GPS and Iraqi Infrastructure; or, An Addenda to My Last Post

So I owe an apology to Ingrid Burrington for getting some details in my last post wrong. According to The Precision Revolution, three of the eight targets struck by CALCMs on the first night of Desert Storm were power plants: a geothermal and a hydroelectric plant near Mosul, and a geothermal plant at Al Musayyib south of Baghdad. (The other targets were all radio relay terminals.) I was mistaken, and GPS-guided cruise missiles did destroy Iraqi infrastructure during the First Gulf War.

On the other hand, those GPS-guided missiles were only a small segment of the attack on the Iraqi power grid. That same night, TERCOM-guided Tomahawk missiles whose warheads contained carbon filament wires to short out transformers and transmission lines were fired at 28 targets. Those two sets of attacks were only the beginning of the air campaign against the electrical system. According to the count in Decisive Force: Strategic Bombing in the Gulf War, one of the many official histories published by the US Air Force after the war, the US flew 215 sorties against electrical power targets. A cursory search actually doesn’t turn up much of anything about the weaponry used against those targets, though the discussion of aiming at switch yards rather than generating machinery suggests the use of precision-guided weapons. Still, against fixed, well-mapped targets like a power plant, GPS would have made relatively little difference to navigation.

Though I’m now wondering if there is in fact of history of these particular US bombing raids, this is starting to meander away from the original point that I had meant to try and articulate in my first post. Insofar as “forgetting that we live among dormant killing machines makes it easy to believe that they are merely machines of loving grace and not tools beholden to the power structures that control them” (a fact that is most certainly true), the institutional origins of technology are often a poor guide to how much they are currently enmeshed with those power structures. Lots of technologies have military origins, from plasma transfusion to canned food.*

Which doesn’t mean there aren’t worry things about how we think about GPS and the power to locate ourselves and others. Its just that that’s a process that started long before Rockwell built its first GPS satellite. Paul N. Edwards’ The Closed World is a pretty spectacular account of how Cold War technology, and the logic behind it, pared down what counted, and by extension what mattered, to create calculable, manageable systems. This was a process that was starting even before digital computers were widely available in the military. Plus Edwards has a kick-ass reading of both Terminator and Terminator 2. Or at least that’s what I remember (I really need to read that book again!).

*See episode 8 of James Burke’s original Connections, a series which itself was focused on pointing out just how complex and interrelated technological networks were, back in the 1970s.


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