America's Next Quest for Domination

By Alfred McCoy
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Ultimately, the impact of this third information regime will be shaped by the ability of the U.S. military to integrate its array of global aerospace weaponry into a robotic command structure that would be capable of coordinating operations across all combat domains: space, cyberspace, sky, sea, and land. To manage the surging torrent of information within this delicately balanced triple canopy, the system would, in the end, have to become self-maintaining through "robotic manipulator technologies," such as the Pentagon's FREND system that someday could potentially deliver fuel, provide repairs, or reposition satellites.

For a new global optic, DARPA is building the wide-angle Space Surveillance Telescope (SST), which could be sited at bases ringing the globe for a quantum leap in "space surveillance." The system would allow future space warriors to see the whole sky wrapped around the entire planet while seated before a single screen, making it possible to track every object in Earth orbit.

Operation of this complex worldwide apparatus will require, as one DARPA official explained in 2007, "an integrated collection of space surveillance systems -- an architecture -- that is leak-proof." Thus, by 2010, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency had 16,000 employees, a $5 billion budget, and a massive $2 billion headquarters at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, with 8,500 staffers wrapped in electronic security -- all aimed at coordinating the flood of surveillance data pouring in from Predators, Reapers, U-2 spy planes, Global Hawks, X-37B space drones, Google Earth, Space Surveillance Telescopes, and orbiting satellites. By 2020 or thereafter -- such a complex techno-system is unlikely to respect schedules -- this triple canopy should be able to atomize a single "terrorist" with a missile strike after tracking his eyeball, facial image, or heat signature for hundreds of miles through field and favela, or blind an entire army by knocking out all ground communications, avionics, and naval navigation.

Technological Dominion or Techno-Disaster?

Peering into the future, a still uncertain balance of forces offers two competing scenarios for the continuation of U.S. global power. If all or much goes according to plan, sometime in the third decade of this century the Pentagon will complete a comprehensive global surveillance system for Earth, sky, and space using robotics to coordinate a veritable flood of data from biometric street-level monitoring, cyber-data mining, a worldwide network of Space Surveillance Telescopes, and triple canopy aeronautic patrols. Through agile data management of exceptional power, this system might allow the United States a veto of global lethality, an equalizer for any further loss of economic strength.

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However, as in Vietnam, history offers some pessimistic parallels when it comes to the U.S. preserving its global hegemony by militarized technology alone. Even if this robotic information regime could somehow check China's growing military power, the U.S. might still have the same chance of controlling wider geopolitical forces with aerospace technology as the Third Reich had of winning World War II with its "super weapons" -- V-2 rockets that rained death on London and Messerschmitt Me-262 jets that blasted allied bombers from Europe's skies. Complicating the future further, the illusion of information omniscience might incline Washington to more military misadventures akin to Vietnam or Iraq, creating the possibility of yet more expensive, draining conflicts, from Iran to the South China Sea.

If the future of America's world power is shaped by actual events rather than long-term economic trends, then its fate might well be determined by which comes first in this century-long cycle: military debacle from the illusion of technological mastery, or a new technological regime powerful enough to perpetuate U.S. global dominion.

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Alfred W. McCoy is the J.R.W. Smail Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the lead author of Endless Empire: Spain's Retreat, Europe's Eclipse, America's Decline (University of Wisconsin, 2012), which is the source for much of the material in this essay.

This article was originally published in TomDispatch and is republished with permission.

(AP Photo)

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