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The New War Machines

As the bombardment of Baghdad escalates, MIT professor and security expert Owen Cote discusses these “smart” munitions and other tools in the high-tech U.S. arsenal.

Owen Cote, associate director of the MIT Security Studies Program, has written extensively on military doctrine. In addition to co-editing the journal International Security, Cote currently is writing a book on the success of the U.S. Navy’s antisubmarine warfare during the Cold War. associate editor David Cameron spoke with Cote about how advances in precision weapons and unmanned aircraft are making this war with Iraq very different from the last one.

TR: How far has the U.S. come with precision weapons in the last ten years?

Cote: In the first war, only about ten percent of the U.S. airplanes were capable of using precision weapons. Now, every airplane that flies a strike mission has the capability to use precision weapons-laser-guided bombs and satellite-guided bombs navigated by the GPS signal. Ten years ago they were pretty much using gravity bombs, not all that different from WWII and Vietnam.

Interestingly, GPS guided weapons were first considered unfeasible because they were too expensive. In the mid 1980s it was hard for the military to embrace the million-dollar-a-piece weapon. But once the revolution of GPS receivers in the commercial world occurred, GPS-guided weapons became much cheaper.

The advantage these precision weapons  provide is that-at least in terms of fixed targets-we can destroy many more targets much more quickly while essentially dropping many fewer tons of bombs. The overall fire power we drop will be a lot less, while the overall speed and precision of the campaign will be greatly accelerated.

TR: What about Patriot missiles, which were so maligned in the first Gulf War?

Cote: The missile used in the Gulf War was Patriot PAC-II. Now there’s a new generation missile called the Patriot PAC-III, a fundamentally different kind of missile. It is very early in its deployment cycle. I think it already has been deployed into the region. The testing hasn’t been 100 percent successful, but there have been some successes. It’s plausible that the Patriot will be more successful in this war than in the first Gulf War.

Another big development is that Israel has its own missile defense system called Arrow, which is in many ways more capable than Patriot. Israel is also using the Patriot, so now they have a multi-layered defense. Essentially, Arrow can reach out further and therefore intercept earlier, and Patriot has a shorter range. So, in theory, if there are missiles launched against Israel, Israel will get multiple shots against each individual warhead.

TR: How prepared are we to deal with chemical and biological agents compared to ten years ago?

Cote: The means of dealing with chemical and biological weapons really hasn’t changed. People forget that chemical and biological weapons are really old technology. The military has been developing ways to protect soldiers from these agents for a very long time. From the military’s point of view, dealing with chemical and biological attacks isn’t rocket science. But that doesn’t mean it’s not extremely inconvenient to wear those suits. Supposedly we have better and lighter suits, but still, the bottom line is that it’s inconvenient and to be avoided if possible.

The issue of chemical and biological weapons really has more to do with terrorism against civilian populations. In that sense, it’s possible we may see that in this war. There’s still speculation about what Iraq has, but it clearly has less than in the first Gulf War, especially in terms of delivery capabilities. On the other hand, Hussein has more incentive to use them.

TR: What about communications? To what extent are soldiers, ground vehicles, and aircraft better networked?

Cote: We’re still a long way away from exploiting it, but we’re a lot further on than we were in the Gulf War. There are now data links between tanks where they share images and locations and things like that. For the individual soldier on the battlefield or in urban combat, that’s still far off.

The whole issue of advanced networking and communications really becomes essential when you start talking about mobile targets. It’s possible that this war will demonstrate the first really big major successes against mobile targets. What we may see here is that networks of persistent sensors and precision weapons will give us capabilities against mobile targets that resemble the capabilities we now have against fixed targets-which is, basically, if we find you and decide we want to attack you, we’re going to. We can’t do that yet with mobile targets, but we’ll be demonstrating in this war some nascent capabilities in that area.

An example of that will be the persistent surveillance by unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, over battlefields pumping info back in real time to a headquarters. We’ve already seen that in Afghanistan, and we’ll see a much bigger payoff here. The big payoff will be our ability to go after these mobile targets, and our ability to stare at one thing for a long time if there’s an item of interest there.

TR: Could there be negative consequences if the war goes too well?

Cote: The main negative consequence might be an over confidence in our abilities. If the war goes really well, it will be because large sections of the Iraq military decide not to fight. Then you draw the lesson that this is likely to occur in the future if we go after someone else. Here you set yourself up for a real disaster.

For countries like North Korea and Iran, that scenario is less likely. In Iran, the regime is legitimate. There’s intense nationalism. North Korea is more complicated. The government isn’t legitimate, but the regime is not losing its grip. If you’re in the North Korean military, you are insulated from the worst aspects of what it’s like to be in that country, at least in terms of material want. So you get loyalty from that alone.

So the big danger with success is hubris.

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