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 onTerror. Three books, all published within the last year, provide insightinto the how America's "smart weapons and smart soldiers" interrelate.

"Robots versus zealots" was a column I wrote in November 2002.The columnexamined the Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle's (UAV) attack on an Al Qaedaconvoy in the badlands of eastern Yemen. The U.S. pilot "flying" thePredator by remote control was located in Djibouti, hundreds of kilometersaway from the action. Al Qaeda leader Mohammad Al-Harthi, who allegedlyplanned the assault on the USS Cole in 2000, was the Predator's target. ThePredator used Hellfire laser-guided missiles in the attack. A Predator alsokilled Al Qaeda's number three, Mohammed Atef, in Afghanistan in November2001. Many experts regarded Atef as Al Qaeda's "truly gifted operationalcommander."

In the wake of "robots versus zealots," several readers asked meto write a column discussing the development and employment of "smartweapons systems." Other letters discussed (pro and con) America's "right tostrike" in "non-belligerent" Yemen, though everyone acknowledged the area isAl Qaeda-infested. The Predator attack rekindled debate over "Americanassassination by air attack." The targeting of a specific individual for airattack, even in a "murky war" against transnational terror, remainspolitically and legally gray.

Two books published this year provide solid background on thedeveloping American military "network" of smart sensors, smart weapons andsmart soldiers. RAND analyst and Hoover Institution fellow Bruce Berkowitz's"The New Face of War" (Free Press) supplies a broad-brush look at howinformation and sensor systems (like computers and satellites) are reshapingcombat. He also pegs the changes as an evolution decades in the making, andshows the roots of "network war" lie in the visionary work of Cold War-erathinkers.

He also explores the "Achilles heel" of information warfare --the overwhelming flood of data. "U.S. intelligence is drowning in digitaldata," Berkowitz writes. "During the Cold War, it was easier to detect asignal from Moscow instructing its forces to attack" because U.S. analystsknew the sender (Moscow) and the intended receiver (Soviet forces inGermany). Not so today.

Millions of potential command "sources" and hundreds of millionsof potential recipients exist on the Internet alone. Intelligence isn't rawdata, but data understood in the context of capabilities and goals.Berkowitz also touches on the "gray" area issues. Proliferating informationsystems force dispersion. "Traditional concepts of armed defense are sorelytested when armies must hide and disperse to survive. ... Democraticoversight is inherently harder when victory depends ... on stealth andsecrecy."

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'sJohn Alexander.

I know John, and as a thinker he doesn't simply push theenvelope, he often discards it. However, he never discards his incisivebrand of muddy-boot common sense. This books reflects Alexander's brains andmuddy infantry boots. Believe him when he writes: "Star Trek meets theHistory Channel might be the log line for a new television series based onfuture conflicts. ... High tech and ancient warfare techniques will becomethe norm."

My version: In the future, there will be smart bombs andbayonets. 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 EarthCatalog. "Smart Mobs" is a cult item. It's a broadband swipe at ourimmediate future and the socially transforming effects of ubiquitous,instantaneous, mobile communications.

DARPA -- Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency -- is thedriving force behind much of the communication and surveillance technologyRheingold assays. The gadgets and gizmos of smart weapons and sensors braceRheingold's emerging "smart society." It's a sad comment on the humancondition that all too often war -- if it is not the brutal mother of aninvention -- serves as adaptor, refiner and disseminator of revolutionarytechnology.

To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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