Long Distance High Tech State Terror

Against the Current, No. 181, March/April 2016

David Richardson

Kill Chain:
The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins
By Andrew Cockburn
Verso Books, 2015, 320 pages, $12.96 paperback from Amazon.

ON A COLD Afghan night in February 2010, two small SUVs and a four-door pickup carrying 35 men, women and children, including four under age six, were traveling toward Kandahar on the way to Kabul. It was a slow trip with stops for engine trouble and a flat tire.

On the seemingly deserted highway, unknown to the group, a United States Special Ops raiding party had landed nearby and a reconnaissance drone circled overhead. Backing up the drone was a ground crew including the pilot, intelligence analysts, and communications officers in Nevada and Florida. Instead of people, what they saw on their screens were blobs on the ground.

When first picked up the vehicles were headed toward the raiding party, but never came closer than ten miles, and after an hour they turned away. Nonetheless, a helicopter gunship attack was called in which killed 23 people, including two boys three and four, and wounded eight men, one woman and three children between five and 14. On the basis of pictures from the drone they had all been positively identified as military-age males.

In 1999, then presidential candidate George W. Bush said in a speech at The Citadel: “When direct threats to America are discovered, I know that the best defense can be a strong and swift offense — including the use of Special Operations Forces … we must be prepared to strike across the world with pinpoint accuracy — with long-range aircraft and perhaps with unmanned systems.”

Thirteen years later, President Barack Obama in his defense vision declared that “as we reduce the overall defense budget, we will protect, and in some cases increase, our investments in special operations forces, in new technologies like ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance — ed.) and unmanned systems …” (Cockburn, 250)

Since 2001, the American taxpayer has shelled out trillions, not billions, in Middle East adventures, only to see al-Qaeda — and now“Islamic State” (ISIS) — operations expand from a few bases maintained in Afghanistan at the sufferance of the Taliban, to a territory the size of Utah with outposts in a half-dozen other countries, while U.S. influence in the Middle East has been and is on the decline.

Record of a Debacle

Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins by Andrew Cockburn, an editor of Harper’s Magazine and a younger brother of the late Alexander Cockburn, is the story of this strategic debacle.(1) Given the dollar amounts expended, let alone the loss of life, the result can only be characterized as catastrophic.

While a disaster of this magnitude can only be described as a team effort on the part of the U.S. military, the Air Force with its drone operations, its core belief in strategic bombing, and its faith in computer automated systems, stands at the top of the list. The Army brass, in its determination to wage war against civilian populations, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, also comes in for its share of criticism.

By comparison the enlisted men and low-ranking officers who had to actually bear the brunt of the fighting come off relatively lightly, and are often seen as micro-managed by the generals.

The kill chain itself is the chain of command that authorizes lethal drone strikes and special operations. As this review was being written, the news was awash with reports of the death by drone strike of Mohammed Emwazi or “Jihadi John,” the Briton who executed hostages on video, and Wisam al Zubaidi, the head of the ISIS affiliate in Libya. Before we attach too much importance to these reports, we should look at the results of some past drone strikes.

Fuzzy Targets, Deadly Consequences

In fact, the Air Force knew that the sort of thing that happened on the Kandahar-Kabul road was likely to happen when they put the drones into service. A military reform movement in the 1980s attempted to stem the tide of ever more expensive weapons of dubious utility, and in 1983 it succeeded in creating the Office of Operational Test and Evaluation, one of the least popular agencies ever conceived.

In 2001 new Director Thomas P. Christie took as his first project to test the Predator drone. He found that the Predator couldn’t take off or land except in near-perfect weather. Drones operate at 12,000 to 15,000 feet to avoid hand-held surface-to-air missiles. The team used a rating scale for visual accuracy to analyze data from 15,000 feet, from one for a large airplane to nine, the ability to recognize a human face.

While “[t]he drones were supposed to score six, ‘recognize supply dumps, identify vehicles’ at a range of 6 miles, the day TV scored no better than 2.7. Overall, Predator could find less than a third of its targets.” (68)

The images were never good enough to distinguish between a truck and a tank. People turn into blobs on the screen, with the result that the viewers engage in a kind of Rorschach test, and see whatever they want to see.

The final report, sent to the secretary of defense, the heads of all the relevant congressional committees, and the top brass, said that “The Predator UAV is not operationally effective. This conclusion is based on poor performance in target location accuracy, ineffective communications, and limits imposed by relatively benign weather.” (71) The report was ignored.

The book itself is a page turner: it reads like action fiction, sci fi, detective novel, pick your favorite escape vehicle, and draws you in similarly. It’s a series of stories around a theme, the endless fascination with technology as a means of war fighting, and the fiascoes that have resulted.(2)

We all know how those seemingly random killings have turned the people of the Middle East against the United States, and there’s enough of that in the book. For me, however, the main story concerns the increasing impotence of the U.S. military despite, or perhaps because of, its dramatic investment in technology.

One early implementation of this profoundly mistaken direction was the $6 billion electric fence intended to keep “the” Ho Chi Minh Trail from delivering supplies to the Viet Cong in South Viet Nam. It took the North only a week to circumvent it, in part because there was no actual trail but rather a network that could be utilized to confuse and frustrate the electronics.

Another early implementation was the Air Force strategy in World War II that the war could be won by strategic bombing alone. The idea was that a modern economy relies on inter-connectivity, and that the destruction of key links could bring a whole country to a halt. However, it turned out that ball bearings weren’t the key to the functioning of the Reich, nor were hydroelectric dams, not were a whole list of other possible key links.

The 1943 British firebombing of Hamburg, for example, had the effect of actually increasing production in that city. Before the bombing there had been a labor shortage in Hamburg. However, the bombs demolished the downtown, and people who had worked in the service sector, hotels, restaurants and the like, saw their places of employment destroyed, and went to work in the war plants on the outskirts.

The result of the strategic bombing campaign was that Allied air power came close to implementing Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau’s vision of turning Germany into a cow pasture, yet the German war machine chugged on until it was defeated on the ground.

Win the Battle, Lose the War

Facing more recent enemies without a military industrial complex, the key links came to be seen as people rather than things, which didn’t work any better. This strategy was tried out in the war on drugs, with the initial target being Pablo Escobar and the Medellín cocaine cartel.

While numerous surveillance aircraft were employed in the hunt for Escobar, they were of no help and he was eventually located with the help of the rival Cali cartel. Alas, their assistance did them no good, and we destroyed the Cali cartel as well.

If these moves had been successful in stemming the tide of cocaine, we should have seen prices rise in the United States. In fact, “cocaine prices … immediately went into a precipitous decline.” The cartels had created a duopoly, and once they were broken up they were replaced by a couple of dozen smaller but even more lethal operations which competed with each other, thereby driving the prices down. This led former Air Force pilot Rex Rivolo, then with Operations Evaluation, to suggest that “[t]he best thing would have been to keep one cartel over which we had some control.” (101, 102)

More generally, shadowy organizations involved in crime or terrorism are decentralized, and don’t depend on their top leaders for their success. Rather, under the top leaders are younger, more violent guys ready to step up when the top guy goes down, and hence assassinating the leaders is a fool’s errand.

The first few months of the war in Afghanistan were a near total success. After the fall of Mazar-i-Sharif, the leaders of the Taliban fled south to Pakistan and their lower level fighters were told to go home, with the result that the U.S. military very quickly established control of the whole country.

The Americans and the British, however, insisted on targeting the now departed leaders, with the result that local warlords and even ordinary Afghans turned over their enemies as terrorists, thereby ingratiating themselves with the new rulers and turning a nice profit as well.

After several iterations, the end result was the establishment of the “signature strike,” in which “it would no longer be necessary to identify the target. Merely looking like a terrorist would be sufficient to trigger a strike.” (224)

Group gatherings were especially suspect, so wedding parties, Afghan local councils called jirgas, and funeral processions did not occur as people attempted to avoid acting as terrorists were thought to act.

Dollar War$

Ineffectual as they may be against enemies, there is one battle the armed forces are good at: the budget wars in Washington. The branch that is actually able to fight a war all by itself is the Navy, together with its Naval Air Systems Command and Marine Corps. By comparison, the Air Force and the Army are hobbled by their mutual dependence and hence start at a disadvantage in the battle for the budget.

To compensate, the Air Force developed the doctrine that strategic bombing could win a war all by itself, with a dramatic reduction in American casualties to boot. It didn’t work in WWII, it isn’t working against ISIS, and there is no evidence that it has worked anytime in between. It has, however, created the potential to incinerate the planet in a hypothetical nuclear exchange.

In a sense the drone is the ultimate high-tech weapon, (initially) inexpensive, lethal, putting no Americans in harm’s way, and (at least where there are no real air defense systems) virtually invulnerable. With its monitors widely available in generals’ offices, it gives the illusion that they can conduct the battle themselves, never mind if they are overriding and micromanaging the officers who have responsibility on the ground. Weaponized and with a license to kill, what could go wrong?

For all its faults, the Predator was relatively cheap at $5 million per copy. The 2005 Reaper drone, at $30 million plus $5 million per year maintenance, much more than older manned aircraft, was billed as an improvement. But “it carries essentially the same sensors as the Predator” (178), i.e. it still sees people as blobs with no ability to recognize gender, let alone whether they are armed or not.

However, the prices were getting up to levels that could interest the major defense contractors, and Northrup Grumman came out with the Global Hawk, whose initial price tag ballooned from $10 million to $223 million each. Unwanted by either the Air Force or te Obama Administration, its high price turned out actually to be an advantage in the budget debates, since the work could be spread over more congressional districts. Global Hawk replaced the U-2, which, as it turns out, took better photographs. (181)

One thing all these high-tech strategies share is the hubris of their proponents and their unwillingness to face facts as one after another of their failures are swept under the rug.

Rigging the Game

The whole high-tech system was tested at a war game called Millennial Challenge 2002.(3) Marine Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper commanded the Red (enemy) team as a rogue military commander in the Persian Gulf, for some reason willing to take on the U.S. military. For Van Riper the implied rules were secondary, and he played to win.

While the Challenge involved thousands of troops, ground vehicles and aircraft scattered across the United States, much of the action was virtual, played as a computer game. In the first few hours, the Blue (US) team knocked out Van Riper’s fiber optics, expecting him to be forced to use easily intercepted radio communications. Instead, he used motorcycle couriers and coded messages embedded in the Muslim calls to prayer.

As planned, a U.S. carrier task force steamed up the Gulf. The Blue commander said “I have a feeling that Red is going to strike.” However, “his staff was quick to assure him that their ONA [Operational Net Assessment] made it clear that this could not happen.” (135)

While previous Red commanders had used their missiles in dribs and drabs, Van Riper used them all at once in a salvo, sinking 16 virtual ships and taking 20,000 virtual servicemen and women to the bottom. “Only a few days in, the war was over, and the twenty-first century U.S. military had been beaten hands down.”

The brass responded to this reverse as the good bureaucrats they were, and Van Riper was told that the ships had been refloated by magic and the game would continue. To his credit, he quit in disgust. “Afterward he wrote a scathing report, documenting how the exercise had been rigged and by whom, but no outsider could read it because it was promptly classified.” (136)

Before reading Kill Chain, I knew that the military was the main source of fraud, waste and abuse in the government, if only because it has the only budget that doesn’t receive effective oversight, and also because I observed fairly low level GS-9 staffers re­ceiving expensive trips. The Millennial Challenge, among all the other things that went wrong with the new generation of high-tech weapons, left me with a much more grim assessment: the U.S. military as it has come to be structured makes a mockery of “providing for the common defense.”


  1. Of course assassination is not permitted under Executive Order 11905, issued by Gerald Ford and reaffirmed by Carter and Reagan. However, “Administration officials later explained to the Washington Post some of the ways in which the ban might not really ban assassinations, suggesting ‘… the order could be revoked or simply ignored, arguing that covert action against terrorists could be defended as something other than ‘political assassination.’’” (90)
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  2. See, e.g., Robin Williams in Toys.
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  3. War games are essential to the development of military strategy. For example, war games in the 1930s predicted that after a Japanese attack, immediate retaliation against Japan itself would fail, while the island-hopping strategy that was actually adopted would win.
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March-April 2016, ATC 181