Lasers, Surveillance, and Missiles, Oh My!

All the defense industry news that’s too confusing to print

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military has begun transforming itself into a leaner, more efficient fighting force. And the media has dutifully covered these changes. But the government still spends close to $300 billion each year on defense and intelligence combined, and while there’s a lot of talk about a “revolution in military affairs,” there’s also a lot of doubt among observers on both sides of the ideological fence about the way the government plans to foment the revolution.

Within a few years, for example, the Army expects to end the production of its venerable M-1 Abrams tank, its primary attack helicopter, and its main infantry vehicle–all to save money. Meanwhile, the Air Force and Navy are planning to spend as much as $300 billion on three massive tactical aircraft programs now in development, including the so-called Joint Strike Fighter. Are they needed? The General Accounting Office and Congressional Budget Office suggest one or more of the three programs could safely be delayed or canceled without any damage to U.S. security. Nonetheless, the government is pushing ahead with all three while planning to replace an existing fighter aircraft fleet that is by far the best in the world.

Andrew Krepinevich, a former Army lieutenant colonel and Pentagon analyst who now heads the influential Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, believes that Pentagon leaders are not effectively addressing the matter of how and why the transformation will occur, and that few in Congress or the media are asking them the right questions. “‘Transformation’ means that you see the need to create a substantially different kind of military than we have today, yet it remains unclear what’s doing the transforming,” he says.

Carl Conetta, who runs the Cambridge, Mass.-based Project on Defense Alternatives, agrees. “The whole ‘revolution in military affairs’ issue has not gotten beyond the ‘gosh golly’ reporting,” he says. With a “scarcity of resources” for government spending, he adds, “we have to be careful that we don’t go chasing after [just] anything that comes along.”

So what is the Pentagon chasing? According to military leaders, the backbone of the coming revolution is something called information superiority. U.S. military and intelligence agencies plan to reap the benefits of the information age and are making massive investments in communications, electronic warfare, the protection of information infrastructure, and sophisticated networks that allow tanks, planes, and even individual soldiers to share data. “The strategic center of gravity is shifting away from the ‘big iron’–planes and tanks and boats and satellites–to the critical, strategic information systems,” says John Pike, an analyst at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS).

But often, Pike notes, information systems “are fairly difficult for people to visualize,” and therefore are also difficult to cover. Take the “Echelon” system, for example. According to the FAS, Echelon “consists of a global network of computers that automatically search through millions of intercepted messages for preprogrammed keywords or fax, telex, and e-mail addresses. Every word of every message in the frequencies and channels selected at a station is automatically searched.” Sound like something you should have heard of? If you live in the United States, you probably haven’t. In Europe, however, Echelon–supposedly driven by the supersecretive National Security Agency but involving the governments of our allies in Europe and elsewhere–has received a good deal of coverage. In January, a report by an analyst with the Omega Foundation, a British human rights organization, written at the behest of a European Parliament research unit, kicked off a substantial public policy debate about the right of governments to intrude on citizens’ privacy. If you believe even half of the story, there’s a lot to debate.

Of course, there’s no way to prove yet if Echelon exists. There’s no doubt, however, that it has gone almost entirely unexamined here. “It just hasn’t got any traction in the U.S.,” says Steven Aftergood, who runs the FAS’s Secrecy and Government Project. “But various government bodies in Europe are wondering what’s going on.”

Another surveillance system is also getting its share of attention in Europe: Have Stare, a recently declassified Air Force radar that tracks all manner of space objects, is due to be set up in Norway by 2000. Norway’s initial announcement of the deployment claimed the radar would track space debris, and the little coverage that the event received in the U.S. repeated this line.

But among the many stated roles for Have Stare is as a possible early-warning sensor for a U.S. national missile defense system–essentially a trip wire for missiles headed our way. Have Stare could also be a nifty intelligence-gathering tool, given its position along the Russian border, from which it could observe missile tests within that country. And, Pike suggests, Norway would be a good spot to observe long-range missiles flying from the Middle East toward the United States. Coverage of Have Stare by the Norwegian newspaper Bergens Tidende sparked a local debate over the radar’s possible role in a U.S. defense system. In the U.S., though, where “Star Wars” is a mainstay of national security reporting, the press has barely touched on Have Stare and the larger issue of U.S. intelligence gathering abroad.

Information on Echelon, Have Stare, and other programs is readily abundant–ironically, the same rapid advances in information technology that have the Pentagon talking about a revolution have made it easier than ever to find out about and report on military and intelligence issues. Pike, in fact, has compiled on the FAS Web site the most comprehensive database available on the intelligence community, including how much is spent, what’s being purchased, and where various agencies’ classified facilities are located. And Aftergood has been instrumental in driving the government toward classifying fewer documents and declassifying more of its older records. The result has been an unprecedented avalanche of disclosure–more than 400 million pages in the last two years.

Of course, for all this new information to make a difference, somebody has to be paying attention. The bad news, Pike and Aftergood believe, is that few are. When the government began to declassify Cold War satellite imagery a few years ago, Pike says he assumed “anybody who had ever written anything about Soviet strategic programs during the Cold War would run right out” and demand to see it. “Which is certainly what we did,” he adds. “It doesn’t look like anybody else has done that.”

“This is a tremendous reversal,” Aftergood says. “Where there was this army of researchers fighting over scraps, now there’s a vast inventory of information resources that are being largely ignored.”


Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and billionaires wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2023 demands.

payment methods


Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2023 demands.

payment methods

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.