by Noah Shachtman
Robotic assassination campaigns directed from the Oval Office. Cyber espionage programs launched at the president’s behest. Surveillance on an industrial scale. The White House already has an incredible amount of power to monitor and take out individuals around the globe. But a new wave of technologies, just coming online, could give those powers a substantial upgrade. No matter who wins the election on Tuesday, the next president could have an unprecedented ability to monitor and end lives from the Oval Office.
The current crop of sensors, munitions, control algorithms, and data storage facilities have helped make the targeted killing of American adversaries an almost routine affair. Nearly 3,000 people have been slain in the past decade by American drones, for instance. The process will only get easier, as these tools of war become more compact, more powerful, and more precise. And they will: Moore’s Law applies in the military and intelligence realms almost as much as it does in the commercial sphere.
For decades, political scientists have wrung their hands about an “Imperial Presidency,” an executive branch with powers far beyond its original, Constitutional limits. This new hardware and software could make the old concerns look more outdated than horses and bayonets, to coin a phrase. Here are seven examples.
Photo: François Proulx/Flickr
There’s a standard response to skeptics of the killer flying robots known as drones that goes something like this: Every time a drone fires its weapon, a human being within a chain of command (of other human beings) made that call. The robot never decides for itself who lives and who dies. All of that is true. It’s just that some technical advances, both current and on the horizon, are going to make it less true.
On one end of the spectrum is the Switchblade, AeroVironment’s mashup of drone and missile. Weighing under 6 pounds and transportable in a soldier’s backpack, the drone carries a function whereby an operator can pre-program its trajectory using GPS; When it reaches the target, it explodes, without its operator commanding it to. On the other end is the Navy’s experimental UCLASS, which by 2019 ought to yield an armed drone with a 62-foot wingspan that can take off and land from an aircraft carrier at the click of a mouse, its flight path selected earlier while Naval aviators go get a snack. The Navy has no plans to let the UCLASS release its weapons except at a human’s direction, but its autonomy goes beyond anything the military currently possesses.
All of this stands to change drone warfare — ironically, by changing human behavior. As humans get used to incremental expansions in drone autonomy, they’ll expect more functionality to come pre-baked. That might erode the currently-rigid edict that people must conduct the strikes; at a minimum, it will free human operators to focus more of their attention on conducting attacks. The first phase of that challenge has arrived: the Army confirmed this week that a unit in eastern Afghanistan is now using the Switchblade.
— Spencer Ackerman
Photo: Jared Soares/Wired
Predator-class drones are today’s spy tools of choice; the military and CIA have hundreds of them keeping watch over Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, Mexico, and elsewhere. But the Predators and the larger Reapers are imperfect eyes in the sky. They rely on cameras that offer, as the military cliche goes, a “soda straw” view of the battlefield — maybe a square kilometer, depending on how high the drone flies.
Tomorrow’s sensors, on the other hand, will be able to monitor an area 10 times larger with twice the resolution. The Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance Imaging System (“Argus, for short) is a collection of 92 five-megapixel cameras. In a single day, it collects six petabytes of video — the equivalent of 79.8 years’ worth of HD video.
Argus and other “Wide Area Airborne Surveillance” systems have their limitations. Right now, the military doesn’t have the bandwidth to pull all that video off a drone in real time. Nor it does it have the analysts to watch all the footage; they’re barely keeping up with the soda straws. Plus, the camera bundles have had some problems sharing data with some of the military’s other spy systems.
But interest in the Wide Area Airborne Surveillance systems is growing — and not just among those looking to spy overseas. The Department of Homeland Security recently put out a call for a camera array that could keep tabs on 10 square kilometers at once, and tested out another WAAS sensor along the border. Meanwhile, Sierra Nevada Corporation, a well-traveled intelligence contractor, is marketing its so-called “Vigilant Stare” sensor (.pdf), which it says will watch “city-sized fields of regard” for domestic “counter-narcotics” and “civil unrest” missions. Keep your eyes peeled.
— Noah Shachtman
Massive Data Storage
The idea of the government watching your every move is frightening. But not as frightening as the government recording your every move in digital database that never gets full.
This nightmare data storage scenario is closer than you think. A study from the Brookings Institute says that it will soon be within the reach of the government — and other organizations — to keep a digital record everything that everyone in the country says or does, and the NSA is clearly on the cutting edge of large-scale data storage.
The agency is building a massive $2 billion data center in Utah — due to go live in September of next year — and taking a cue from Google, agency engineers have built a massive database platform specifically designed to juggle massive amounts of information.
According to a senior intelligence official cited in Wired’s recent feature story on the Utah data center, it will play an important role in new efforts within the agency to break the encryption used by governments, businesses, and individuals to mask their communications.
“This is more than just a data center,” said the official, who once worked on the Utah project. Another official cited in the story said that several years ago, the agency made an enormous breakthrough in its ability to crack modern encryption methods.
But equally important is the agency’s ability to rapidly process all the information collected in this and other data centers. In recent years, Google has developed new ways of overseeing petabytes of data — aka millions of gigabytes — using tens of thousands of ordinary computer servers. A platform called BigTable, for instance, underpins the index that lets you instantly search the entire web, which now more than 644 million active sites. WIth Accumulo, the NSA has mimicked BigTable’s ability to instantly make sense of such enormous amounts of data. The good news is that the NSA’s platform is also designed to provide separate security controls from each individual piece of data, but those controls aren’t in your hands. They’re in the hands of the NSA.
— Cade Metz
Photo: Peter McCollough/Wired.com
Tiny Bombs and Missiles
Unless you’re super strong or don’t mind back pain, you can’t carry a Hellfire missile. The weapon of choice for drone attacks weighs over 100 pounds, and that’s why it takes a 27-foot-long Predator to pack one. But that’s all about to change. Raytheon’s experimental Small Tactical Munition weighs nearly a tenth of a Hellfire. In May, rival Textron debuted a weapon that loiters in mid-air, BattleHawk, that weighs a mere 5 pounds.
Normally, a smaller bomb or missile just means a smaller smoking crater. But as the weapons get smaller, the number of robots that can carry them increases. The U.S. military has under 200 armed Predators and Reapers. It has thousands of smaller, unarmed spy drones like Pumas and Ravens. Those smaller drones get used by smaller units down on the military’s food chain, like battalions and companies; if they get armed, then drone strikes can become as routine as artillery barrages. That’s heavy.
— Spencer Ackerman
‘Tagging and Tracking’ Tech
Right before the Taliban executed him for allegedly spying for the Americans in April 2009, 19-year-old Pakistani Habibur Rehman said in a videotaped “confession” that he had been paid to plant tracking devices wrapped in cigarette paper inside Taliban and Al-Qaida safehouses. The devices emitted barely detectable radio signals that allegedly guided U.S. drone strikes.
The CIA has never copped to using such trackers, but U.S. Special Operations Command openly touts its relationship with manufacturers of “tagging, tracking and locating devices.” One of these firms, Herndon, Virginia-based Blackbird Technologies, has supplied tens of thousands of these trackers as part of a $450 million contract. The company’s 2-inch-wide devices hop between satellite, radio frequencies, CDMA and GSM cellular networks to report the locations of whatever they’re attached to.
If SOCOM has its way, these trackers will only be the start. The command has spent millions developing networks of tiny “unattended ground sensors” that can be scattered across a battlefield and spot targets for decades, if its makers are to be believed. SOCOM is also on the hunt for tiny, plantable audio and video recorders and optical and chemical “taggants” that can mark a person without him knowing it. The idea is for spies like Rehman (if that’s what he was) to more accurately track militants … and get away with it.
— David Axe and Noah Shachtman
Photo: Lockheed Martin
Take the military’s current inventory of Tomahawk cruise missiles, which can scream toward their targets at speeds of more than 500 miles per hour. Not too shabby. But also positively slow compared to a new generation of experimental hypersonic weapons that may soon travel many times that speed — and which the Pentagon and the Obama administration dreams about one day lobbing at their enemies anywhere on the globe in less than an hour. And don’t count on the current president, or perhaps even the next one, on abandoning the project any time soon.
It’s called “Prompt Global Strike,” and the Defense Department has worked for a decade on how to field such radical weapons with a mix of trial and error. Among them include the shorter-range X-51A Waverider, a scramjet-powered cruise missile hurtled at up to six times the speed of sound. Even more radical is Darpa’s pizza-shaped glider named the Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2, and the Army’s pointy-shaped Advanced Hypersonic Weapon — designed to travel at Mach 20 and Mach 8, respectively. If any of these weapons or a variant is ever fielded, they could be used to assassinate a terrorist while on the move or blast a nuclear silo in the opening minutes of a war. Or inadvertently start World War III.
While the Waverider is launched from a plane and resembles a cruise missile (albeit one traveling intensely fast), the HTV-2 is launched using an intercontinental ballistic missile before separating and crashing back down to Earth. But as far as Russian and Chinese radars are concerned, the HTV-2 could very well be an ICBM potentially armed with a nuke and headed for Beijing or Moscow. The Pentagon has apparently considered this doomsday scenario, and has walked back the non-nuke ICBM plan — sort of — while touting a potential future strike weapon launched at the intermediate range from a submarine. But there’s also still plenty of testing to do, and a spotty record of failures for the Waverider and the HTV-2. Meanwhile, the Russians are freaked out enough to have started work on a hypersonic weapon of their own.
— Robert Beckhusen
Photo: Air Force
The military can listen in on your phone calls, and can watch you from above. But it doesn’t have one thing — one intelligence-collection platform, as the jargon goes — that can do both at once. Instead, the various “ints” are collected and processed separately — and only brought together at the final moment by a team of analysts. It’s a gangly, bureaucratic process that often allows prey to slip through the nets of military hunters.
The exception to this is the Blue Devil program. It outfits a single Beechcraft King Air A90 turboprop plane with a wide area sensor, a traditional camera, and eavesdropping gear — all passing information from one to the other. The electronic ear might pick up a phone call, and tell the camera where to point. Or the wide area sensor might see a truck moving, and ask the eavesdropper to take a listen. Flying in Afghanistan since late 2010, the system has been “instrumental in identifying a number of high-value individuals and improvised explosive device emplacements,” according to the Air Force, which just handed out another $85 million contract to operate and upgrade the fleet of four Blue Devil planes.
There’s a second, more ambitious phase of the Blue Devil program, one that involved putting a lot more sensors onto an airship the size of a football field. But that mega-blimp upgrade never made it to the flight-testing phase, owing to a series of bureaucratic, financial and technical hurdles. But the idea of sensor fusion is not going anywhere. And, let’s be honest: If one of these surveillance arrays catches you in their web, neither are you.
Photo: David Axe