Air Weapons: January 1, 2003

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Better sensors and communication, GPS guided bombs and more smart bombs lead many U.S. Air Force officers to feel that their capabilities are many times, perhaps ten times, what they were in 1991. GPS was just coming into use in 1991. Not all the GPS satellites were in orbit yet, so there were several hours each day that the GPS navigation devices didn't work. But the success of GPS was so great that the military immediately pushed forward plans for weapons and equipment that used GPS. Now you can get a GPS device the size of a wristwatch, and for under a hundred dollars. From that came the JDAM smart bomb. Using GPS for guidance, weather or night were no longer a problem. Targets could be scouted earlier and accurately located via laser range finder/GPS units. Ten years after the Persian Gulf war, there were more "almost ready" weapons appearing in Afghanistan. The most striking one was the linking of troops and equipment electronically so that they could instantaneously transmit information during combat. Troops on the ground used their laser rangefinders and GPS to instantly get the location of a target and transmit it to aircraft overhead, which promptly dropped a GPS guided bomb. Satellite communications got cheap and reliable enough for Predator drones to send video of what was below it to gunships nearby, that then attacked the target. All this has been in the works for most of the 1990s and is called "digitalization." The troops also call something like this a "force multiplier." The bomb is still basically the same metal casing, filled with explosives, that's been used for a century. What has "force multiplied" that bomb is GPS, laser range finders and satellite communications. Instead of dozens, or hundreds, of bombs per target, as has been the case for a century, now it's one bomb, one target. All of this is mainly a result of the reformation the American military underwent after the Vietnam war. Selection standards went up, and a search for new technology became a constant theme in military thinking. While this produced a lot of wasteful spending on unneeded, or unworkable, weapons, it also made the military receptive to new ideas. When the microprocessor revolution, that began in the 1960s, began to produce a flood of cheap and reliable new technology in the 1990s, the military was quick to take advantage of it. So quick, that much civilian technology was taken and adapted to military use. The speed with which the military built and exploited, GPS technology is but one example of many.

 


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