Only weeks before the horror of Sept. 11, an obscure Defense Dept. agency and a bevy of contractors struck a potential blow against terrorists. For the first time, they demonstrated that remotely guided weapons could target and hit moving vehicles. Even though the technology was aimed at more conventional foes, it could be just the ticket for taking out terrorists fleeing across the desert. The trick: using airborne radars and computer wizardry to steer a missile or guided bomb directly into an elusive target.
This is just one example of the leap in weapons technology since the Gulf War 10 years ago. Despite the compelling images of "smart" bombs smashing into their targets, Operation Desert Storm laid bare serious shortcomings. "We never successfully hit a single Iraqi mobile Scud launcher," says Robert Haffa, head of Northrop Grumman Inc.'s analysis center.
Because of such disappointments, the Pentagon poured millions into developing brainier systems that are now ready--or soon to be ready--for battle. These range from unmanned planes bristling with radar and other sensors for mapping rugged terrain or spotting hidden enemies to cruise missiles that can loiter overhead for hours, waiting for the best moment to strike. "In the Gulf War, we had smart weapons. Now, increasingly, we are fielding brilliant weapons," says Robert Martinage, senior defense analyst at the Center for Strategic & Budgetary Assessments.
Admittedly, new technology rarely performs as billed. But even accounting for inevitable glitches, defense analysts believe the new smarts give the military a far greater edge. In Desert Storm and the 1999 Kosovo conflict, bad weather made air strikes impossible because the lasers used in laser-guided bombs couldn't pierce cloud cover. Now, missiles and bombs get their directions from global positioning satellite systems (GPS), enabling them to reach their targets at any time. "This is going to be a 7-by-24 war," predicts John E. Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org.
BRAINS. Some bombs are also equipped with sensors that can distinguish between, say, a bus or a truck, along with the brains needed to pick the right target. They could be dropped by the scores to do what once was an oxymoron--precision carpet bombing. Also, improved ground-penetrating bombs can not only pierce deep, multistory bunkers, but also explode at precisely the right level.
Meanwhile, information technology is shortening the time needed to launch attacks. During the Kosovo conflict, satellite images and data from radar-equipped 707s--part of the Joint Surveillance & Target Attack Radar System, or JSTARS--flowed in separate streams. The data had to be integrated and evaluated before any decisions could be made. But information from disparate sensors and surveillance systems is increasingly being combined electronically. It used to take days to react to new information, says Gregory F. Treverton, senior policy analyst at Rand Corp. (RND ). "That's shortened to hours, to minutes, and now, probably, to seconds," he says.
Of course, the most brilliant weapons are useless "if you don't know where Osama bin Laden is," cautions Robert Pfaltzgraff, an international security studies professor at Tufts University. Still, new technology is bringing changes there, too. For instance, defense experts expect that Northrop Grumman's sensor-bearing Global Hawk unmanned plane will also be equipped to pick up communications from terrorist camps.
Then, once potential areas of terrorist activity are located, ground troops are expected to be sent in to confirm the targets. The soldiers will be equipped not only with GPS receivers and satellite equipment that pinpoint the locations of every member of the unit, they will also carry third-generation night vision gear capable of seeing 500 yards through the gloom. A laser viewing system from Intevac, Inc., now being demonstrated, is even better. It can identify buildings, cars, and people from miles away. And the soldiers can upload the exact images they're seeing to command centers. "Because of these devices, you don't have to get belly to belly to get confirmation of a target," says one industry source. As a result, "whatever operation we take will clearly be at night, because our folks have capabilities no one else does."
CHALLENGES. Will all this be enough? Defense experts admit shutting down camps in countries like Afghanistan is a difficult task. "Bin Laden knows we can put holes in the ground, but disrupting his operations is more challenging," says Francis M. Cevasco, vice-president of national security consultant Hicks & Associates Inc. Human smarts can often trump the silicon kind. "You can beat high tech by going very low tech," warns Neil C. Livingstone, CEO of risk management consultants Global Options Inc.
What's more, industry experts lament, the technology for gathering, integrating, and analyzing information--crucial in fighting fast-moving, shadowy foes--has gotten short shrift from the Pentagon, so it hasn't progressed as much as they would have liked. And the military's tortuous acquisition rules, plus the relatively small defense market, have kept Silicon Valley companies from playing a major role.
All that may now start to change. Clever research projects, such as the development of computer-imaging systems that can identify people at a distance, are bound to get a major boost, predicts one industry veteran. "Wartime is a great time for innovation," he says. Analysts readily admit a high-tech military can't win what is expected to be a long-running war on terrorism all by itself. Diplomacy and choking off financial support for rogue groups is also crucial. But today's smarter, more powerful U.S. forces stand more than a fighting chance of winning battles.
By John Carey and Catherine Yang in Washington, with Otis Port in New York and Christopher Palmeri in Los Angeles