GPS as Symbol; or, Commenting on “The Failed Attempt to Destroy GPS”

Ingrid Burrington’s interesting article in The Atlantic about the 1992 attack on GPS satellites under construction by Rockwell International seems to have gone viral in the last few days. Here’s the core of the story, as Burrington describes it:

On May 10, 1992, the activists Keith Kjoller and Peter Lumsdaine snuck into a Rockwell International facility in Seal Beach, California. They used wood-splitting axes to break into two clean rooms containing nine satellites being built for the U.S. government. Lumsdaine took his axe to one of the satellites, hitting it over 60 times.

They were arrested and faced up to 10 years in prison for destroying federal government property, causing an estimated $2 million in damage. Ultimately, Kjoller and Lumsdaine took guilty pleas and were sentenced to 18 months and two years in prison respectively for an act of civil disobedience they named “The Harriet Tubman-Sarah Connor Brigade.”

Burrington tracked down Lumsdaine, twenty-two years later, and found him unrepentant about attacking what he considered, then and now, primarily a dangerous military technology:

Even if the technology has more and more civilian uses, Lumsdaine said, GPS remains “military in its origins, military in its goals, military in its development and [is still] controlled by the military” … GPS’ major media debut took place on the battlefield during the 1991 Gulf War, where GPS-guided cruise missiles took out Iraqi infrastructure and soldiers carried commercial GPS receivers (the system was still incomplete in 1991, and as a result all GPS operations during the Gulf War had to be coordinated within specific time windows to be sure there were enough satellites overhead). When explaining the Gulf War’s influence on the Brigade, Lumsdaine noted that “most of the civilian casualties of Operation Desert Storm came after the war because the infrastructure was targeted; the water, the electric lines, the generating stations. GPS was critical for taking out the electric grid of Iraq… with the electricity came repercussions with water filtration plans and so forth.” Crippling infrastructure is a long-term attack strategy, and GPS let the military enact it with ruthless precision.

Unfortunately, neither Lumsdaine nor Burrington dug quite deep enough into the story of GPS’s use during the war. Though, with the benefit of hindsight, we now perceive GPS as an integral part of military targeting, at the time it was a mostly unproven technology that the US military had barely begun to use.

It’s true that, on the first night of the war, B-52 bombers fired thirty-five Conventional Air-Launched Cruise Missiles (CALCM) equipped with single-channel GPS receivers. But they, along with seven US Navy Standoff Land Attack Missiles (SLAM), were the only GPS-guided munitions used during the entire war. The fifty-two Tomahawk missiles fired US Navy during the first wave of attacks were guided by comparing a radar image to data on the missile’s planned flight path in a combination of two techniques called Terrain Contour Matching and Digital Scene-Mapping Area Correlator (TERCOM/DSMAC). The same was true of the more than two hundred other Tomahawk missiles fired during the rest of the war. (These numbers come from The Precision Revolution: GPS and the Future of Aerial Warfare).

Most air attacks were made with bombs, not missiles, and the vast majority of the precision-guided weapons dropped during the First Gulf War were laser-guided bombs – the now-ubiquitous GPS-guided bomb didn’t enter US service until 1997–99. Some of those laser-guided bombs were dropped by aircraft equipped with GPS, but many were not. And, though precision-guided munitions had an enormous strategic and symbolic impact, they were actually only 5 or 8% of the bombs dropped – the vast majority of the explosive tonnage dropped by the US-led coalition were “dumb” bombs not unlike those used during the Vietnam War.

I don’t bring up these details just to point out that Lumsdaine and Burrington have missed some details about GPS’ use in the First Gulf War. The fact is that GPS was very important in that conflict to both air and land operations, even if not in quite the dramatic and weaponized way the article suggests. In fact, the way that GPS quickly pushed its way into the forefront of our postwar minds speaks exactly to Burrington’s broader point about how complicated our relationship with a lot of our personal technologies is.

The US air war against Iraq was, to use a phrase that’s been tossed around quite a lot since then, based on a “system of systems.” Just to highlight the obvious aspects, there was the guidance of the munitions (laser, electro-optical, inertial, terrain-matching radar) and the planes (inertial, GPS, radio, and radar), the locating of the targets (satellite, aerial photography, aerial synthetic aperture radar, radio direction-finding, signals intelligence, etc.), and the integration of that information (some by computer, a lot by manual calculation and voice, or even paper communications). There are whole books written on each of those topics for the First Gulf War, let alone the developments before and since.

Under the circumstances, it’s easy to understand how GPS might become something of a symbol (or, to use a more technical term, a case of synecdoche) for this whole complex mess of computing and guidance technology – as well as for the effects that they’ve become synonymous with since. Making the material components of those systems and their interconnections visible is something that Burrington herself is involved in with her field guide to the network infrastructure of New York.

In the end, I can’t help but feel that the Harriet Tubman-Sarah Connor Brigade’s attack  on the one element of the 1990s Revolution in Military Affairs that was being rapidly and effectively being civilianized was simultaneously ironic and a sign of insight far beyond their own programmatic statement. If the goal was to try and harm the military-industrial complex, their axe-wielding attack was both quixotic and targeted against the least lethal and most humanitarian aspect of the systems that had attracted their criticism. But, if the goal was to make a statement about the danger of the infiltration of ubiquitous technologies into daily life, then Kjoller and Lumsdaine had had the insight to strike against the technology whose ubiquity would end up making it a handy shorthand for the many technologies that enabled surveillance, targeting, and many other aspects of twenty-first century warfare.

h/t: Gizmodo

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