US Special Operations Forces like to play up their image as an elite band of "snake eaters" who can survive long periods in the desert or jungle with little more than a knife and their wits. But as the recent raids into Afghanistan show, they are equipped with gear that makes James Bond look low-tech.
In addition to a knife, their rucksack includes laser-guided weapons, thermal-imaging guns that see through fog, laptops as tough as Humvees, night-vision goggles, and little satellite-based Global Positioning Systems units that tell them (and their comrades and commanders) exactly where they are. Back in the lab, scientists are working on devices to shoot around corners.
Meanwhile, above this stealthy, high-tech battle scene, satellites and unmanned aircraft (some of them controlled by the Central Intelligence Agency) are providing instant intelligence, communication, and fire-control.
Much of this new gear has been developed since the Gulf War, and it could prove critical in a "war on terrorism" that - for political as well as geographic reasons - is unlikely to include large, armored, slow-moving land forces. A good part of the $40 billion recently appropriated for the war on terrorism is designated for such gear as production and upgrade schedules are accelerated.
For Special Forces troops, stealth and surprise are among their main assets, and this often means working in an unfamiliar environment at night. Parachuting in, as US Army Rangers did last weekend in Afghanistan, requires night-vision equipment and GPS systems to know precisely where the soldier (or his target) is located. Such equipment is more precise and reliable now than it was 10 years ago.
"Night-vision [gear] has improved substantially. It's 50 to 70 percent better," says former Army Special Forces Officer Michael Vickers. The same is true for the small GPS units that can pinpoint a location to within 30 feet - anywhere on the globe. "It was really just demonstration stuff in the Gulf War," says Mr. Vickers, now director of strategic studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.
Grainy, green videos of the recent night parachute drop and assault by US Special Ops troops in Afghanistan provided a test of a new tactical video system. As reported recently in Aviation Week & Space Technology, "It allows troops on the ground to relay in near-real time digital imagery and could allow almost instantaneous battle-damage assessment or video to be provided of an intended target before a strike is authorized."
Pre-mission planning also is enhanced. During the Gulf War, battlefield commanders had to wait for satellite images of strategic targets and enemy assets to be faxed over phone lines. Now, Special Forces units can acquire the imagery themselves and use it to create virtual-reality exercises to figure out how the mission could be accomplished.
Then, on the way to the battle zone, the aircraft carrying Special Forces "operators" (as they call themselves) have an intelligence capability that allows them to adjust or scrub the mission based on signals from satellites or pilotless drones flying over enemy territory.
The airplanes and helicopters assigned to Special Forces are more robust and sophisticated as well. "This means changes in the way we project power," says Vickers. "It's creating new missions as well."
What makes it all possible, says military analyst John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org, is the information revolution - high-speed computers and advanced communication systems.
But all this gee-whiz gear does not guarantee success in a wartime environment that is as risky as it gets. Moreover, there is always the "fog of war" that inevitably presents unanticipated circumstances. In last weekend's raid in Afghanistan, a helicopter "extracting" troops from the attack site hit something that knocked off part of the landing gear.
"It is much easier to describe how this stuff is supposed to work than it is to predict how it will work," says Mr. Pike. "Does it mean we're going to win the war? I don't know."
In some ways, in fact, the war in Afghanistan could resemble the last major use of Special Forces by the United States - in Vietnam. "It's going to look a lot like hunting for Charlie, hunting for the Viet Cong," says Pike. "The problem is not just finding Osama bin Ladan, it's finding a dozen guys here and a dozen guys there."
The difference now is that US Special Forces are vastly better equipped than they were then - "Basically, the pointy end of a large and extraordinarily diverse information-collection system," as Pike puts it. And as a result of this vastly improved capability, he adds, "The Americans are going to be doing the ambushing rather than being ambushed."
But in the end, say experts, success or failure in such a scenario still comes back to the cunning and initiative of the individual commando. "Don't be doctrinaire," says Wayne Downing, a retired Army general who commanded Special Operations Forces. "Think like a bank robber."