agreement about the vertical extent of sovereign airspace (since a conference on international air law, convened in Paris in 1910, failed), some puckish Pentagon lawyer might reply: only as high as you can enforce it. And Washington has filled this legal void with a secret executive matrix -- operated by the CIA and the clandestine Special Operations Command -- that assigns names arbitrarily, without any judicial oversight, to a classified "kill list" that means silent, sudden death from the sky for terror suspects across the Muslim world.
Although U.S. plans for space warfare remain highly classified, it is possible to assemble the pieces of this aerospace puzzle by trolling the Pentagon's websites, and finding many of the key components in technical descriptions at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). As early as 2020, the Pentagon hopes to patrol the entire globe ceaselessly, relentlessly via a triple canopy space shield reaching from stratosphere to exosphere, driven by drones armed with agile missiles, linked by a resilient modular satellite system, monitored through a telescopic panopticon, and operated by robotic controls.
At the lowest tier of this emerging U.S. aerospace shield, within striking distance of Earth in the lower stratosphere, the Pentagon is building an armada of 99 Global Hawk drones equipped with high-resolution cameras capable of surveilling all terrain within a 100-mile radius, electronic sensors to intercept communications, efficient engines for continuous 24-hour flights, and eventually Triple Terminator missiles to destroy targets below. By late 2011, the Air Force and the CIA had already ringed the Eurasian land mass with a network of 60 bases for drones armed with Hellfire missiles and GBU-30 bombs, allowing air strikes against targets just about anywhere in Europe, Africa, or Asia.
The sophistication of the technology at this level was exposed in December 2011 when one of the CIA's RQ-170 Sentinels came down in Iran. Revealed was a bat-winged drone equipped with radar-evading stealth capacity, active electronically scanned array radar, and advanced optics "that allow operators to positively identify terror suspects from tens of thousands of feet in the air."
If things go according to plan, in this same lower tier at altitudes up to 12 miles unmanned aircraft such as the "Vulture," with solar panels covering its massive 400-foot wingspan, will be patrolling the globe ceaselessly for up to five years at a time with sensors for "unblinking" surveillance, and possibly missiles for lethal strikes. Establishing the viability of this new technology, NASA's solar-powered aircraft Pathfinder, with a 100-foot wingspan, reached an altitude of 71,500 feet altitude in 1997, and its fourth-generation successor the "Helios" flew at 97,000 feet with a 247-foot wingspan in 2001, two miles higher than any previous aircraft.
For the next tier above the Earth, in the upper stratosphere, DARPA and the Air Force are collaborating in the development of the Falcon Hypersonic Cruise Vehicle. Flying at an altitude of 20 miles, it is expected to "deliver 12,000 pounds of payload at a distance of 9,000 nautical miles from the continental United States in less than two hours." Although the first test launches in April 2010 and August 2011 crashed midflight, they did reach an amazing 13,000 miles per hour, 22 times the speed of sound, and sent back "unique data" that should help resolve remaining aerodynamic problems.
At the outer level of this triple-tier aerospace canopy, the age of space warfare dawned in April 2010 when the Pentagon quietly launched the X-37B space drone, an unmanned craft just 29 feet long, into an orbit 250 miles above the Earth. By the time its second prototype landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in June 2012 after a 15-month flight, this classified mission represented a successful test of "robotically controlled reusable spacecraft" and established the viability of unmanned space drones in the exosphere.
At this apex of the triple canopy, 200 miles above Earth where the space drones will soon roam, orbital satellites are the prime targets, a vulnerability that became obvious in 2007 when China used a ground-to-air missile to shoot down one of its own satellites. In response, the Pentagon is now developing the F-6 satellite system that will "decompose a large monolithic spacecraft into a group of wirelessly linked elements, or nodes [that increases] resistance to... a bad part breaking or an adversary attacking." And keep in mind that the X-37B has a capacious cargo bay to carry missiles or future laser weaponry to knock out enemy satellites -- in other words, the potential capability to cripple the communications of a future military rival like China, which will have its own global satellite system operational by 2020.