Battle of the boffins
Sydney Morning Herald
January 4, 2003
Battle of the boffins
Weapons manufacturers have an array of frightening new high-tech
devices ready to play a part in any attack on Iraq. Paul McGeough
If the fighting starts in Iraq, Saddam Hussein and his forces
will be instant guinea pigs for a new generation of US weapons which
may be used for the first time in all-out war. The keyword will be
"remote". This is not to gloss over the risks facing tens of
thousands of US and allied troops who will be on the ground, but such
is the excitement at the new gee-whizzery in the armoury that
Washington is shipping , or hopes to ship, to the Gulf, that observers
could almost believe that the men in white coats had devised the
ultimate video game - a war without troops.
The design and deployment audacity of what the US likes to call its
"robo-assassin" hardware was displayed in Yemen early in
November when the CIA used a remote-controlled, pilotless Predator
drone to launch a Hellfire missile from 7500 metres above the desert.
It obliterated a vehicle travelling on a desert road and killed six
al-Qaeda suspects inside.
In the years since the last Gulf War it has emerged that America's
so-called smart bombs were not as precise or as plenty as the world
had been led to believe. This time the US and its weaponry have to be
smarter - if Washington wants world acceptance of its role in Iraq
during and after a war, it cannot afford to trash the country and its
civilian infrastructure as it did last time.
Which is where a new suite of US weapons will come into their own.
These are high-powered microwave devices, "directed energy"
weapons that the US hopes can be used to render a fleet of army
vehicles useless by destroying their ignition or fuel systems. They
will also cause disorientating pain - but apparently no lasting damage
- by playing with nerve-ends in the enemy's skin.
A military affairs analyst, William M. Arkin, elaborates:
"Microwave weapons work by producing an intense surge of energy,
like a lightning bolt, that short-circuits electrical connections,
interferes with computer motherboards, destroys memory chips and
damages other electrical components. They send a narrow beam of energy
that penetrates about th of an inch into [human] skin, to where nerves
that cause pain are located."
Describing the panic-causing intensity of the pain inflicted by the
high-powered microwaves, he quoted a military officer who had
experienced it: "All the glossy slide presentations cannot
prepare you for what to expect when you step in the beam." The
weapon is at an advanced stage.
In the much-vaunted surgical precision of the 1991 conflict, only 7
per cent of the munitions used were "smart". That proportion
jumped to 30 per cent in Kosovo in 1999 and to 60 per cent in
Afghanistan. The Pentagon is punting on 100 per cent smartness in the
The improving targeting accuracy comes from a new device called a
Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), a tail assembly fitted to
"dumb" bombs so that they always know where they are and
where they are going - either by data relayed from the aircraft that
will drop them or being sent by satellite once they have been
launched. The JDAM costs a mere $US27,000 ($48,000), compared with the
$US1 million-plus cost of a cruise missile.
The JDAM engineers promised the Pentagon that 50 per cent of the
weapons fired would hit within 13 metres of their targets. But an Air
Force general who had a hand in the Afghanistan war, bragged to Time
magazine that they fell within three metres of their target 100 per
cent of the time.
But there is more upside to the JDAMs. In Afghanistan, the Taliban air
force and anti-aircraft defences were never a serious threat. In Iraq
it's a different story, but the JDAMs promise to keep US pilots out of
harm's way - pilots had to fly at 4500 metres to drop the old
laser-guided bombs, but the JDAMs can be launched from more than
10,000 metres up and while the aircraft is a good 25 kilometres from
the target. They take as little as 10 minutes to launch compared with
up to an hour for a cruise missile, and instead of being dropped in
ones and twos, as was the case in 1991, these bombs can be dropped in
dozen or two dozen lots.
Such are the precision and flexibility of US firepower that there are
confident predictions from within the Pentagon that less than half of
the 500,000 troops who were deployed to the Gulf in 1991 will be
needed in 2003 - but that still leaves up to 250,000 allied troops on
the ground in what could be a bloody and brutal war zone.
Each day six US intelligence satellites over Iraq hoover up imagery
and data which flood into the National Imagery and Mapping Agency,
near Washington. There, mapmakers have been refining what is called
the Digital Point Positioning Database with the co-ordinates of every
possible target for the coming war.
One of the few brakes on American enthusiasm as the Iraq conflict
looms is a desperate shortage of satellites. Masses of mapping data is
being funnelled through space for the targeting database and for the
creation of three-dimensional street-by-street maps of Baghdad and
other Iraqi cities. As US troops go in, their commanders will be able
to watch their every move on instant video links that will be overlaid
on the maps.
This technology is so sophisticated that during the Afghanistan war,
the President and Commander-in-Chief, George Bush, had a live feed in
the Oval Office.
It is this flood of electronic information that is clogging satellite
That capacity is needed to control the pilot-less Predators and their
weapons as they link up with commanders who might be thousands of
kilometres away, manned aircraft that might be in the same skies and
special operations troops who might be on the ground in the target
The Predator drones also make brilliant - if terrifying - surveillance
platforms. During the battle of Jenin, in the Israeli-occupied West
Bank early last year, stricken Israeli army chiefs watched from their
command bunker while a drone-borne camera gave them live footage as it
hovered over a tiny courtyard in which an elaborate Palestinian
booby-trap claimed the lives of 14 Israeli soldiers.
But it was in Afghanistan that the US had the first opportunity to
test the drones to their limit. Air Force Captain Eilssa Beddow told
The Wall Street Journal how, operating from hundreds of kilometres
away in neighbouring Pakistan, she used a control stick, a computer
keyboard and several television monitors to direct an unmanned 8.2
metre-long spy-plane up and down a road on which Taliban fighters had
After 30 minutes she found them. Using the same satellite links that
ran the drone and relayed its video imagery, she called in a manned
Navy fighter jet and directed it to a hut near where the men of
al-Qaeda were milling around their parked 4WD.
She told the Journal of her thoughts as she watched them die:
"You almost wanted to scream, 'run, get out of the way! You're
going to be killed'."
When the US was developing the drone technology in the early 1990s, it
predicted that it would be able to call upon close to 1000 privately
operated satellites. It didn't happen and in Afghanistan it could keep
only three of the eight drones it had in the area in the air at any
one time because of the paucity of satellite capacity.
That Beddow was able to call in the attack aircraft was the refinement
early in the Afghanistan war that made the Predator and Global Hawk
drones more than simple surveillance platforms. But the price was
using up scarce satellite capacity.
Now the Air Force Research Lab has teams hard at work in an attempt to
defeat the satellite shortage by developing a new laser-based system
of communication which would increase the throughput of the
And the Pentagon is experimenting to further refine the application of
the drone technology - by dropping small seismic sensors from the air
that have the ability to detect vibrations from tanks and other heavy
vehicles and beam signals to those controlling the drones. They will
be able to manoeuvre the drones into the area to investigate enemy
movement and take snapshots of targets that can then be relayed to
bomber pilots to save time and errors caused by verbal descriptions of
targets at the height of battle.
Arkin, the military affairs analyst, recently lifted the veil of
secrecy on the newest so-called "agent defeat" weapons in
the US, revealing the development of a new cluster bomb that would
release 4000 titanium rods to cut through chemical and biological
bunkers with explosive force, and a new incendiary device which he
said would create a firestorm so intense that water would not
Writing in the Los Angeles Times, he said that the new weapons would
help the US to seize or neutralise Iraqi weapons of mass destruction
with greater speed and security and, at the same time, cause less
damage to surrounding areas and people.
But he cautioned: "There are risks, however, because some of the
new weapons could arguably be construed as violating established codes
of wartime conduct. And the risk of a backlash, whether at home or
abroad, are magnified by the Administration's almost total refusal to
talk about what it is doing and thereby build public understanding and
"Unfortunately one side effect of framing the war on terrorism in
terms of weapons of mass destruction is that it instils in government
officials a sense of moral certainty so great that they feel no need
to explain or to justify themselves."
In 1991, the US and its allies mounted a 38-day air assault on Iraq
before putting troops on the ground, but such is its confidence in the
marriage of means and objective this time, the Pentagon believes it
will have foot soldiers in Iraq within days of the commencement of
The emerging technology is well suited to the US objective in
Iraq - an assault on one man, his cronies and the machinery of his
military and security apparatus. As one military planner put it to The
Washington Post: "[We want to] very quickly decapitate the