How much edge technology gives in war
From remote-controlled aircraft to satellite-guided bombs, high-tech weapons would shape war with Iraq.
The way United States fights the next Gulf War - if there is one - will be far different from the way if fought the last one, in large measure because of advances in technology.
Laser- and satellite-guided weapons designed to be more precise. Remotely-controlled attack aircraft that can loiter over a battlefield and then strike without putting a pilot at risk. Cruise missiles with high-power microwaves to zap Iraqi electronic gear. Far superior night vision equipment, thermal-imaging devices, and global positioning systems. US and allied tanks better able to avoid shooting each other (a big problem last time) by separating friend from foe.
Tying it all together will be new generations of sensors and computers, networked to provide real-time "battlespace awareness" to individual soldiers and their commanders.
Everything is not all gee-whiz, of course. Combat marines are excited about the new bayonet they're being issued ($36.35 apiece) - an indication that "boots on the ground" refers not just to yesterday's wars.
No one claims that war will be quick and easy as a result. That includes the nation's commander in chief.
"The technologies of war have changed," President Bush said in his State of the Union speech last week. "The risks and suffering of war have not."
Still, the new technology - some of it tried for the first time in Afghanistan - is likely to make a difference in how American forces find and attack Iraqi troops and facilities.
• More types of aircraft are now able to carry joint direct attack munitions [JDAMS] - bombs with satellite-directed GPS devices attached to the tail. Such devices are not fail-safe. And as was seen in Afghanistan, they can be mistakenly aimed at the wrong target, including innocent civilians and friendly troops. But they are far more accurate than 90 percent of the bombs dropped in the first Gulf War.
• AC-130 gunships are able to see streaming video target reports broadcast from small, unmanned Predator aircraft.
• Joining the Predator is another unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), the RQ-4A Global Hawk. This is a spy plane equipped with cameras, infrared sensors and radar that can fly for up to 40 hours and climb as high as 66,000 feet - out of range of antiaircraft fire.
Some military planners - military as well as civilian - see all of this leading the way to a new theory of war. One new buzzword in the armed services and defense industries is "network-centric warfare." Here, data collection and dissemination becomes relatively more important than tanks, ships, and aircraft (weapons "platforms").
"NCW involves an historic shift in the center of gravity from platforms to the network," says John Stenbit, assistant defense secretary for command, control, communications, and intelligence.
But some worry about this trend.
"No technological advances, no matter how dramatic, can change the true nature of war," cautions Milan Vego, professor of operations at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. "A war is shaped by human nature, the complexities of human behavior, and human limitations and physical capabilities."
Writing in a recent issue of Naval Institute Proceedings, Dr. Vego warns that "The U.S. military is well on its way to eliminating the distinctions between the art of war and military science because of its obsession with new technologies."
"Timely and relevant information is of little value if war is conducted with an unsound and incoherent strategy and poor application of operational art or tactics," he writes. "We did not need more information prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, but much better comprehension of the information we already possessed."
The evolution of a new and more highly technological warfighting era effects all elements of military equipment and doctrine - land, sea, and air.
But the Air Force, which has always been more high-tech (and to a somewhat lesser degree, the Navy), are particularly enthusiastic about its potential.
"Ground pounders" - the Army and the Marine Corps - reportedly worry that this rush to the technological high ground may not prove as dominating on the battlefield as advertised, leaving those with "boots on the ground" to face unintended tasks and dangers.
This includes "Stormin' Norman" Schwarzkopf, the Army general who led US forces to victory in Desert Storm 12 years ago. "I would just think that whatever path we take, we have to take it with a bit of prudence," General Schwarzkopf (now retired) told the Washington Post last week.
One weapon very unlikely to see use in Iraq is a new generation of small, "bunker-busting" nuclear bombs. Pentagon contingency planning includes such weapons, and administration officials pointedly have not ruled out their use. But even defense hawks think they would be more trouble than they're worth - especially given the advances in conventional weaponry.
"We have extraordinary military technology, weapons of great precision that have the enormous benefit of destroying the target almost all of the time without doing unintended damage to civilians," Richard Perle, chairman of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, said on Fox News. "I can't see why we would wish to use a nuclear weapon."