Even before terrorists attacked on Sept. 11, the Pentagon and the defense industry were gearing up for a new kind of warfare taking shape in Afghanistan and elsewhere, designing spy equipment and weapons that could pinpoint moving targets and knock them out in minutes.
New sensors and radars mounted on flying drones, some that can see beyond walls and others that can identify an individual, coupled with missiles that can fly faster than a bullet, were already on drawing boards or undergoing tests, analysts said.
All of the new technologies being deployed or under development are geared toward one goal, military analysts said. The U.S. military wants to find, identify and attack a target, all within 10 minutes or less, a far cry from the hours or days it often takes to launch an attack.
The new weapons would help the U.S. avoid repeating the embarrassing attack on Osama bin Laden in 1998, when cruise missiles hit targets after the suspected terrorist had fled.
The weapons are a response to a new reality, analysts said. The threat won't come from superpower rivals with state-of-the-art fighter jets and nuclear submarines, but from international terrorists and rogue countries, which, with few military resources, are more likely to engage in smaller, guerrilla-type warfare.
"We were operating with this tremendous fear of nuclear war and now we've substituted it with a bigger fear of terrorist attacks," said Ed Dunford, former president of defense contractor TRW Inc. and co-founder of Chronicles, which is making a documentary on the Cold War.
New Craft Tested Just Days Before Attacks
The technology for this new type of warfare was demonstrated just days before the Sept. 11 attacks at a test range in the California desert.
A small unmanned aerial vehicle, hovering 10,000 feet above the Mojave Desert and undetectable to the human eye, was transmitting live black-and-white video images of a ground crew working on a tarmac several miles away.
Displaying its spying prowess, the state-of-the-art video camera vividly captured the ground crew's every movement and detail, down to their polo shirts and their shadows, and instantly transmitted them to a television monitor in a nearby hangar. The demonstration provided a rare glimpse of a technology that is likely to play a key role in Afghanistan and in future military operations.
"Because of unmanned aerial vehicles, we have more capacity to find and follow people like Osama bin Laden than ever before," said Loren Thompson, managing director of the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based defense think tank. "I think it's a near certainty we will find him, and it's going to be because of the technologies we've invested in over the last decade."
But some military analysts have questioned whether new weapons can help defeat an elusive terrorist group such as the Al Qaeda. Similar doubts about technology were raised during the Gulf War and its era of advanced systems. Some of those weapons helped defeat Iraqi forces with a minimum of U.S. casualties, but not all of them worked as promised, particularly the air defense systems that relied on the Patriot missile.
The Sept. 11 attacks also have renewed the debate about whether the U.S. has become too dependent on technology and has failed to recruit informants inside foreign governments and terrorist organizations.
Even former President George Bush has questioned how the nation's 13 intelligence agencies and a $10-billion anti-terrorism effort all failed to detect the terrorist conspiracy to attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The war against terrorists is unfamiliar territory for many U.S. military leaders, whose training and experience have been mainly tied to the Cold War or peacekeeping missions in recent years.
"Even with the best intelligence, it's going to be hard to identify the targets," said John Pike, analyst with GlobalSecurity.org, an Alexandria, Va.-based defense policy think thank. "We're going to have a hard time finding a significant concentration of Al Qaeda combatants to either kill or capture. They'll blend in with the general population."
Still, the way wars are fought was already undergoing "a revolutionary change," said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with Teal Group, a Fairfax, Va., research firm. But the transformation has been "sharply accelerated because of our own technological advances and the threat becoming more . . . nimble."
"The enemy is smaller and in some ways stealthier," he said. "They've positioned themselves so that you can't respond with overwhelming force like we did with Saddam Hussein."
Therefore, a number of advanced weapons and technologies are likely to get a closer look, and sooner, in the aftermath of the attacks.
Precision smart bombs guided by satellite-based global positioning systems and spying equipment that can see and hear through walls are getting particular attention. Eventually, the observation systems would be coupled with missiles powered by super-fast hypersonic engines capable of flying thousands of miles per hour. The aerospace industry has been working on hypersonic technology for more than a decade, including recent engine tests sponsored by NASA.
Developing What Once Seemed Too Farfetched
Even Buck Rogers-type weapons that seemed too farfetched just a year ago are becoming reality. Earlier this year, the Air Force tested a weapon that fires radiation beams that make people feel as if they are in a microwave oven. While painful, the beams are not lethal and military officials say they could be used to disperse crowds in hostile areas, particularly when suspected terrorists are mixed in with civilians.
Military analysts believe the nascent steps in the transformation will be on display in Afghanistan as special forces on the ground hunt down suspected terrorists with the aid of ever-more-sophisticated intelligence-gathering equipment in the air and on the ground.
"Lots of the historical past analogies just don't apply here," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz said last week in a briefing. "There is nothing more important in this war than information by whatever means we can collect it."
Special operations forces, long the least technologically advanced, have recently been equipped with listening equipment that can intercept ground conversations and pinpoint their location. They also are equipped with hand-held laser devices that shine a beam on a target to help direct pilots dropping bombs.
In a military exercise last fall at Ft. Irwin in California, the Army tested a computer system that gives foot soldiers their precise location as well as that of their enemies on a hand-held device. Army researchers also are developing laser-guided rifles and headgear that would allow soldiers to see around corners.
To help locate and confirm the identification of potential targets such as Bin Laden, flying drones controlled from a remote location will be able to loiter over an area for hours keeping an eye on a particular encampment.
A state-of-the-art video camera, housed in a turret, will be able to provide live detailed images of the encampment, including what those in the camp are wearing. A computer program is currently under development by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency that would enable controllers to identify individuals from live video images transmitted by the drones.
Unmanned Vehicle Used in Kosovo
Rudimentary unmanned aerial vehicles have been used for years, mainly to see over hills, but their intelligence-gathering potential got a huge boost two years ago during Operation Allied Force in Kosovo. During that operation, Predator flying drones kept a constant watch of troop movements, forcing many Serb forces into hiding.
The unmanned aerial vehicle, built by San Diego-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, costs about $3 million and can stay in the air for 40 hours. In Kosovo, the vehicles transmitted video images to users who were positioned hundreds of miles away from the battlefield. Several vehicles were shot down, but because there were no pilots, the incidents went relatively unnoticed.
Military sources said the unmanned aerial vehicle is in operation over Afghanistan, and analysts said that the Predator may have been the vehicle that the Taliban claimed to have shot down last week.
In what could be a prelude to deployment of combat-flying drones, a Predator recently launched several Hellfire antitank missiles at a test range, hitting all three targets.
Although Pentagon officials have steadfastly refused to comment on any programs and weapons out of fear of compromising operations, the U.S. has already asked defense contractors to speed up development of a host of technologies that just a few months ago were years away from deployment.
The Army and the Air Force have established programs to provide seed money to speed up development of certain technologies that the Pentagon believes will provide "quick solutions to current needs"--a low-profile effort known as Warfighter Rapid Acquisition Process.
A Pentagon spokeswoman said the process is in place but declined to provide further details.
One of the high-profile programs that the Pentagon wants to accelerate is Northrop Grumman Corp.'s Global Hawk, a long-endurance, high-altitude unmanned spy plane that is eventually scheduled to replace the U-2 spy jet.
The plane, larger and more costly than the Predator, is equipped with a variety of sensors, including a hyper-spectral imaging device that can distinguish between camouflage and vegetation, as well as a synthetic aperture radar that can see through clouds and darkness. Because it has no pilot, the plane can hover over an area for 24 hours or more, a distinct advantage over satellites that fly over an area at specific, predictable intervals. A test plane recently set an aviation endurance record for flight without refueling.
The Air Force has four Global Hawks that it has been testing, and is scheduled to take delivery of two more shortly. Military analysts said that the test vehicles could easily be refitted for deployment.
"Unless [Bin Laden] wants to be totally out of contact and hide in a cave indefinitely, we'll find him," Thompson said. "If he does decide to go underground for a long time to keep from getting discovered, then that would serve our purpose."
Gravity Bombs Turned Into Precision Weapons
To military planners, Afghanistan is expected to provide a rich test bed for the type of warfare that the U.S. is likely to face in the 21st century. Boeing Co., for instance, has been supplying the Air Force with global positioning system kits that could be mounted on gravity bombs and turning them into precision weapons capable of being directed to within 30 feet of a target.
The weapons would allow the military to launch more precise, surgical strikes within minutes of knowing the whereabouts of a target, compared to the days or weeks it took to launch massive campaigns like the Persian Gulf War.
Navy officials say they are getting close. In an exercise at Point Mugu in June, a Navy NP-3C aircraft, working with other manned and unmanned aircraft, was able to locate moving objects, identify them and then pass their coordinates to fighter jets, which were then able to lock their missiles on the targets. The entire process took 10 minutes.
Eventually, hypersonic missiles, which are under development at Boeing's Phantom Works, would be able to cut down the time from identifying the target and then hitting it to just few minutes. The missiles, which could travel at 6,000 mph or more, would be able to reach a target in a matter of seconds, compared to one to two hours for the subsonic cruise missile.
"This is a new war that will require new weapons," said Jon B. Kutler, president of Quarterdeck Investment Partners, a Los Angeles defense and aerospace investment bank. "The Pentagon has been trying to identify its mission in the post-Cold War environment. It looks like the new mission has settled upon us."