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Weapons: Where Has All The Firepower Gone?
   

June 22, 2006: For some nations, the age of massive firepower has come to an end. One of the less noticed revolutions in warfare has been the American development of small scale, precision firepower, which has replaced the large scale, massive firepower tactics that dominated the 20th century. For most people, American smart bombs, like JDAM and laser guided bombs, represent "precision firepower." But the concept goes much farther than that. American infantry carry automatic weapons, but most of the time they fire one precise shot at a time. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the locals quickly get to know when American troops are fighting in the area. They are the ones firing single shots. The other guys, be they Taliban or Sunni Arabs, fire their AK-47s on full auto. But it's the sparser American firepower that dominates. Better training, and high tech sights, make the U.S. troops very accurate. Snipers are much more in evidence, with up to ten percent of American troops qualified for this kind of shooting. 

 

U.S. artillery units have been using a GPS guided MLRS rocket for over a year. This 227mm weapon delivers a 200 pound warhead as accurately as a 500 pound JDAM. When it comes to bombs, smaller and more accurate is what the infantry prefer. That's because, once the bomb goes off, the grunts want to get in there and capture or kill the survivors before the shell shock wears off. American cannon (155mm) artillery units are eagerly awaiting the arrival of GPS equipped "Excalibur" smart shells later this year. Infantry commanders are particularly keen to have this hundred pound shell available, as it allows troops to be as close as "across the street" from the target. 

 

This produces another unique battlefield sound portrait.  You know American troops are at work when one shell goes off, followed by a few shots. No shouting, American troops use individual radios, hand signals and night vision equipment. They move fast, using minimal firepower. Less risk of friendly fire, or collateral damage (civilian casualties or property damage.) Battlefields have never sounded like this. 

 

Less fire power also means a quieter battlefield. That enables better trained troops, who know what to listen for, more opportunities to use their ears to sort out what is going on. Silence can be a weapon. Precision weapons also reduce supply problems, especially closer to the battle zone. Less wear and tear on the weapons as well. 

 

Other aerial weapons, in addition to their smart bombs, have become more effective. New fire control systems enable fighters to use their 20mm cannot with greater accuracy. Ground troops can now call in jets to use their automatic cannon to take out a few snipers on a roof, or in a particular window in a building. Warplanes rarely use unguided bombs any more. It's all smart bombs and missiles. 

 

On the ground, even machine-guns are used less. In the future, machine-gun use will decline still further as computerized "enemy fire location" systems become more common. Widely used now for locating snipers, the troops (although not the brass back in the Pentagon) are eager to link the sniper finding systems with armed robots. With this kind of a system, the sniper gets return fire seconds after getting a shot off. This forces the sniper to move, and that makes a sniper more vulnerable. 

 

Precision and speed have been a battlefield trend for over a century, but no one really expected those trends to arrive where they are now.