“Rocket’s Red Glare”: Space Warfare and the Future of U.S. Global Power


“Rocket’s Red Glare”: Space Warfare and the Future of U.S. Global Power

On Friday, April 5, 2013, J.R.W. Smail Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Alfred McCoy, delivered the keynote speech at the Third National Conference of Historians Against the War, called "The New Faces of War." Professor McCoy's book, Policing America's Empire: The United States, the Philippines and the Rise of the Surveillance State, won the 2011 George McT. Kahin Prize of the Association for Asian Studies. Excerpts of his keynote speech are featured in this video, which was produced by Richard Concepcion. See below for the text version.

[last updated: May 6, 2013]

“Rocket’s Red Glare”: Space Warfare and the Future of U.S. Global Power”

Historians Against the War, Towson University

April 5, 2013

Alfred W. McCoy

In January of 2010, President Barack Obama delivered a state the union address that warned Congress and the country of serious challenges to America’s global power, saying: “China is not waiting to revamp its economy. Germany is not waiting. India is not waiting. These nations aren't playing for second place.” Then, in a rhetorical flourish that brought forth thunderous bipartisan applause from Congress, Obama announced: “Well, I do not accept second place for the United States of America.”

Echoing those words a few days later, Vice President Joseph Biden rejected the possibility of U.S. decline, saying: “We will continue to be the most significant and dominant influence in the world as long as our economy is strong.”

But just last December, the U.S. National Intelligence Council, our intelligence community’s supreme analytic body, took a diametrically different position by predicting: “By 2030, Asia will have surpassed North America and Europe combined in terms of global power, largely reversing the historic rise of the West since 1750.”

Why, we might ask, is America’s relative economic decline so precipitous? To answer that unanswerable question, the National Intelligence Council, in an example of America’s distinctive imperial epistemology, reduced the complexities of this historical transition to just two power-point slides. The most telling of these slides shows that Britain increased its share of global GDP by just one percent per decade from 1820-1870, America raised its share by two percent from 1900-1950, and

  • Japan a bit more than one percent from 1950 to 1980;
  • but China is raising its slice of the world pie at an extraordinarily rapid rate of five percent from 2000 to 2020, with India not far behind.

With America’s dominion now being debated at the highest levels, it seems timely to ask: First, what kind of empire is this American imperium? And, second, what kind of plans does the Pentagon have for extending America’s global reach deep into the 21st century?

To fill the void—the vast void—between enormity of America’s empire and the paucity of its study, ten years ago a working group at University of Wisconsin-Madison formed a network of 140 scholars from four continents, which published a volume last October, titled Endless Empire, that asks: What can the eclipse of five European empires tell us about the future of U.S. global power?

Through this exercise in comparative imperial history, we went beyond the usual iron binary of economic and military power to identify five factors that might influence a decline of U.S. global power.

First Factor, Waning Economic Influence: At the broadest level, the rapid decline of European empires after World War II was driven by their diminished economic strength. Empires are expensive—very expensive. Without the revenues and armed forces that are almost organic to a conventional, contiguous state, empires must somehow find extraordinary funds to sustain the enormous expense of their overseas operations, both civil and military. Exhausted by World War II and faced with rising social welfare costs, postwar Britain suffered a crippling postwar economic contraction that denied her the ability to defend the empire. Within just twenty years, 1945 to 1965, the number of overseas subjects under the British Flag dropped from 700 million to just 5 million.

Indeed, there are parallel signs of a slow U.S. economic decline. In 2011, the IMF projected that China would become the world's number one economy in just five years—with its share of gross world output surging to eighteen percent by 2016, while America’s share would slide to an historic low of 17.7 percent, far below its peak of almost 50 percent in 1950. Compounding this gross decline in its global economic power, America's social welfare costs will rise from four percent of GDP in 2010 to eighteen percent by 2050, confronting Washington with the same choice between domestic welfare and global power that forced London’s imperial retreat back in the 1950s.

Second Factor, Micro-Military Misadventures: Not only must an empire secure such scarce resources, but it must expend them wisely, literally picking its battles. During the demoralizing process of decline, imperial armies, so lethal, so rational during an empire's ascent, can err by plunging into draining, even disastrous “micro-military” misadventures—psychologically compensatory efforts to salve the stinging loss of power by occupying new territories whose symbolism often exceeds any real economic or strategic value.

At mid-point in its twenty year imperial retreat, such crippling psychological pressures led Britain to throw its full military might against Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, producing a military victory that became, within days, an humiliating diplomatic defeat. As Washington withdraws in defeat from Afghanistan, the invasion of Iran beckons as the graveyard of US global power that might prove a micromilitary disaster on the scale of Suez.

Third Factor, Relations with Rival Powers: Between the bounds of these economic and military fundamentals, no empire is sustainable without astute statecraft, both diplomacy to court peers and dominance to control subordinate elites. As London’s power faded, its close U.S. ally pushed Britain out of one strategic area after another—first Iran, then Suez, and later the Persian Gulf, taking control of British oil refineries and naval bases.

In November 2010, when President Obama flew back from visiting Asian allies, the New York Times summed up Washington’s waning influence with its allies in a painfully blunt front-page headline: “Obama’s Economic View Is Rejected on World Stage—China, Britain and Germany Challenge U.S.—Trade Talks With Seoul Fail, Too.”

Fourth Factor, Nexus of Subordinate Elites: At its peak circa 1900, Great Britain’s rule over Asia and Africa was stitched together by the gossamer threads of relations with local leaders—stretching from Fiji Island chiefs to Malay sultans, Indian maharajas, and West African emirs. Historian Ronald Robinson famously argued that British imperial rule ended "when colonial rulers had run out of indigenous collaborators," with the result that the "inversion of collaboration into non-cooperation largely determined the timing of decolonization."

After World War II, decolonization elevated the locus of control from colonial districts to national capitals, making the leaders of the world’s 100 emerging nations Washington’s new “subordinate elites.” In 2010 after WikiLeaks started releasing 251,000 recent U.S. diplomatic cables rich in insights about its relations with these subordinate elites, the influential Israeli journalist Aluf Benn wrote that “the cables… depict the fall of the American empire, the decline of a superpower that ruled the world by the dint of its military and economic supremacy.”

A Fifth and Final Factor, Military Information: Among the most important aspects of empire, imperial information systems are critical for securing accurate intelligence about when and how to apply lethal force, rationally and effectively. While British colonial policy was influenced by deep, particularistic Orientalist knowledge exemplified by the Arabists T.E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell, America developed a distinctive imperial epistemology that applies universal systems to amass superficial, serviceable data.

Two Basic Choices: In sum, we now seem faced with two possible scenarios for the future of U.S. global power. As predicted in that 2012 report by the U.S. National Intelligence Council, the relentless shift of world economic strength from West to East, from America to China, might lead to a slow, inexorable decline in U.S. global power.

Alternatively, a technological Hail Mary’s pass, in the form of the new robotic information regime, just might allow Washington the exercise of global power in excess of economic influence—breaking that iron binary between financial resources and military strength, and extending the American Century to 2050 or beyond.

With analysts scrutinizing every detail of U.S. economic trends over the short, medium, and long term, we need to focus on that second scenario by exploring America’s distinctive epistemology—that is, the way Washington manages data for the exercise of global power. What kind of empire is this American imperium, and, more specifically, how does it manage its information?

In the past century, as three U.S. pacification campaigns in Asia have dragged out to a decade or more skirting defeat if not disaster, the U.S. military has been pushed to the breaking point and responded by fusing extant technologies into an information infrastructure of unprecedented power, thereby producing a new regime for data management: First, the manual regime during the Philippine War, from 1898-1907; next, the computerized regime in the Vietnam War, from 1963-75; and, most recently, the robotic regime in Afghanistan and Iraq, from 2003 to perhaps 2014.

To foreshadow what follows, this succession of information regimes leads to ambiguous conclusions about the future of U.S. global power: On the one hand, this information infrastructure seems to have an inbuilt engineering for self-correction that makes every defeat, no matter how searing in the historical moment, an experiment that leads to important innovations. On the other hand, this infrastructure’s preference for superficial data over deep cultural knowledge about foreign societies creates self-referential information loops that can foster illusions with a potential for some future micro-military disaster.


Let’s begin by looking at America’s first information revolution in the late 19th century—described in my recent book, Policing America’s Empire.

The US system of imperial knowledge traces its origins to a synergy of innovations in the management of textual, statistical, and visual data that, during the 1870s and 1880s, created the capacity for surveillance of the many, rather than a few--a defining attribute, in my view, of the modern state.

Let us listen as the dates sing, a capella, a song of progress. The synergy of Thomas A. Edison’s quadruplex telegraph (1874), Philo Remington’s commercial typewriter (1874), and Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone (1876) allowed the transmission and recording of textual data in unprecedented quantities, at unequaled speed, with unsurpassed accuracy. Simultaneously, Melvil Dewey’s discovery the “smart number,” embodied in his “Dewey Decimal System” reduced otherwise unmanageable masses of data to alphanumeric codes for rapid filing, retrieval, and cross-referencing. After engineer Herman Hollerith patented the punch card (1889), the U.S. Census Bureau adopted his Electrical Tabulating machine in 1890 to enumerate 62 million Americans within weeks—a stunning success that later led him to become one of the founders of International Business Machines, best known by its acronym IBM.

But on the eve of empire in 1898, Congress, courts, and civil society still limited any Federal use of these innovations for domestic security. But they soon contributed to the modernization of America’s weak “patchwork state” that came with stunning speed in the decade of imperial expansion that followed.

In contrast to British colonials who headed East beyond Suez to probe ancient texts for a timeless Orientalist essence to guide their colonial policy, American imperialists went West across the Pacific to survey the Philippine present through the new information technologies of census, mapping, meteorology, photography, taxonomy, and surveillance—whose sum imposed what James Scott calls bureaucratic “legibility” upon this alien terrain.

To pacify protracted Philippine resistance that continued for a decade after 1898, the U.S. regime elaborated its information technologies into a three-tier security apparatus--the U.S. Army’s Division of Military Information, the Manila Police, and Philippines Constabulary. Let’s look briefly at each.

Division of Military Information: In December 1900, the U.S. Army established the Division of Military Information, creating the Army’s first field intelligence unit in its hundred-year history. After assuming command of this fledgling unit in early 1901, Captain Ralph Van Deman, later known as the “father of U.S. military intelligence,” collected comprehensive data on the Filipino elite in every municipality--appearance, finances, property, kinship, and political loyalties.

Manila Police: During its three-year pacification of Manila, 1898-1901, the US Army also created a metropolitan police force for Manila that, within just twenty years, amassed photographic files for 70 percent of the city’s total population of 200,000.

Constabulary: Only weeks after taking office in July 1901, the first U.S. civil governor, William Howard Taft, established the Philippines Constabulary as a colonial panopticon whose intelligence flowed into its centralized Information Division where it was translated, typed, numbered, and filed in dossiers for ready retrieval.

The creation of this powerful colonial police would prove mutually transformative, making the Constabulary an arm of Philippine presidential power throughout the twentieth century, and leaving a lasting institutional imprint on the emerging American state. Drawing upon security methods developed in the colonial Philippines, Col. Ralph Van Deman founded the U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence Division in 1917--recruiting a staff that quickly grew from one (himself) to 1,700, deploying some 300,000 citizen operatives to amass a over million pages of surveillance reports on US citizens in just fourteen months, and laying the foundations for a domestic surveillance apparatus that persists to the present.

This first, largely manual information regime reached its apotheosis during World War II when Washington established the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) as the nation’s first worldwide espionage agency. Among this new agency’s nine branches, Research & Analysis recruited a staff of nearly 2,000 academics who amassed 300,000 photographs, a million maps, and three million file cards--which it deployed via “indexing, cross-indexing, and counter-indexing” to produce over 3,000 staff studies and answers to countless tactical questions.

Yet by early 1944, OSS found itself, in the words of historian Robin Winks, “drowning under the flow of information,” with many the materials it had collected so carefully stacking up in storage, unread and unprocessed. In its global reach, this manual information regime, absent technological change, might have eventually collapsed under its own weight, imposing some limits on America’s voracious imperial epistemology.


Under the pressures of protracted war in Indochina from 1964 to 1974, the U.S. information infrastructure made rapid strides in computerized data management whose sum was nothing less than a second American information regime. Let’s look at a few of these efforts at computerized pacification.

Phoenix: First and fundamentally, the CIA’s Phoenix program tried to catalyze a potent synergy of computerized data collection and localized coercion that would, in theory, sweep the Viet Cong guerrillas from the villages of South Vietnam; but instead developed a self referential data loop that effected 41,000 extra-judicial killings without capturing a single high-ranking Viet Cong.

HES: In a parallel effort, the U.S. command conducted a monthly survey for the Hamlet Evaluation System or HES, rating the loyalties for all of South Vietnam’s 12,000 villages on an IBM dot-matrix map with an illusory precision. After Defense Secretary McNamara told the CIA, in late 1966, to “design me something that will tell us the status of control in the countryside,” agency analysts identified eighteen variables that allowed US military advisers to assess security in 12,000 hamlets on a five-point scale from A (secure) to E (Viet Cong control). Every month, the MACV’s powerful IBM computers translated these reports into a consolidated HES security report arrayed on a dot-matrix computer map—an illusory visual icon of spreading US control over the villages of South Vietnam.

As CIA pacification czar Robert Komer later revealed, U.S. officials, needing data on the critical but unquantifiable issue of popular loyalties, measured a few unrelated variables that happened to be quantifiable, and then based their policies on the resulting statistics—even though fully aware of the incomplete, illusory nature of those same numbers. Consequently, the South Vietnamese population rated “secure” climbed relentlessly to 75 percent pacified on the eve of the 1968 Tet Offensive and to 84 percent pacified on the eve of Saigon’s fall in 1974. In the end, automated indices led South Vietnam’s government, said CIA director William Colby, “to delude itself about its standing with its own people.”

Igloo White: But most ambitiously of all, the U.S. Air Force applied innovative computer systems, under Operation Igloo White, to build an electronic battlefield of sensors to bomb the Ho Chi Minh Trail in southern Laos. From 1967 to 1973, the US Air Force expended $800 million per annum to lace southern Laos with a network of 20,000 acoustic, seismic, thermal, and ammonia-sensitive sensors to locate truck convoys on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Through a hermetic data loop, the Air Force claimed destruction of an incredible 25,000 North Vietnamese trucks from October 1970 to May 1971 for a total of 80% of trucks destroyed—a claim belied by Hanoi’s reports of only 15% lost and the CIA’s complementary estimate of just 20 % destroyed. After 100,000 North Vietnamese troops passed right through this electronic grid undetected with trucks, tanks, and artillery to launch the Nguyen Hue offensive in 1972, the US Pacific Air Force pronounced the effort a failure.

During the war, the Air Force also accelerated the development of unmanned aircraft by adapting the Ryan “Firebee” target drone for some 3,500 surveillance sorties over China, North Vietnam, and Laos. By 1972, the "SC/TV" model drone with a camera in the nose could fly 2,400 miles while the "airborne remote control officer . . . could now navigate using a low-resolution television image."

On balance, all this computerized data collection fostered illusions that pacification was winning Vietnam’s villages, while automated bombing created delusions that the air war was destroying North Vietnam’s supply effort--critical misperceptions that evaporated when the fall of Saigon in 1975 delivered a devastating blow to American power.

Even though this computerized data gathering contributed to America’s soul-searing defeat in Vietnam, they served, over the longer term, as a productive experiment on the path to a third, robotic information regime.


As it plunged into the pacification of two dense social formations in Afghanistan and Iraq under the Global War on Terror, Washington began merging new technologies of electronic surveillance, biometric identification, and aerospace innovation into a third robotic information regime.

Inside the United States, there was a massive expansion of electronic surveillance. After 2004, the FBI’s so-called “Investigative Data Warehouse” acquired over a billion documents--including intelligence reports, social security files, drivers’ licenses, and private financial information— accessible to 13,000 analysts making a million queries monthly. Since 2005, moreover, the NSA’s top-secret database called “Pinwale” has allowed analysts to routinely scan countless “millions” of domestic electronic communications.

After six years of a failing counterinsurgency effort in Iraq, the Pentagon began applying biometrics to pacify Baghdad. By 2008, the US Army had confined the populations of Falluja and Baghdad behind blast-wall cordons and collected over million Iraqi fingerprints and iris scans that U.S. combat patrols accessed by satellite link to a biometric database in West Virginia.

Simultaneously, the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command, then under Gen. Stanley McChrystal, centralized all electronic and satellite surveillance into an integrated data base that identified alleged Al Qaeda operatives for hundreds of clandestine assassinations by Predator drones and Special Operations commandoes, across a vast quadrant of the globe from Somalia to Pakistan. As the US withdrew from Iraq, this technology of biometric identification has migrated to Afghanistan where coalition forces continue to catalogue Afghani peasants by iris scan across the country.

After President Obama took office and escalated the U.S. war effort, Afghanistan has become a new frontier for testing and perfecting Washington’s electronic warfare. By early 2009, U.S. Air Force deployed a drone armada of 195 Predators and 28 Reapers inside Afghanistan and Iraq-- sending 16,000 hours of video daily and firing Hellfire missiles on 244 missions in 2007-2008. Under President Obama, the US has, to date, conducted 313 drone strikes in Pakistan that killed 2,125 people.

Just as the Philippine Insurrection of 1898 sparked America’s first information regime and the Vietnam War its second, so the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have served as the catalyst for fusing aerospace, cyberspace, and robotics into a third U.S. information regime.

After Republican candidate Mitt Romney complained about the decline in the number of US Navy ships during the recent presidential debates, President Obama shot back: “Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets… because the nature of our military's changed… We need to be thinking about cyber security. We need to be talking about space.”

Midst all the post-debate media chatter not a single commentator seemed to realize that the Obama administration, working in silence and secrecy, is moving the nation beyond bayonets and battleships to cyberwarfare and the full weaponization of space. Significantly, both space and cyberspace are new, unregulated domains of military conflict, beyond the rubric of international law, that Washington can use as Archimedean levers for exercise of global dominion, just as the British Navy once ruled the seas and the US Air Force controlled the skies.

Although U.S. aerospace plans remain classified, we can infer from the specifications for its components that the Pentagon will, by 2020, deploy a triple-canopy space shield reaching from stratosphere to exosphere, patrolled by drones armed with agile missiles, linked by a resilient modular satellite system, and operated through a telescopic panopticon.

First, Lower Stratosphere: In the lowest tier of the aerospace shield within striking distance of earth, the Pentagon is building an armada of 99 Global Hawk drones equipped with high-resolution cameras to surveil all terrain within hundred-mile radius, electronic sensors to intercept communications, efficient engines for a continuous twenty-four hour flight, and, eventually, Triple Terminator missiles to destroy targets below.

By late 2011, the Air Force and CIA had ringed the entire Eurasian land mass with a network of sixty bases for Reaper drones armed with Hellfire missiles and GBU-30 bombs, allowing air strikes against targets almost anywhere in Africa and Asia.

Next, Upper Stratosphere: At the next tier above to earth, DARPA and the Air Force are collaborating in the development of the Falcon Hypersonic Cruise Vehicle that, flying at twenty miles altitude, “could deliver 12,000 pounds of payload at a distance of 9,000 nautical miles from the continental United States in less than two hours.” Although the first test launches in April 2010 and August 2011 crashed midflight, they achieved twenty-two times the speed of sound and sent back “unique data” to resolve remaining aerodynamic problems.

Finally, Exosphere: At the outer level of this triple-tier aerospace canopy, the age of space warfare dawned in April 2010 when the Pentagon quietly launched the X-37B space drone, an unmanned craft just 29 feet long, into an orbit 250 miles above the earth. By the time the second X-37B prototype landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in June 2012 after a flawless fifteen-month flight, this classified mission represented a successful test of “robotically controlled reusable spacecraft” and established the viability of unmanned space drones in the exosphere, the outermost level of the Pentagon's emerging three-tiered space/sky canopy.

At this apex of the triple-canopy where the space drones and terminator missiles roam, orbital satellites are the prime targets, a vulnerability that became painfully obvious in 2007 when China used a ground-air missile to shoot down one of its own satellites. In response, DARPA is now developing the F-6 satellite system that will, to quote its website, “decompose a large monolithic spacecraft into a group of wirelessly linked elements, or nodes [that]” increases “resistance to … a bad part breaking or an adversary attacking.” And the X-37B has a capacious cargo bay to carry Triple Terminator missiles to knock out enemy satellites.

Ultimately, the impact of this third technological regime will be shaped by the integration of this aerospace array into an robotic command structure that will coordinate operations across all combat domains--space, cyberspace, sky, sea, and earth. To manage the surging torrent of information within this delicately balanced triple canopy, the system will have to become self-maintaining through “robotic manipulator technologies” such as DARPA’s FREND system that can deliver fuel, provide repairs, or reposition satellites.

For a new global optic, DARPA is building the wide-angle Space Surveillance Telescope (SST) for a quantum leap in "space surveillance” that will allow future space warriors seated at a single console to see the entire sky and track every object in earth's orbit.

Operation of this complex worldwide apparatus will require, as one DARPA official explained in 2007, "an integrated collection of space surveillance systems—an architecture—that is leak-proof." Thus, by 2010, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency had 16,000 employees, a $5 Billion budget, and a massive $2 billion headquarters at Fort Belvoir with 8,500 staffers wrapped in electronic security—all aimed at coordinating the flood of worldwide surveillance data pouring in from Predators, Reapers, U-2 spy planes, Global Hawks, X-37B space drones, Google Earth, Space Surveillance Telescopes, and orbiting satellites.


Looking forward into the future, a still uncertain balance of forces provides us with two competing scenarios for the future of U.S. global power. By 2020 the Pentagon will complete a comprehensive global surveillance system that might allow Washington to exercise of global power in excess of economic strength—blinding any army on the battlefield or vaporizing individual insurgents in field or favela.

However, history offers some pessimistic precedents about U.S. chance to preserve its global hegemony by technology alone. Even if this robotic information regime checks China’s growing military power, the U.S. might have the same chance of controlling wider geopolitical forces with robotic technology that the Third Reich had of winning World War II with “super weapons” such as the V-2 rocket and the Me-262 jet fighter.

Complicating the future even further, the illusion of information omniscience might incline Washington to more military misadventures akin to Vietnam or Iraq, creating the possibility of some new global miasma with untold potential for micro-military disaster.

Whether U.S. world dominion will be marked expansion, stasis, or decline, America’s attempt to exercise global reach in excess of its economic strength will likely be based, in coming decades, on some iteration of its distinctive form of imperial information.

@Alfred W. McCoy


Alfred W. McCoy is the J.R.W. Smail Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and editor of the volume that served as the basis for this essay, Endless Empire: Spain’s Retreat, Europe’s Eclipse, America’s Decline (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012).

Richard Concepcion is an independent documentary filmmaker/video journalist. He finished his Bachelor of Arts in Economics from Ateneo de Manila University (1983), Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Film and Electronic Media from American University School of Communication (2010), Master of LIberal Arts (MLA) degree from Johns Hopkins University (2004) and MA in Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville (1987). He and his wife Renee live in Maryland with their beagle (“Bodie”) and cat (“Jade”). He can be reached at rconcep11[at]gmail.com.