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The High Tech War Machine


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THE HIGH-TECH WAR MACHINE

It's a tableau forever etched in the annals of warfare: On Sept. 2, 1945, underneath the menacing, 16-inch guns of the battleship Missouri, Japanese officials signed the articles of surrender, ending World War II. Nearly half a century later, a few hours after midnight local time on Jan. 17, 1991, the Missouri helped open a new chapter in military history--what Army General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander of Desert Storm, calls "technology war."

The war began with Tomahawk cruise missiles streaking from the decks of the 47-year-old Missouri and its sister battleship, the Wisconsin. Crammed with computers, the robot bombs skimmed across the Persian Gulf toward targets inside Iraq, far beyond the 27-mile range of a battleship's big guns. Close behind followed a multinational swarm of computerized jet fighters and bombers--stealthy F-117s, Wild Weasels, Tornados, Intruders, and Hornets, among others -- firing missiles and laser-guided bombs, often with deadeye aim.

At the early briefings over the following hours and days, Defense Dept. leaders could barely hide their glee. Desert Storm's high-tech forces seemed to be performing better than anyone could have hoped. But as the conflict edges toward a ground invasion to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait, sobering questions are beginning to surface.

STILL BLIND. Just days into the air war, the Pentagon brass was obliged to backpedal. Strikes on Israel and Saudia Arabia dramatically disproved their initial optimism that they had neutralized Saddam Hussein's Scud missile threat. Moreover, clouds and fog hampered the hunt for Iraq's mobile missile launchers--even though the search planes were outfitted with electronic sys-tems that supposedly conferred all-weather capabilities. Some of the advanced systems could be fooled by such simple measures as using aluminum foil decoys (box). In short, the effectiveness of the high-tech weaponry is still in doubt, and it remains to be seen whether technological superiority can prove decisive. "The jury has not even begun to hear the evidence, much less return a verdict," cautions a senior staff member of the House Armed Services Committee.

Still, the Persian Gulf conflict will almost certainly come to mark the transition between two forms of war--and heavily tilt the debate pitting the Pentagon against Congress over whether it's better to buy a few high-tech weapons or many simpler ones. Until Desert Storm, many in Congress held that low-tech arms were more reliable. To them, "investing so much in small numbers of expensive systems" puts national security at risk, notes Robert S. Cooper, former head of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and now president of Atlantic Aerospace Electronics Corp. in Greenbelt, Md.

SAND FACTOR. Indeed, the conventional wisdom is that high-tech weapons are inherently less reliable. But in the civilian sector, experience has proved that increasing the amount of electronics in a product also increases its reliability. The same holds for jet fighters, says Air Force Colonel Dennis M. Ridnouer, who flew fighters in Vietnam and is now chief of the division that buys new fighters. Advances in electronics, he insists, have brought "improved reliability, maintainability, and accuracy." What's not so certain is whether this will hold true in the blowing sand and harsh conditions of the desert. The exceptionally low aircraft losses in the early stages of Desert Storm demonstrate, in part, the advances in technology, starting with electronic countermeasures. Some of the same airframes used in the gulf flew in Vietnam and fell victim to surface-to-air missiles. Iraq has improved Soviet SAMs and modern air-defense radars from Thomson CSF of France. But the new jamming hardware crammed into old planes appears to be much more effective and less costly than building new planes from scratch.

Moreover, the integration of high-technology-based systems "is changing the face of war," says retired Engineer-General Daniel Coulmy, who remains influential in France's Direction Generale de l'Armement, which oversees military technology. These systems tie together tasks ranging from collecting intelligence to delivering laser-guided bombs and missiles with incredible precision.

All that gear faces a stern test in the ground phase. Traditionally, wars have been decided by pitched battles. Only after one side prevails on the field and sweeps into the other's homeland can the victor root out the opponent's political leadership. But the pinpoint accuracy of "smart" weapons makes it feasible to attack a country's political and military infrastructure directly, from long range. Contrary to the massed-armor assaults of classic military theory, high-tech ground tactics call for stealth and rapid mobility that permit forces to leapfrog and outflank the enemy.

Military analysts such as Trevor N. Dupuy, a retired Army colonel, predict that Desert Storm's coming ground attack will unleash many surprises of its own. "I call it razzle-dazzle," he told a House Armed Services Committee meeting last December. Like many Air Force and Navy weapons, much of the infantry's new arsenal leans heavily on the satellites and aircraft of America's multitiered intelligence-gathering network.

Parked in orbit 22,500 miles high are Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites equipped with ultrasensitive infrared sensors to spot missile launches. Next are the KH-11 Keyhole and Lacrosse satellites, circling the globe in low-earth orbits between 150 miles and 250 miles up (box).

NO HIDING. Normally, those satellites dump their data as they pass over ground stations in Greenland, the Pacific, and the U. S. The digitized pictures are relayed to the National Photographic Interpretation Center at the Washington Navy Yard for analysis. But during hostilities, their pictures can be relayed to a new mobile battlefield ground station, providing real-time intelligence.

Unfortunately, the satellites do not provide continuous coverage of the gulf area.

To fill in the gaps, Desert Storm's commanders rely heavily on the TR-1 reconnaissance plane, which flies at altitudes above 70,000 feet, using sophisticated instruments in interchangeable modules to collect tactical information. Its side-looking airborne radar (SLAR) package can peer 30 miles into hostile territory from friendly skies. And the data from several TR-1s can be combined by a special computer to triangulate the locations of distant targets.

Desert Storm also has a new, more sophisticated system for keeping tabs on enemy troop and tank movements. Called the Joint Surveillance & Target Attack Radar System, or JSTARS, its SLAR and signal-processing computers are carried in a modified Boeing 707 that can stay aloft for eight hours, scanning a 250-mile radius on the ground. Only two JSTARS prototypes exist. After Iraq invaded Kuwait, at least one and probably both were rushed to Saudi Arabia.

The five-month prelude to war gave the coalition's array of intelligence services time to amass a wealth of information that made it possible to feed precise target locations to Tomahawk cruise missiles and the coalition's fighter-bomber squadrons. They continue to do so, and this will be vital to the coming ground war.

The ground offensive will be the first test of the Army's new tactics. Up through the Vietnam war, the Army used firepower and attrition to beat the enemy. Now, the plan is to exploit technology to shock and surprise.

The Army's main battlewagon will be the M-1 Abrams tank, which costs about $ 4.3 million. The latest model is the M-1A1, which can protect its crew from chemical warfare agents and has a 120mm smooth-bore gun. It can fire either an explosive "shaped-charge" round or a "kinetic" round--basically a dart of depleted uranium, a heavy, nonradioactive form of the metal that packs so much energy that it will slam through any tank's armor. Inside the tank is a laser rangefinder and a thermal imaging sight. Once the gunner locks on a target, which can be up to 2,000 meters off, the tank's fire-control computer and stabilized turret keep steady aim, even while moving over rough terrain.

Only the Soviet-built T-72 tank, a lighter and slower model that also has a 120mm gun, threatens the Abrams--and then only if the T-72 can get in a side or rear shot. The M-1A1's frontal armor, made with depleted uranium by a classified process, will probably absorb most hits. Iraq has about 500 T-72s. The bulk of its 5,000 tanks are older models.

Accompanying the Abrams into battle will be the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, a lightly armored cross between a tank and an armored personnel carrier (APC). The Bradley will be a key tool in the Army's new line of tactics. Formerly, the infantry followed the tanks in APCs, jumping out to fight. But the Bradley sports a machine gun, a 25mm cannon, and, for killing tanks, TOW missiles. Theoretically, by staying in the Bradley, infantry squads can outflank and cut off dug-in troops and avoid fixed battles.

The Bradley is also equipped with so-called reactive armor. This armor is designed to explode outward when hit, counteracting some of the incoming round's force. Even so, the Bradley's aluminum armor is no match for any tank. One of JSTARS' chief objectives will be to help steer the Bradley out of harm's way. When tanks do threaten, JSTARS will call in the A-10 Warthogs and AH-64 Apache helicopters flying overhead in close support.

The Apaches will unleash Hellfire missiles. Produced by Rockwell International Corp., the Hellfire is a supersonic missile that will slam through armor plating--even the advanced materials being developed for next-generation tanks. Its laser-guidance system is supposed to be as accurate as the system that sent a laser-guided bomb down an air shaft of the Iraqi Air Force headquarters. Moreover, once the target has been "illuminated" with a laser spot--by another helicopter or a ground soldier--the Apache can head for cover before firing the missile in the general direction of the tank. And if the enemy tank moves, the missile will follow it. Under development is an improved, aim-and-forget guidance system that will remember a tank's location.

Although available since 1982, only seven Hellfire missiles have ever been fired in combat--in Panama. They performed flawlessly, Rockwell claims, including the two that went through General Manuel Noriega's headquarters. Kent M. Black, Rockwell's chief operating officer, believes the Hellfire will be the Patriot of the ground war.

But all helicopters, including Apaches, are notoriously susceptible to ground fire--even to small arms, let alone shoulder-fired missiles such as Stingers. After they were supplied to Afghan rebels, for example, Stingers helped turn the tide against the Soviet army.

BIG TAB. So, while the new high-tech weapons have overlapping strengths to cover each other's weaknesses, managing the looming push into Kuwait will require unprecedented interservice coordination. Otherwise, the Iraqis may be able to exploit weak spots, and casualties could mount alarmingly.

Long after this war ends, the U. S. and other countries will be pondering how much higher the tab for high-tech weapons can go. Missiles like the Patriot cost $600,000 a throw. "If the trend toward ever more expensive weapons continues, it will be a problem" even for rich nations, says Michael Rich, an analyst at Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif. Yet backing away from high tech isn't the answer, unless the spread of military technology is contained. That's not likely to happen, says Cooper at Atlantic Aerospace, so there's every reason to suppose that another Saddam Hussein will someday be able to build a nuclear warhead and deliver it by missile.

As a result, Cooper foresees a major push among industrialized countries to develop antiballistic missiles. The Patriot's success seems to guarantee that, he says. And the technologies that will go into ABM systems will no doubt find spin-off applications that boost the deadliness of other weapons. So, sadly, Desert Storm's successes may just trigger the start ef another round in the arms race.

EXOTIC WEAPONS--AND THEIR LIMITATIONS

Allied forces have deployed a wide array of high-tech weaponry, from

reconnaissance satellites orbiting 22,000 miles overhead to tank-attacking

Apache helicopters. The blowing sand and harsh desert environment will pose a

severe test for new technology and the warriors who rely on it

GROUND-BASED ANTENNAS A network of intelligence-gathering antennas--some in

places as distant as Cyprus and Diego Garcia, others in Turkey or near the frontlines--eavesdrops on enemy communications. But since most of the traffic is encrypted, decoding the signals may take hours or days

ARMORED PERSONNEL CARRIER The new, untested 60,000-pound Bradley Fighting

Vehicle is a tracked, armored personnel carrier that would accompany Abrams

tanks in a ground assault. Its main weapon is a 25mm rapid-fire gun. But the

Bradley could be vulnerable under repeated heavy fire

IMAGING SATELLITES Powerful telescopes linked to keen-eyed video sensors can

read a car's license plate or pinpoint the location of tanks and missile

launchers. But these video eyes cannot see through clouds. One type of satellite has more advanced radar systems that can penetrate cloud cover, but with less precision. In any case though, there are sizable gaps in the satellites'

coverage of the Iraqi land mass

AWACS With its radar dome and computers, the Airborne Warning & Control System

monitors and directs air battles. A complementary prototype plane, dubbed

JSTARS, is designed to oversee the ground war. These planes are slow, and in

managing dogfights the AWACS often has a tough time telling friend from foe

RPVS Remotely piloted vehicles are unmanned planes that are difficult to detect.

They can loiter over enemy positions, relaying TV pictures to a battlefield

commander. But their range is very limited, and their cameras cover only a

narrow area

M-1A1 TANKS Probably the world's most advanced tank, the M-1A1 Abrams is a

heavily armored, high-speed juggernaut. Its armor should be impervious to all

but the heaviest guns. How well its fuel-guzzling turbine engine will hold up

under desert conditions is the big question

EARLY-WARNING

SATELLITES Sensors high in the sky keep watch for missiles. But the time it

takes to detect a blast-off, confirm it, then relay the alert is almost as long as it takes an Iraqi missile to hit Saudi Arabia

TR-1 RECONNAISSANCE PLANES Successor to the U-2 spy plane, the high-flying TR-1 carries cameras and radars that can "map" a wide swath of enemy territory from behind friendly lines. But from a distance, its radar can easily be fooled by small aluminum-foil reflectors, and its cameras can't see through clouds.

Getting close-up pictures by penetrating enemy skies is risky, because these

planes can be hit by enemy missiles

TACTICAL RECONNAISSANCE PLANES Used to find military targets and snap photos for assessing the damage done by previous raids, these planes are hampered by bad weather and are vulnerable to missiles. Because this mission is so critical, the Pentagon's newest model is a modified version of the fast F-16

DEPLETED URANIUM SHELLS Carried by the Abrams tank, these rounds are so heavy

that they can't be stopped by the armor on any Iraqi tank. In fact, they pack a wallop that can lift a 30-ton tank into the air. They will also slice through most fortifications, including several feet of concrete

A-10 ANTITANK PLANES Old and slow-flying Warthogs stick to treetop level to

avoid enemy radar. Armed with Maverick antitank missiles that can be aimed by

either laser or infrared detectors, the A-10 is intended to help blunt armored

attacks. The airframe can absorb a lot of hits--essential because they're an

easy target

APACHE HELICOPTERS The Army's newest antitank weapon, the Apache is equipped

with potent Hellfire missiles. The targeting system allows a pilot to pop up

over a hill, fire at a target illuminated by a laser aimed by another helicopter or ground soldier, and then take cover. But the need for frequent and careful maintenance often keeps the Apache grounded DATA:Otis Port in New York, with Paul Magnusson, Seth Payne, and Tim Smart in Washington, Jonathan B. Levine in Paris, Eric Schine in Los Angeles, and Patrick Oster in Brussels


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