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World: Militaries Moving From Bombs To Bytes

Washington, 24 July 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Militaries around the world are moving from brawn and bullets to brains and bytes in what many consider a significant revolution in the way warfare is waged around the globe.

Disappearing are the scenarios where men face each other in close proximity with guns and grenades in a steely test of nerve and courage. Instead, these scenarios are being replaced by robot sentries, virtual battlefields and pilotless planes that will seek out the enemy and destroy on remote command.

Some experts are calling the transformation a "cybernetic military revolution," "technological warfare" or even "battlefield digitization." But regardless of what it is called, there can be no doubt that the information revolution is having a profound effect on the way nations are preparing for warfare.

The U.S. military is leading the way by taking the risky and expensive gamble that better technology, digitized weapons and high-speed computer systems are the keys to a better and more efficient fighting force. The premise is simple -- the U.S. Defense Department says that smaller, more mobile units equipped with high-tech computer systems will be able to process intelligence data faster and more accurately and then act within seconds to strike at the enemy first.

As part of its high-tech plan, the Defense Department has created a special army brigade and outfitted it with $250 million worth of computers, satellites, and other high-tech experimental equipment.

Stationed at an army base in the middle of the southwestern state of Texas, the brigade's impressive new equipment includes several new tanks fitted with sophisticated computer systems linked to satellites.

The high-tech tanks permit operators to have an instantly updated view of the battlefield and see and track even the smallest of objects within several kilometers of their position. There is no more need to waste time coordinating enemy positions with other tanks or airplanes, or even pop the steel hatch to confirm the tank's own position -- a definite plus in an era where chemical and biological weapons are a threat.

The brigade is also experimenting with thermal weapons sights which are basically gunsights equipped with infrared vision and attached to a modified rifle or carbine. The sight has a laser rangefinder to determine the exact distance and direction of the target, and a tiny video camera which permits the soldier to see over walls and around corners without being exposed to danger.

Other experimental equipment includes laser detectors which are imbedded into a soldier's helmet and have sensors that can signal an alert when the soldier is being tracked by a laser-weapons system; a night-vision scope and monitor which is attached to the helmet and has a coin-size computer screen that can show the soldier his exact location or provide a map, and flash the battlefield scene from strategically placed gun-mounted video cameras.

There is also an audio/radio system which is attached to the helmet and rests slightly below the soldier's mouth, permitting him to instantly contact others without having to set-up or turn on any special equipment. Other new gear includes special safety goggles which are shatter- and laser-proof and also fit easily into chemical and biological gas masks, and a digital identification tag which would contain a postage-size semiconductor chip that could store the equivalent of 600,000 pages of single-spaced typed pages -- ideally including a soldier's medical history, personnel data, finger or voice prints.

The Army has also contracted a private firm to develop a robot sentry that can be directed by a remote control operator. The robot could do all that a human sentry could do and more at a cost of about $150,000 each. The robot would never fall asleep, be distracted, or get sick, and it would be a bargain since it costs the Army about $150,000 per year to pay, train, feed and clothe a human soldier.

At the heart of the U.S. Army's technology transformation plan is what is called the "Applique" system, a computer network that will permit officers to direct troop movements, order fire, and request intelligence -- all by pressing a keyboard. Via the Applique system, commanders can actually see the battlefield on a video display, track the exact movements of his own and enemy troops, get instantaneous weather reports, and determine the artillery and weapons needs of troops on the ground and aviation support teams during battle.

The system is by no means perfected. Some initial tests of the battlefield equipment and systems resulted in a data overflow causing the computers to shut down and reset themselves. Some of the equipment worn by the soldiers proved to be sensitive to dust, dirt and regular battlefield vigor and broke down or malfunctioned. Also many soldiers are not yet confident enough to trust technology over their instincts.

Other problems of a human nature include older commanding officers who are wary of the technology and unable to effectively analyze and apply the data to their advantage, and concerns that soldiers are so mesmerized and engrossed in their computers, or overwhelmed by the data, that they lose track of what is really going on around them.

Even more important, experts worry that as the U.S. military becomes more reliant on computers, it also becomes more vulnerable to electronic attacks and cyberterrorism. This would include threats from encryption code-breakers, electronic pulses and microwave beams that could jam systems and create false targets, and computer viruses which could shut down systems altogether.

But the world is watching. U.S. military technology, showcased during the Persian Gulf War during the early 1990's, sparked many other nations warfare technology programs.

For example, then-French President Francios Mitterand was so impressed with the U.S. spy satellite resolution during the Gulf War that he ordered a French company, Aerospatiale, to work on a program to duplicate the capability.

Currently, U.S. company Northrop Grumann is delivering the high-tech E-8, or better known as "J-Stars", Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar aircraft to the U.S. Defense Department. J-Stars can track the movements of tanks and armored personnel carriers as far as 200 kilometers behind the front line. Originally designed with a European landscape in mind, J-Stars technology has already been used in Bosnia to track violations of the Dayton peace accords. The Defense Department is reportedly urging NATO allies to consider purchasing a fleet of the aircraft in a buy similar to that of the AWACS jets.

Overall, experts say the technological revolution now occurring in militaries all over the world will not happen overnight nor will it proceed evenly. But all agree that the military is now officially engaged in a new kind of warfare with itself requiring a delicate balance between human and artificial intelligence.