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Militaries may begin wars confident in their existing weapons and technology, but they generally win only by radically changing designs or finding entirely new ones. The Union military started the Civil War with muskets and cannonballs, but ended it using bullet-firing repeating rifles and explosive artillery charges. Ironclads, observation balloons, rubberized ponchos, canned meats, and elaborate telegraphic communications followed—some of the inventions enriching peacetime America for decades.
In 1940, a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber was considered an indestructible aerial behemoth; by the end of 1945 even its huge replacement, the B-29 Superfortress, was deemed obsolete in the new era of rocket-armed jet fighters.
In the 1939 Blitzkrieg, Germany invaded Poland with armored columns spearheaded by Panzer Mark III tanks equipped with a 37 mm gun. But by war’s end even beefed-up high-velocity 75 and 76 mm tank guns were overshadowed by 88 mm cannon—and finally by larger 122 mm models. During the five-year course of World War II, sonar, radar, ballistic missiles, and atomic bombs evolved from speculation to battlefield-proven, deadly reality. We entered the Vietnam War with World War II– and Korean-era “dumb” bombs and ended it with laser-guided aerial and antitank munitions.
Things are not much different in the present Iraq war. In March 2003 the United States attacked Saddam’s Iraq confident in our superior Abrams tanks, GPS- and laser-guided aerial munitions, and fast-moving mechanized columns powered by Humvees and Bradley armored vehicles.
Four years later, the U.S. military’s prewar land arsenal has been radically altered in reaction to Iraqi terrorists and insurgents. As in all our prior wars, two kindred developments occurred.
First, what was once considered adequate quickly proved impotent. Light-skinned, troop-carrying Humvees, in a new war without identifiable fronts, were soon shredded by ever-larger roadside improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
A $10 IED might blow up a $500,000 robot. A suicide bomber can take out an affluent American along with the hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in his equipment and training.
Subsequent up-armored kits, with expensive electronic jamming devices, resulted in only marginally safer vehicles. The military then rushed in even heavier-armored Humvees. And now it is sending over Stryker and MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles that use new defensive mechanisms such as deflector shields to thwart land mines—even as new Iranian-made shaped charges, with liquefying copper heads, show an ability to penetrate these vehicles.
Second, entirely new weapons systems appeared. We had experimented with drones for much of the 1990s, but they were never considered critical components of the military’s battlefield arsenal. But in Iraq—with its vast expanses, open borders, nocturnal terrorists, and constant enemy mining of thousands of miles of roads—Predator and Predator B aerial drones, along with a variety of other pilotless airborne surveillance craft, suddenly became vital to monitor and kill once inaccessible terrorists.
In past wars, the spiraling wartime evolution of military technology led later to notable peacetime benefits—from large-scale adaptation of penicillin and airline navigation systems to prefabricated housing. It is hard to predict in the middle of a war what new medicines or conveniences will follow from the current military innovations of the Iraq war. Pilotless drones may one day lead to cheaper air shipping, or better private security and border protection. Law enforcement will benefit from breakthroughs in body armor and widespread biometric systems for identifying terrorist detainees.
Yet something else is changing the face of 21st-century wars that may affect civilian life in ways we can’t foresee. The sheer excellence of large conventional American weapons systems—planes, ships, tanks—means few enemies now challenge them directly.
Instead, the rope-a-dope insurgent tactic is to kill individuals in urban environments, often in an asymmetrical equation of investing many terrorist lives and little money to take out single Americans and millions of dollars of their supporting infrastructure. A $10 IED might blow up a $500,000 robot, in the same fashion that a lone suicide bomber might get close enough to blow up both himself and an affluent American who has hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in his training, equipment, and education.
General weapons parity—in rockets, small arms, body armor, computers, and weapons manuals and tactics—is easily obtained by private purchase from mail-order weapons outlets, just as instructions are freely downloaded off the Internet and enhanced within the protective landscape of urban warfare.
For now, this disturbing challenge from the Iraq war has no answer: in a globalized world of instant communications and easy commerce, how do we prevent ever-increasing enemies from acquiring sophisticated weapons and tactical manuals to nullify ours quickly and cheaply?
Western businesses—as they compete with manufacturers abroad that have lower costs, far fewer regulations, and far less concern about the morality and ecology of how they operate—may think they are immune from this existential military lesson. But the Iraq war also shows us why and how, with parasitic technologies, without care for international law, and with little regard for human life, our rivals are making things off the battlefield far more quickly and cheaply than we can respond to them.
Victor Davis Hanson, a historian, is a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal.
Past wars have produced peacetime technology benefits. But the spin-offs from Iraq may be far more disturbing, writes VICTOR DAVIS HANSON.
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