Information Warfare: New Versus Perfected


September18, 2012: Over a decade of war has brought forth hordes of journalists looking for stories about what new technological wonders will see combat for the first time and how the new gadgets performed. Part of this is driven by the politicians, generals, and manufacturers getting behind some new weapon system to insure its survival via successful combat use. There are always some new items that have gotten a lot of publicity recently. But new military technology usually faces hostile scrutiny from the media, which knows that the new stuff always has flaws and bad news attracts more eyeballs and advertising dollars than good news. Whenever a war comes along, there's always some new technology waiting for its first combat test. And that is considered a potentially big story, even if the new gear works.

But there is very little really new military technology out there. What there is can more accurately be called "perfected technology." By this is meant gadgets that have been around for a long time, have been useful, and kept getting better. Eventually, these ancient wonder weapons get really, really good. They are perfected. But most people forget that they have been around in more primitive versions for decades.

There are many examples of perfected technology, one of the more prominent examples being the smart (or "guided") bomb. These first appeared 68 years ago, during World War II. These first smart (radio controlled) bombs made a spectacular debut, sinking many ships (even a battleship) and taking down bridges with stunning (for the time) accuracy. A quarter century later, lasers were used to guide the smart bombs and that was heralded as a new weapon. It wasn't. Lasers had been developed in the late 1950s and that was a new technology. Using lasers to make smart bombs more accurate was an improvement, not a new weapon. By the 1980s, there were better night vision devices, which also improved smart bomb effectiveness. But these were not new weapons. However, they were pitched as new "weapons systems" in order to justify the high cost of the night vision gear and all the new electronics needed to make possible night operations by bombers dropping smart bombs. At this point there were several ways to guide smart bombs. In addition to the laser approach you could also choose a guidance system that had a TV camera in the nose of the bomb, allowing the "weapons officer" on the bomber to literally fly the bomb to very precise targets (even through a window).

In the 1990s, more new technology, especially the Global Positioning System (GPS), arrived and smart bombs became smarter still. Now all you had to do was insert the GPS location in the smart bombs memory and the bombs GPS receiver would provide the directions (of where the bomb was relative to the target) that would guide the bomb to the target. At this point the smart bomb, benefiting from five decades of improvements, became cheaper, more reliable, easier to use, and remarkably effective. This was not new technology, it was perfected technology. The same thing has happened to your TV set. The one you could buy, when they first came out in the 1940s, was a lot more expensive, complex, and unreliable than the one you can get today. The current TVs are "perfected technology," not new technology, this despite the fact that today's TVs contain several technologies that didn't even exist in the 1940s, like flat screens and transistors.

Some perfected technologies are seen more as tactics or procedures than gadgets. Take the use of radio by ground troops to call in bombers or fire from distant artillery units. Radios got small and reliable enough for aircraft use during World War II. At that point the U.S. Army took the lead in developing techniques for fighter bombers to work closely with ground units to find and destroy enemy targets. At the time the air force belonged to the army, but when the air force became a separate service right after World War II, the degree of cooperation between warplanes and combat troops declined. The basic problem was that the air force didn't want to just be a bomb delivery service for the ground troops. This, however, didn't prevent U.S. Army Special Forces, during the 1960s, from doing the same thing in Vietnam (going deep into enemy territory and calling in air strikes on unsuspecting enemy troops) that they did in Afghanistan, Iraq, and lots of other places. As radio equipment got cheaper and more capable towards the end of the 20th century, it became practical to equip more ground troops with radios that could communicate with friendly aircraft overhead. The air force still insisted on all this communications going through its own people on the ground with the army troops. But it now became more practical for the army to make a strong case for training some of its troops to handle this chore, as was the case during World War II. What is making the army case more compelling is the increasing use of smart bombs and the fact that a guy on the ground is still better at spotting targets than someone six kilometers (four miles) above. This was convincingly demonstrated in Afghanistan, where most of the bombs dropped were smart bombs. The campaign in Iraq would see some 90 percent of the stuff dropped being smart bombs. These are ten times more expensive than dumb (unguided) bombs, but if you have a real target identified, the smart bomb is more than twenty times as accurate as the dumb bombs. Plus you don't have to keep your bombers in the air as long when delivering the smaller quantity of smart bombs. The air force likes that, as their expensive aircraft last longer because of less wear and tear.

The air force has never been able to improve their target spotting (from the air) as quickly as they have boosted the accuracy of their bombs. Actually, the U.S. Air Force admits this and sees future warfare featuring tighter coordination between fast moving, well trained (for spotting juicy targets) ground troops and smart bomb carrying bombers above. Afghanistan proved that this approach could work, even if it meant seeing the air force operating (in air force eyes) as a subservient bomb delivery service for the guys on the ground. No matter, air force and navy aviation publicists made sure everyone knew where the bombs were coming from.

There has been a lot of new technology in the last half century. Lasers have been seening military use since the 1960s, and are still being perfected. Same with night vision gear and microcomputers, which have been in military gear for over twenty years and are spreading rapidly in military weapons and equipment. One thing all this electronic gear is waiting for are "perfected batteries" that are light and long lasting enough to power the equipment of individual soldiers. So while smart bombs get perfected, other new weapons are developed and start on the long road to perfection.


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