American War Enters the Shadows
Along with those skies filled with increasing numbers of drones goes a rise in US special operations forces. They, too, are almost by definition boundary-busting outfits. Once upon a time, an American president had his own "private army"—the CIA. Now, in a sense, he has his own private military. Formerly modest-sized units of elite special operations forces have grown into a force of 60,000, a secret military cocooned in the military, which is slated for further expansion. According to Nick Turse, in 2011 special operations units were in 120 nations, almost two-thirds of the countries on Earth.
By their nature, special operations forces work in the shadows: as hunter-killer teams, night raiders, and border-crossers. They function in close conjunction with drones and, as the regular Army slowly withdraws from its giant garrisons in places like Europe, they are preparing to operate in a new world of stripped-down bases called "lily pads"—think frogs jumping across a pond to their prey. No longer will the Pentagon be building American towns with all the amenities of home, but forward-deployed, minimalist outposts near likely global hotspots, like Camp Lemonnier in the North African nation of Djibouti.
Increasingly, American war itself will enter those shadows, where crossings of every sort of border, domestic as well as foreign, are likely to take place with little accountability to anyone, except the president and the national security complex.
In those shadows, our secret forces are already melding into one another. A striking sign of this was the appointment as CIA director of a general who, in Iraq and Afghanistan, had relied heavily on special forces hunter-killer teams and night raiders, as well as drones, to do the job. Undoubtedly the most highly praised general of our American moment, General David Petraeus has himself slipped into the shadows where he is presiding over covert civilian forces working ever more regularly in tandem with special operations teams and sharing drone assignments with the military.
And don't forget the Navy, which couldn't be more offshore to begin with. It already operates 11 aircraft carrier task forces (none of which are to be cut—thanks to a decision reportedly made by the president). These are, effectively, major American bases—massively armed small American towns—at sea. To these, the Navy is adding smaller "bases." Right now, for instance, it's retrofitting an old amphibious transport docking ship bound for the Persian Gulf either as a Navy Seal commando "mothership" or (depending on which Pentagon spokesperson you listen to) as a "lily pad" for counter-mine Sikorsky MH-53 helicopters and patrol craft. Whichever it may be, it will just be a stopgap until the Navy can build new "Afloat Forward Staging Bases" from scratch.
Futuristic weaponry now in the planning stages could add to the miliary's border-crossing capabilities. Take the Army's Advanced Hypersonic Weapon or DARPA's Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2, both of which are intended, someday, to hit targets anywhere on Earth with massive conventional explosives in less than an hour.
From lily pads to aircraft carriers, advanced drones to special operations teams, it's offshore and into the shadows for US military policy. While the United States is economically in decline, it remains the sole military superpower on the planet. No other country pours anywhere near as much money into its military and its national security establishment or is likely to do so in the foreseeable future. It's clear enough that Washington is hoping to offset any economic decline with newly reconfigured military might. As in the old TV show, the US has gun, will travel.
Onshore, American power in the twenty-first century proved a disaster. Offshore, with Washington in control of the global seas and skies, with its ability to kick down the world's doors and strike just about anywhere without a by-your-leave or thank-you-ma'am, it hopes for better. As the early attempts to put this program into operation from Pakistan to Yemen have indicated, however, be careful what you wish for: it sometimes comes home to bite you.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, The United States of Fear (Haymarket Books), has just been published. Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.