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The End of National Sovereignty?

How aircraft carriers, drones, and special operations teams are making it easier for the US military to cross foreign borders without permission.

| Mon Feb. 6, 2012 4:09 PM EST
A B-52 Stratofortress flies past the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier as two F/A-18 Hornets fly in intercept positions.

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Make no mistake: we're entering a new world of military planning. Admittedly, the latest proposed Pentagon budget manages to preserve just about every costly toy-cum-boondoggle from the good old days when MiGs still roamed the skies, including an uncut nuclear arsenal. Eternally over-budget items like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, cherished by their services and well-lobbied congressional representatives, aren't leaving the scene any time soon, though delays or cuts in purchase orders are planned. All this should reassure us that, despite the talk of massive cuts, the US military will continue to be the profligate, inefficient, and remarkably ineffective institution we've come to know and squander our treasure on.

Still, the cuts that matter are already in the works, the ones that will change the American way of war. They may mean little in monetary terms—the Pentagon budget is actually slated to increase through 2017—but in imperial terms they will make a difference. A new way of preserving the embattled idea of an American planet is coming into focus and one thing is clear: in the name of Washington's needs, it will offer a direct challenge to national sovereignty.

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Heading Offshore

The Marines began huge amphibious exercises—dubbed Bold Alligator 2012—off the East coast of the US last week, but someone should IM them: it won't help. No matter what they do, they are going to have less boots on the ground in the future, and there's going to be less ground to have them on. The same is true for the Army (even if a cut of 100,000 troops will still leave the combined forces of the two services larger than they were on September 11, 2001). Less troops, less full-frontal missions, no full-scale invasions, no more counterinsurgency: that's the order of the day. Just this week, in fact, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta suggested that the schedule for the drawdown of combat boots in Afghanistan might be speeded up by more than a year. Consider it a sign of the times.

Like the F-35, American mega-bases, essentially well-fortified American towns plunked down in a strange land, like our latest "embassies" the size of lordly citadels, aren't going away soon. After all, in base terms, we're already hunkered down in the Greater Middle East in an impressive way. Even in post-withdrawal Iraq, the Pentagon is negotiating for a new long-term defense agreement that might include getting a little of its former base space back, and it continues to build in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Washington has typically signaled in recent years that it's ready to fight to the last Japanese prime minister not to lose a single base among the three dozen it has on the Japanese island of Okinawa.

But here's the thing: even if the US military is dragging its old habits, weaponry, and global-basing ideas behind it, it's still heading offshore. There will be no more land wars on the Eurasian continent. Instead, greater emphasis will be placed on the Navy, the Air Force, and a policy "pivot" to face China in southern Asia where the American military position can be strengthened without more giant bases or monster embassies.

For Washington, "offshore" means the world's boundary-less waters and skies, but also, more metaphorically, it means being repositioned off the coast of national sovereignty and all its knotty problems. This change, on its way for years, will officially rebrand the planet as an American free-fire zone, unchaining Washington from the limits that national borders once imposed. New ways to cross borders and new technology for doing it without permission are clearly in the planning stages, and US forces are being reconfigured accordingly.

Think of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden as a harbinger of and model for what's to come. It was an operation enveloped in a cloak of secrecy. There was no consultation with the "ally" on whose territory the raid was to occur. It involved combat by an elite special operations unit backed by drones and other high-tech weaponry and supported by the CIA. A national boundary was crossed without either permission or any declaration of hostilities. The object was that elusive creature "terrorism," the perfect global will-o'-the-wisp around which to plan an offshore future.

All the elements of this emerging formula for retaining planetary dominance have received plenty of publicity, but the degree to which they combine to assault traditional concepts of national sovereignty has been given little attention.

Since November 2002, when a Hellfire missile from a CIA-operated Predator drone turned a car with six alleged al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen into ash, robotic aircraft have led the way in this border-crossing, air-space penetrating assault. The US now has drone bases across the planet, 60 at last count. Increasingly, the long-range reach of its drone program means that those robotic planes can penetrate just about any nation's air space. It matters little whether that country houses them itself. Take Pakistan, which just forced the CIA to remove its drones from Shamsi Air Base. Nonetheless, CIA drone strikes in that country's tribal borderlands continue, assumedly from bases in Afghanistan, and recently President Obama offered a full-throated public defense of them. (That there have been fewer of them lately has been a political decision of the Obama administration, not of the Pakistanis.)

Drones themselves are distinctly fallible, crash-prone machines. (Just last week, for instance, an advanced Israeli drone capable of hitting Iran went down on a test flight, a surveillance drone—assumedly American—crashed in a Somali refugee camp, and a report surfaced that some US drones in Afghanistan can't fly in that country's summer heat.) Still, they are, relatively speaking, cheap to produce. They can fly long distances across almost any border with no danger whatsoever to their human pilots and are capable of staying aloft for extended periods of time. They allow for surveillance and strikes anywhere. By their nature, they are border-busting creatures. It's no mistake then that they are winners in the latest Pentagon budgeting battles or, as a headline at Wired's Danger Room blog summed matters up, "Humans Lose, Robots Win in New Defense Budget."

And keep in mind that when drones are capable of taking off from and landing on aircraft carrier decks, they will quite literally be offshore with respect to all borders, but capable of crossing any. (The Navy's latest plans include a future drone that will land itself on those decks without a human pilot at any controls.)

War has always been the most human and inhuman of activities. Now, it seems, its inhuman aspect is quite literally on the rise. With the US military working to roboticize the future battlefield, the American way of war is destined to be imbued with Terminator-style terror.

Already American drones regularly cross borders with mayhem in mind in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Because of a drone downed in Iran, we know that they have also been flying surveillance missions in that country's airspace as—for the State Department—they are in Iraq. Washington is undoubtedly planning for far more of the same.

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