by Austin Bay
August 27, 2003
No, it isn't quite robots versus zealots, but robots and
"non-manned" weapon delivery systems are trump cards in America's War on
Terror. Three books, all published within the last year, provide insight
into the how America's "smart weapons and smart soldiers" interrelate.
"Robots versus zealots" was a column I wrote in November 2002.
examined the Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle's (UAV) attack on an Al Qaeda
convoy in the badlands of eastern Yemen. The U.S. pilot "flying" the
Predator by remote control was located in Djibouti, hundreds of kilometers
away from the action. Al Qaeda leader Mohammad Al-Harthi, who allegedly
planned the assault on the USS Cole in 2000, was the Predator's target. The
Predator used Hellfire laser-guided missiles in the attack. A Predator also
killed Al Qaeda's number three, Mohammed Atef, in Afghanistan in November
2001. Many experts regarded Atef as Al Qaeda's "truly gifted operational
In the wake of "robots versus zealots," several readers asked me
to write a column discussing the development and employment of "smart
weapons systems." Other letters discussed (pro and con) America's "right to
strike" in "non-belligerent" Yemen, though everyone acknowledged the area is
Al Qaeda-infested. The Predator attack rekindled debate over "American
assassination by air attack." The targeting of a specific individual for air
attack, even in a "murky war" against transnational terror, remains
politically and legally gray.
Two books published this year provide solid background on the
developing American military "network" of smart sensors, smart weapons and
smart soldiers. RAND analyst and Hoover Institution fellow Bruce Berkowitz's
"The New Face of War" (Free Press) supplies a broad-brush look at how
information and sensor systems (like computers and satellites) are reshaping
combat. He also pegs the changes as an evolution decades in the making, and
shows the roots of "network war" lie in the visionary work of Cold War-era
He also explores the "Achilles heel" of information warfare --
the overwhelming flood of data. "U.S. intelligence is drowning in digital
data," Berkowitz writes. "During the Cold War, it was easier to detect a
signal from Moscow instructing its forces to attack" because U.S. analysts
knew the sender (Moscow) and the intended receiver (Soviet forces in
Germany). Not so today.
Millions of potential command "sources" and hundreds of millions
of potential recipients exist on the Internet alone. Intelligence isn't raw
data, but data understood in the context of capabilities and goals.
Berkowitz also touches on the "gray" area issues. Proliferating information
systems force dispersion. "Traditional concepts of armed defense are sorely
tested when armies must hide and disperse to survive. ... Democratic
oversight is inherently harder when victory depends ... on stealth and
Ret. U.S. Army Col. John B. Alexander's "Winning the War --
Advanced Weapons, Strategies, and Concepts for the Post-9/11 World" (St.
Martin's) combines high-tech and Green Beret hard core -- but then, that's
I know John, and as a thinker he doesn't simply push the
envelope, he often discards it. However, he never discards his incisive
brand of muddy-boot common sense. This books reflects Alexander's brains and
muddy infantry boots. Believe him when he writes: "Star Trek meets the
History Channel might be the log line for a new television series based on
future conflicts. ... High tech and ancient warfare techniques will become
My version: In the future, there will be smart bombs and
bayonets. Recall Afghanistan featured Green Berets riding horses.
Howard Rheingold's "Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution"
(Perseus) was published in fall 2002. A genuine eclectic, Rheingold has,
among other things, worked as editor in chief of The Millennium Whole Earth
Catalog. "Smart Mobs" is a cult item. It's a broadband swipe at our
immediate future and the socially transforming effects of ubiquitous,
instantaneous, mobile communications.
DARPA -- Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency -- is the
driving force behind much of the communication and surveillance technology
Rheingold assays. The gadgets and gizmos of smart weapons and sensors brace
Rheingold's emerging "smart society." It's a sad comment on the human
condition that all too often war -- if it is not the brutal mother of an
invention -- serves as adaptor, refiner and disseminator of revolutionary