I have to compose some ideas for a speech I'm giving tomorrow at the USAF Croughton peace rally. I could do it sat in front of a computer, but as I know all the relevant material I decide to do it on an evening walk instead. Climbing out of the valley through Banbury, on reaching the southern flank of Crouch Hill1 I see, glancing over my shoulder, the object of my solitary dialogue shining in the low-angle sunlight.
You can also download a version of this 'musing' as a PDF file
Thirty years ago I used to lead walks across USAF Croughton2 – an old World War Two airbase taken over by the American air force in the 1950s and developed into a major link in their global communications network. These were legal walks – although we were still hassled by armed soldiers! There was an ancient right of way across the site, and by walking it we established its existence and it had to be officially recognised; at which point the Government diverted it around the southern side of the base3, after which the walks ceased. Now I'm going back tomorrow to talk about my ongoing interest in Croughton, but also my more recent research in to drones and "cybernetic warfare", or "cyberwar" – an area I believe will become a big issue for not just peace groups, but for civil society in general, because of the implications it has for everything from civil liberties to employment.
The changes to the operational layout of USAF Croughton – and the simultaneous decline of its nearby outstation, USAF Barford St. John4 – are testament to the changes that technology has brought to military planning and operations over the last thirty years. At the same time the site has become more noticeable within the local area. As I look south-east across the Cherwell valley, above the rooftops of Bodicote and spire of Kings Sutton, the masts and "golf balls" have become more visible over recent years. In fact, it's even more noticeable from the western aspect, particularly from Whichford Heath5 above Hook Norton. Curiously, in some ways this transformation also reflect changes in my own technical and professional interest in computers, communications and technology.
It was my interest in radio and short-wave that aroused my interest in these bases, well before I got into peace campaigning. From the late 1980s through the 1990s my interest shifted from radio towards computers and the Internet (I got on-line in 1989!). Around the same time USAF Croughton lost some of its radio masts and started building more radomes6 to support digital satellite-based communications. At the end of the 1990s I started working with activists around the world on campaigns based around Internet "hacktivism"7, using computers and computer networks as a tool for action8 and protest9 – just as the US defence establishment was shifting into satellite and network-based mass surveillance, in pursuit of what they called "next generation warfare"10.
During the 1990s, seeking to consolidate their advantage in the post-Cold War world, and moving on from the over-ambitious Reagan-era Strategic Defense Initiative11 (a.k.a. "Star Wars") programme, the US military instituted a new policy called "full spectrum dominance"12. This was an attempt to introduce new, practical technological capabilities13 to the military which sought to control not just land, sea and air, but also space, the radio spectrum and computer networks. This involved far more than just networking US military installations; the technology grew symbiotically with the development of the Internet itself. And as the use of digital and mobile communications has increased around the globe, so the use of ground- and space-based information gathering to monitor these networks has grown alongside them. And with these new capabilities, the agencies which use that information, such as the NSA14 and CIA15, swelled too (one curious note, the CIA's headquarters is based in Langley, Virginia, and the main road through USAF Croughton is called "Langley Avenue").
As the use of the Internet and social media services has grown, the govern-mental monitoring of these networks has grown to exploit the new mass surveillance capabilities that these systems create. From the recent revelations about the organised state surveillance of Western citizens by Edward Snowdon16, to the indiscriminate war-fighting techniques documented in the classified files disclosed by Chelsea Manning17, to the greater use of drones and computer technology to track, target and destroy "the enemies of freedom" – all these developments have evolved from the impetus for greater technological capabilities ushered in by the "full spectrum dominance" policy...
...and Croughton is an important way-station in maintaining the operation of those systems.
Croughton is one of a number of bases operated across Britain (including Menwith Hill18, Alconbury19 and Fairford20) by the United States Air Force's (USAF) 501st Combat Support Wing21 (501CSW). It's the headquarters for the 422nd Air Base Group22 (422ABG), as part of which it co-ordinates communications support operations for the US Department of Defence and "civilian agencies" (which includes other US government departments and agencies, such as the FBI or DEA, but also the NSA and CIA). According the 422ABG's own publicity information, Croughton handles a quarter to a third of of all the US military traffic between Europe and the continental USA, and supports over twenty different communication and defence systems. According to the US Department of Defense's guide to military installations23 –
Set up in the early 1950s, its function changing with the communications technology of the time, it has progressively grown over the years to its current layout. Originally, when the technology was based around wholly ground-based radio communications and intelligence gathering, Croughton was a station of two halves. Croughton was the receiver site. The difficulty is that transmitting can also interfere with reception if the antennas are too close together. For that reason USAF Barford St. John (six miles west) acted as the transmitter half of station. Barford St. John is still in operation, but equipment has been progressively removed over recent years, and it is a shadow of its former self25. However, the Ministry of Defence recently renewed the military bylaws26 for the base, and, in response to a Parliamentary question27, said that they were not aware of any changes to its future status. Therefore its existence must still serve some purpose to the US government.
The end of the Cold War, and the shift in emphasis in foreign policy to the Middle East, has led to a change in the technology that the USA deploys in Britain. One task which the USAF specialise in is the provision of radio communications links – and as technology and foreign policy has changed, so the USAF's use of their bases has changed to reflect this.
In the 1980s most military radio communications used the high- (HF) and very-high-frequency (VHF) wave bands. This was because radio signals could be bounced-off28 the Earth's ionosphere29 (similar to the way light is bent/reflected by water) in order to skip the signals for greater distances around the curvature of the planet. The problem was, just like everyday weather at ground level, the "weather" for radio propagation changes from day-to-day and season-to-season. That meant a lot of equipment had to be maintained to use different radio frequencies, and the amounts of information which could be reliably communicated varied all the time.
Croughton used to have one large microwave satellite dish, giving it direct communications to the USA. Microwaves pass straight through the atmosphere, usually unaffected by the weather, meaning that they can be relied upon at most times. This meant that the low bandwidth information gathered by Croughton and Barford – and other associated bases such as the USAF's intelligence detachment at Chicksands30 – could be bundled up and sent via satellite back to the US for analysis. Communications could also be sent from the US via satellite and then relayed at lower frequencies to diplomatic missions and military units around Europe and the Middle East.
Then the Cold War ended, and US foreign policy began to focus more on the Middle East and the geopolitics of oil. Sites such as Chicksands closed (it was no longer required to pinpoint the position of Warsaw Pact military units), and Croughton began to rebuild – reflecting the changing role of the USAF. And as the "full spectrum dominance" policy took hold, the emphasis shifted towards supporting information gathering and intelligence, and latterly to supporting new semi-autonomous weapons systems that enable the US to "project force" around the globe.
The large arrays of radio antennas at Croughton and Barford were slowly taken down. In their place more radomes were built. These domes do not just protect the equipment from the weather – they prevent other agencies seeing which of the many communications and surveillance satellites the US now has in orbit are being used at any moment in time.
As computers have taken over more aspects of everyday life, so intelligence gathering has shifted towards capturing more of the digital information they generate. Unlike voice communications, which always required human operatives to listen to each transmission, computers can scan hundreds of digital communications to gather information about the time, location, duration and source/destination of the transmission. The satellites themselves have little computing power, and act merely as signal relays. It's the equipment at the satellite ground stations31 – such as Croughton – which direct and control the process of communications or surveillance. For the latest autonomous surveillance and weapons systems – such as the Reaper32 and Predator33 drones currently used in the Middle East – sites such as Croughton relay the command information34 which enables them to be operated from their control base at Creech Air Force Base35 in Nevada, USA.
The big difference with the latest weapons and surveillance systems is that they are not government-controlled technologies. They are in most cases designed and built by private contractors in the defence industry. However, many of these technologies are being manufactured using research grants from governments, and then these companies will ultimately sell these systems for civilian use at a large profit (as is happening now with drones36). Also, as these systems are manufactured by private companies, other governments are buying them and setting up their own surveillance and remote attack capabilities. For example, Britain has bought 500 drones37 and has established a control centre for them at RAF Waddington38.
The eventual change brought about the the "full spectrum dominance" doctrine, and its focus on control over the "territory" of modern communications, is that the focus of US foreign and military policy has switched from organised states and armies towards individuals and small groups – or in the jargon of the The War Against Terror, from "enemy combatants" toward "insurgents". In the civilian sphere, often funded by the lobbying of the private contractors creating these technologies, we see this same shift taking place as the police and domestic security agencies shift from investigating organised crime towards a focus on alleged (but ill-defined) "domestic extremism"39.
The difficulty is that, whether it's within Pakistan or Britain, the blunt digital logic of the "security state"40 is incapable of telling the difference between what it ethereally defines as "extremism" and the everyday eccentricities of the general public – and so everyone in society is potentially being surveilled at any moment in time in order to catch the communications/actions of the people the state are interested in. Thus far the policy of successive governments has been that, "the innocent have nothing to hide"41 – and yet this statement has been regularly demonstrated to be a fallacy by many technical42, journalistic43 and academic44 reviews of recent leaks and security revelations.
What ultimately drives these changes is the change in digital technology itself. For more than 40 years the rate of change in computing has been driven by a trend known as "Moore's Law"45 – every eighteen to twenty-four months the power of computer microprocessors doubles. This is of course an exponential trend; each successive doubling compounding the level of change. At the beginning of the 1970s the early microprocessors had around 2,500 transistors inside which carried out the logic functions of the chip. Forty years later common microprocessors have more than a billion times that amount.
Common representations of the Moore's Law trend use a logarithmic graph to show the trend – which results in a straight line. If we use a linear scale what we see instead is that, after forty years, we are only now reaching the steepest part of the curve and – assuming that there are another five or so doublings remaining before we hit the limits of miniaturisation46 – we might see a thirty- or forty-fold increase in computer power. If you think that the introduction of computers into manufacturing in the 1980s and 1990s caused significant unemployment and significance social change, that's nothing compared to what will happen over the next decade or so.
Peace campaigners tend to focus primarily on the Reaper and Predator drones, because these are causing significant human suffering right now47. However, there are considered to be around 500 different types of "drone" under development or production48 right now – and the list is growing. Whilst the military might provide the seed funding for this work, it's the commercial/civilian use of these technologies which promises the greatest rewards for the corporations involved. For that reason, if we look at the effect which these initially military-derived technologies will have on global society – in the same way as the technologies of the space race, or the Internet itself, has done before – then the greatest impacts on human well-being and human rights is yet to come.
For example, whilst we might focus on unmanned aerial vehicles49 ("drones"), an equally large effort is being made to develop autonomous land vehicles for the military. This research is now filtering through to the civilian world in the form of "driver-less vehicles"50. Driver-less vehicles are to be approved for testing on Britain's roads by the end of 201351; they are already testing autonomous vehicles in the Netherlands and USA, and Nissan predicts that driver-less vehicles will be on roads in 202052. However, if you look at the economics of this technology, what will fund its roll-out will not be expensive luxury cars fitted with an "electric chauffeur". It will be replacing everyday delivery vehicles where removing the driver creates a very large change in the economics of operation – and thus makes licensing the use of the self-guiding technology relatively affordable. In Britain, from distribution warehouses to taxi drivers, that could lead to tens of thousands of job losses. In fact, looking at the wider impacts of more power ICTs, the job losses in transport are nothing compared to the "middle class" job losses within services and administration – but that's another debate!
The simplest way to defeat the military use of these technologies would be to prevent their civilian adoption. That's because the private companies making these systems rely for their long-term profitability on selling products developed from government-funded military applications within the commercial/public sector. Likewise, if we uphold privacy and civil rights against the deployment of ever-greater layers of both government and commercial dataveillance53, then we obstruct the creation of a state where everyone can be profiled using data that is collected through their everyday activities.
In the context of how we are told we must live our lives today, this entails some difficult choices:
Once, harking back to the warnings of Eisenhower's last speech as US President, we talked of the "military–industrial complex"54; nowadays it would be more accurate to talk of the "military–industrial–entertainment complex". Not only has military-inspired computer entertainment fed back into military systems through digital training environments and drone control pads based on video game consoles; today the use of everyday media and communications technologies also provides the raw material for the surveillance of the population by both the military and commercial agencies. It doesn't have to be this way – there are alternatives. The difficulty is that no-one will press these options within the current political debate because no group, even many mainstream environmental campaign groups, wishes to be seen to be "against technology", or be seen to advocate "having less".
As we approach to the "limits to growth"55, where finally the excesses of the human global system are not only destabilising the planet56 but also the operation of the economic system57, shifting towards less intense, lower consumption, and lower technology means of providing our everyday needs will become essential. Supporting the global command and control processes of the technological "security" state are incompatible with the changes required to adapt to these challenges.
I believe that the debate about technology and the military misses three important critical points related to the relationship between humans and their "intelligent" devices:
Firstly, there are the issues of technological scope and complexity. Whilst it might vary from person to person, we all have a finite limit to the amount we can practically "know" (let's call that factor X). In contrast, the intrinsic nature and complexity of information systems grows exponentially (call that factor Y). Therefore, within our personal relationship to technology, when X > Y we all reach the point where we are physically unable of understanding every aspect of the soft/hardware systems we rely upon in our everyday lives. For everyone there will come a point where they simply cannot understand what their gadgets are doing, or how they are achieving it. Now, if you're running the till of a supermarket that's not too much of a problem for the people around you; but if you're in charge of a missile defence post, that can have highly deleterious implications58 for the world around you.
This is not an abstract issue – it's a real practical conundrum within the everyday use of computers. I was stood in a huddle of "techies" at a conference recently discussing precisely this point – and the concern expressed around the group was that if we "geeks" find it difficult to understand every aspect of computers and their varied operating systems these days, what hope do the public have?
Secondly, the way society has dealt with the growing complexity of human technology, from when we made our first clay pots and spears 50,000 years ago, has been to develop economic specialisation59 – and it's arguably from this division of technical skill, and thus power and control, that many human conflicts have arisen. The difficulty is that as technological complexity grows exponentially, but our brains do not, as we approach the limits of human intellectual capabilities "to understand" the systems we rely upon, we fail to understand the relationship of each small part to the greater whole – and where the sum of decisions to maintain that system/economy are taking us.
The problem with hi-tech military technology as a solution to the greater insecurity of our technological society is that it is a self-serving argument60: We must have military technology to defend the vital interests of our highly advanced industrial society; the key vital interests of our industrial society are access to energy and the highly specialised and rare minerals and processes required to manufacture advanced electronics and cybernetic machinery; therefore we increase our insecurity through a greater reliance on technology which require resources which require the projection of force and security in order to obtain them; and ultimately all these systems are vulnerable, both to external disruption by groups or states, and also our failure to fully understand these highly complex systems.
Finally, as more states/agencies adopt these technologies we will inevitably have to let the technologies take over control of their functions – becoming fully autonomous. Not only are humans incapable of working at the same cognitive speed of our "thinking-machines", but because we cannot physically understand their complexity we have to let the machines take control. If "the opposition" deploys these technologies against us, then the only hope of mounting a defence is to let our technologies respond on our behalf. We are almost at this state today with military technology – and with some semi-autonomous military technologies there have already been a number of incidents61.
If we want an example of what this final step entails then we need only look at one institution where the fully autonomous has already taken over – the global stock and commodity exchanges. In automated financial trading62 reaction time is everything (e.g., I have a friend who lost a job in the City because he couldn't shave ten milliseconds off the time it took to get a number from the exchange to the trading floor). Banks and large institutions have to have these automated trading technologies because "everybody else" has them, and they are all in a perpetual battle to "win" in the technological arms race which surrounds automated market trading. The problem, from the evidence of a decade or so of this practice (e.g. see this63, this64, this65, this66 and this67), is that these systems are inherently unstable in practice and prone to sudden, unexpected and aberrant behaviour. Basically, we let the machines loose and unsurprisingly they don't behave like people!
Fundamentally though, there's an anti-democratic core to this whole process which threatens society at large – just as the world of algorithmic financial trading it makes a few large companies rich whilst transferring the risks of failure to society as a whole. Traditional war has been something that society as a whole had to engage in. As war entailed the mobilisation of the population, and the productive capacity of the state, so there had to be a consensus that war was right otherwise the people wouldn't go along with it. That's not the case with cyberwarfare – particularly involving the types of autonomous drones now being developed. Drones do exactly as they're told; machines are incapable of refusing an order – and it's hardly credible that we would see drones in battle acting-out the plot of All Quiet on the Western Front! Fifty years ago Martin Luther King may have said, "Evil only succeeds when good people do nothing", but what excesses will be prevented by "good character" when there are no people involved? – can a collection of logic circuits show compassion or empathy?
By removing humans from war it ceases to be, certainly from the American government's interpretation, "war". In Pakistan drone strikes have proceeded without democratic accountability, and in many cases without the direct involvement of the military (they're carried out by the CIA) because there has been no formal declaration of hostilities. And as we see the greater use of drones by civilian agencies, initially for surveillance (but then perhaps who knows what!), and possibly with the same disregard for democratic accountability we've seen recently in relation to surveillance by the American NSA and Britain's GCHQ, what will that do for the standard of our democracy generally?
As I'd hoped, this evening's walk has helped me work these ideas through. Slowly, step-by-pace, I unwind and weave patterns of thought into stanzas of meaning to describe what I know to an audience in the 15 minutes I have to speak. By sunset, I think I've worked the idea around enough now to know what I'm going to say. I begin to think less of the problem at hand, and more about the simple, lo-tech pleasures of the environment I am immersed within. By Newington Grounds my work is done and so I plod home restfully, enjoying the light show all around me – gradations of pinks and blues fading into dark slate greys; the cooling air and rising dew quenching the newly forged thoughts into tempered patterns for later transcription.