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The Cutting Edge | DIGITAL NATION

High-Tech Warfare Is a Losing Proposition

April 26, 1999|GARY CHAPMAN

Gazing over a battlefield strewn with thousands of corpses and moaning wounded, Napoleon muttered to his shocked aides, "Soldiers are meant to die."

Fast forward more than 150 years, to 1970, when U.S. Army Gen. William Westmoreland said: "On the battlefield of the future, enemy forces will be located, tracked and targeted almost instantaneously through the use of data links, computer-assisted intelligence and automated fire control. . . . I am confident the American people expect this country to take full advantage of its technology--to welcome and applaud the developments that will replace wherever possible the man with the machine."

The current war in the Balkans between NATO forces and Yugoslavia is delivering new lessons about the contrast of these two perspectives--whether wars are won by soldiers dying for a cause or by machines that deliver death and destruction to the enemy.

There obviously is a growing chorus of critics of this latest war, who are pointing out that NATO's bombing of Serbia is doing little to bring about a solution to the Kosovo crisis. In fact, the bombing may be producing the perverse effect of reinforcing Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, while he uses the war as an excuse to accomplish his goals, such as "cleansing" Kosovo of ethnic Albanians. Critics are saying that ground troops are the only real solution, and the introduction of ground troops will almost certainly entail American casualties, something the Pentagon has done everything to avoid thus far.

This conundrum illustrates a debate that has been going on in the military for more than 20 years over the role of high tech in warfare and U.S. arsenals. This debate goes back to the war in Vietnam, a time before personal computers or even microchips. But the debate has intensified in recent years because of the revolution in weaponry and in our society at large, brought about by new information technologies.

A great many people are puzzled by NATO's strategy, given its poor results. An Albanian Kosovar refugee told the media, "We don't understand NATO's strategy. They are up in the air, while we are dying here on the ground."

There are many historical reasons NATO has chosen its strategy, and these reveal significant frictions between Napoleon's view of war and that of modern U.S. military officers enamored of high tech.

First, NATO forces were configured in the 1970s and 1980s to counter the armies of the Warsaw Pact in Western Europe, not to fight the kind of war NATO is now waging in the Balkans. In the mid-1980s, the Warsaw Pact had an overwhelming numerical superiority in weapons, such as its 46,230 battle tanks to NATO's 17,730. The U.S. always claimed that it might be forced to use nuclear weapons because of this numerical imbalance in the event of a Warsaw Pact attack against Western Europe, but few people took this seriously, as nuclear weapons would destroy the very places NATO was sworn to protect.

Because of this, NATO instead pursued a policy of "quality over quantity" by investing in "smart" weapons that would destroy Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces deep behind their lines. These weapons included cruise missiles, precision-guided "submunitions" (missiles that deploy multiple homing warheads) and "fire and forget" projectiles that would seek out their targets after release. This trend gave birth to an entire generation of "over the horizon" weapons using distant remote sensing of targets, sensors on-board munitions and weapons guided by satellites, as well as laser-guided bombs and stealth aircraft.

The era of "attrition warfare," such as that practiced during World War II, in which soldiers and armor engage the enemy directly, was replaced with "maneuver warfare," a model in which opposing forces are held at bay by overwhelming firepower; advanced technology; rapid movement; complex, theater-wide communications; and command and control.

Another reason the U.S. military began to rely on high tech during the last two decades of the Cold War was that military leaders understood that the option of a vast standing army was no longer possible. Not only was a peacetime draft politically infeasible, but demographic changes in the U.S. and Western Europe had dramatically lowered the population of young men who might enlist in military service. Thus high-tech weapons were viewed as "force multipliers," substituting for manpower.

Richard Cooper, director of the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Projects Agency in the early 1980s, said, "It's my view that this society has decided that it will only use a fraction of its human effort in its own defense in peacetime. The imperative just isn't there. . . . So, consequently, we have no other alternative but to turn to high technology. That's it."

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