A Flock of Drones

17 August 2011


Unfurling the Panopticon for

Total Battlespace Situational Awareness

The idea of the panopticon is due to the English utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Utilitarians were the “modern” and “progressive” thinkers of the 19th century, ready to dispense with tradition and replace it with radical ideas of their own. While the basic idea of utilitarianism — that we should do what is best for the greatest number of people — is very much with us today, a lot of the other utilitarian ideas have fallen by the wayside. One of the interestingly eccentric ideas of the utilitarians was that of the panopticon, which Bentham described as follows:

“A building circular… The prisoners in their cells, occupying the circumference — The officers in the centre. By blinds and other contrivances, the Inspectors concealed… from the observation of the prisoners: hence the sentiment of a sort of omnipresence — The whole circuit reviewable with little, or… without any, change of place. One station in the inspection part affording the most perfect view of every cell.”

Jeremy Bentham, Proposal for a New and Less Expensive mode of Employing and Reforming Convicts, London, 1798

The spirit of the idea of the panopticon was thus that of an advanced concept in penal reform — reformers are always focusing on the penal system, since this is filled with the people most perceived to need reform — but the reason that the idea of the panopticon is so well known today is that it was taken up by Michel Foucault and prominently discussed in his book Discipline and Punish.

In Foucault’s context, the panopticon is only secondarily a humane concept of penal reform. For Foucault, the panopticon is primarily a central exhibit in the development of the modern surveillance state in which bodies are observed, managed, regulated, and subordinated to regimentation and control that may be superficially humane but is at a deeper level a form of “bio-power.”

Here is how Foucault described the panopticon:

“Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers. To achieve this, it is at once too much and too little that the prisoner should be constantly observed by an inspector: too little, for what matters is that he knows himself to be observed; too much, because he has no need in fact of being so. In view of this, Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so. In order to make the presence or absence of the inspector unverifiable, so that the prisoners, in their cells, cannot even see a shadow, Bentham envisaged not only venetian blinds on the windows of the central observation hall, but, on the inside, partitions that intersected the hall at right angles and, in order to pass from one quarter to the other, not doors but zig-zag openings; for the slightest noise, a gleam of light, a brightness in a half-opened door would betray the presence of the guardian. The Panopticon is a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen.”

Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, New York: Vintage Books, 1995, pp. 195-228, translated from the French by Alan Sheridan (translation 1977)

Several actual prisons were built on the panopticon model, but the larger point that Foucault is making is one of universal surveillance. This universal surveillance — the nation-state as all seeing eye, divinely omnipotent — is coming true in other ways — for example, the ubiquitous presence of cameras in public spaces — so that no one expects privacy any more as soon as they step outside the door of their home. People assume they are being watched, so by and large they conduct themselves as obedient citizens. (However, some comments on the recent riots in London have suggested that this policing-by-camera is ultimately ineffective.)

Another concept that has emerged from the milieu of surveillance is that of situational awareness. I was interested to discover that Wikipedia has quite a long and detailed article on situational awareness, which is, in that context, treated after a quasi-scientific fashion. Foucault would have been fascinated by this.

I won’t go into the details of situational awareness, but I will cite one definition specific to the strategico-tactical nexus: Fred Burton and Scott Stewart of Strategic Forecasting define situational awareness as follows: “Situational awareness is the process of recognizing a threat at an early stage and taking measures to avoid it.”

In Foucault’s discussion of the panopticon is has already gone these more recent discussions of situational awareness one better by recognizing that in the panopticon, “in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen.” This condition I will call asymmetrical situational awareness. Once we are aware, as it were, of asymmetrical situational awareness, we can immediately see the role that perpetuating this asymmetry plays in successful military operations. Asymmetrical situational awareness is to recognize and avoid threats while posing an unrecognized and unavoidable threat in turn. If one can establish and maintain this enviable state of affairs, one can act with impunity, and acting with impunity, while unpleasant in the ordinary business of life, is the difference between life and death on the battlefield — as well as the difference between winning and losing.

The panopticon is a structure conceived to realize asymmetrical situational awareness, favoring guards at the expense of prisoners. What if we could unfurl the rigid structure of the panopticon and enjoy its surveillance benefits in the real world? I suggest that the technology to do this is not far away. A perfect realization of asymmetrical situational awareness is not likely, but something close to totality of surveillance would make an enormous difference.

A couple of days ago in Vulnerabilities of Vertical Lift I suggested that the vulnerability of large helicopters could be partially addressed by deploying drones in a miniaturized version of the combat air patrol that surrounds a carrier strike group, protecting the vulnerability of large, slow, and valuable aircraft carriers. After I suggested this, I realized that this idea would be generalized, extrapolated, and detached from any particular weapons systems, such as a large, slow, complex and therefore vulnerable helicopter.

Imagine, if you will, a flock of drones deployed throughout a battlespace. With technological improvements of the not-too-distant future, miniaturization could make these small enough to be difficult to see, and still have a high degree of sensitivity that even sophisticated radar systems now used to monitor the battlespace do not possess. A sensor network of this kind might hover over the ground between, say, ten and fifty feet — obviously, it could move, reposition itself, and realign itself as events within the battlespace dictated.

A robust suite of sensing technologies could include ordinary visible spectrum cameras, as well as infrared cameras (to detect body heat), “sniffers” that could (if close enough) detect various chemical, bomb, and propellent residues, microphones of several specialized types, motion detectors, and anything else that scientists could think of to monitor events on the ground. This would be like an “early warning system” for the more traditional battlespace agents of tactical engagement, by which I mean individual soldiers, troop carriers, fighting vehicles, tanks, helicopters, and fixed wing aircraft.

The first iteration of such a technology would be vulnerable and clumsy, but it should be easy to see how something like this, refined and miniaturized, could deliver something like total battlespace situational awareness, and since a sensing network like this could only be produced by technologically advanced nation-states, it would possess the same kind of asymmetry that nuclear weapons once had and fifth generation jetfights now possess in regard to air superiority. In the case of such an asymmetry, this flock of drones would give nearly absolute asymmetrical situational awareness.

The greatest vulnerability of a sensing network of this kind would be its networking and control, which if hacked and hijacked could be rendered useless, or, worse, turned against those who built it. Thus information security would be paramount in constructing such a sensing network. If any clever young hacker with a radio control system could break in, it would be useless. Presumably advanced encryption would be employed in the control network, with safeguards built in that would render the entire network useless if compromised.

The next step beyond a sensing network would be to arm the network itself, so that the flock of drones would not only be the surveillance equivalent of an all seeing eye, but the eye could eliminate any threats that it discovered.

A sensing network of this kind would not only be useful for purely military missions, but would also have obvious applications in peacekeeping operations.

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Note Added 14 August 2012: Given what I wrote above almost exactly a year ago about the possibility of a flock of drones, it was with the greatest of interest that I read Bugs in the sky: Boeing showcases hard-to-detect drones that behave like a ‘swarm of insects’ from the Daily Mail. It seems that defense contractors were already working on something pretty similar to what I suggested. That is to be expected.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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