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On Point

America's Trump Card

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. The column 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 commander."

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 thinkers.

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 secrecy."

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 John Alexander.

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 the norm."

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 technology.

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