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Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company  
The Boston Globe

December 9, 2001, Sunday ,THIRD EDITION


LENGTH: 1328 words


BYLINE: By Fred Kaplan, Globe Staff

NEW YORK - For 20 years, strategists have talked about a "revolution in military affairs" - a combination of very accurate weapons and very fast intelligence gathering that would lift the "fog of war" and transform the battlefield to favor a high-tech power such as the United States.

To many strategists, including some former skeptics, the war in Afghanistan provides good evidence that the revolution has arrived.

   There are some caveats. The Taliban fighters are not the most sophisticated foes. The war is not over. And much about US tactics and strategy has been kept secret.

However, a few key facts are clear:

New US "smart bombs" are much more accurate than those used in the Gulf War 10 years ago or even in Kosovo two years ago.

US surveillance technologies are more efficient at finding targets.

The time between spotting a target and dropping a bomb on it, which a decade ago took days, is now a matter of minutes.

"Have we seen the future and it works?" asked John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org. "Yeah, I think we're there."

Retired Major General Robert Scales, author of the forthcoming "Warfare in the American Age" and former head of the Army War College, said, "The Gulf War was on the cusp between two technological revolutions - World War II and the new Information Age. With the Afghan war, we're starting to see the new age whole."

Here is one scene from this new age.

A US Special Forces soldier, sitting on horseback, spots a Taliban target. He types out the information on his laptop computer and transmits the data to a Predator, a new unmanned drone flying 25,000 feet overhead.

The Predator relays the data to commanders in Saudi Arabia, who direct the drone to the target for a closer look - and take a look themselves through its real-time video transmission.

The commanders then send the target's coordinates to a US bomber pilot in the area, who punches the coordinates into the computer of a "smart bomb." The bomb is fired, and explodes within 3 feet of the target.

"This sounds like science fiction, but it's really happening," said William M. Arkin, a defense consultant and adjunct professor at the US Air Force School of Advanced Air Power Studies. [emphasis added: ESR]

More striking still, the whole process - from finding the target to dropping the bomb - takes 19 minutes.

During the Gulf War, assigning a particular bomb to a particular target took three days.

"It was a messy process," recalled Eliot Cohen, professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University's School for Advanced International Studies and author of the US Air Force's official history of the Gulf War. "We couldn't get a continuous picture of the battlefield. We couldn't deal with targets that moved. Now we have a much better intelligence picture. There's still confusion, but a lot less confusion."

One key difference between then and now is that today's smart bombs are a lot smarter.

The Gulf War's smart bombs were laser-guided. An air crewman aimed a laser beam at a target; the bomb followed the beam. The crewman had to hold the beam steady. Smoke, fog, or dust could obstruct or refract the beam. Sometimes the bomb couldn't be dropped, sometimes it went far astray.

Today's smart bombs - known as JDAMs, for Joint Direct Attack Munitions - are guided by Global Positioning Satellites. The pilot punches the target's coordinates into the bomb's GPS receiver. From that point, the GPS tells the bomb where it is, where it's going, and where it's supposed to go. Since it's headed toward a point on a map, dust and smoke do not matter.

JDAM is a technology kit that can be attached to a wide variety of existing bombs, turning a dumb bomb into a smart bomb. And by all accounts, the program works the way it's supposed to work.

Franklin C. Spinney, a Pentagon air-combat analyst and well-known critic of many high-tech weapons over the past two decades, said: "JDAM is a good weapon. If you have the coordinates, you destroy the target. It's pretty reliable. Of course, if you punch in the wrong coordinates, it goes to the wrong target. This has happened a few times in this conflict. But the gross errors of this thing" - massive errors caused by the weapon's internal flaws - "aren't anything like the gross errors we saw with laser-guided bombs."

Barry Posen, professor at MIT's security studies program, agreed: "GPS-guided weapons are the trick in this war, and not a very expensive trick."

A laser-guided bomb in the Gulf War cost over $100,000. A JDAM costs $20,000. Because of the lower cost, the US military has a lot of them. In the Gulf War, about 3 percent of all the bombs dropped were smart bombs. In Kosovo, the figure rose to 30 percent. In Afghanistan, according to Arkin, it is 70 percent.

However, the transforming aspect of this war lies not just in the improved accuracy of the weapons, but in the accelerated flow of information.

"We used some GPS weapons in Kosovo," noted Edward L. Warner, a former Pentagon official and now a military analyst for the Booz Allen consulting firm. "But they didn't make much difference because we did not have the ability to provide coordinates for mobile targets in any timely way."

This is the importance of the laptops in the battlefield, the drones overhead, and the ability of distant commanders to integrate the information and pass it on to pilots who can attack the targets quickly and precisely.

Scales made the same point: "If you can shorten this decision cycle, if you make your decisions more quickly than the enemy can adapt to them, if you can control the pace of warfare - then you win."

However, some strategists warned, the lessons of the Afghan war should not be stretched too far.

For example, it is not a vindication for the exclusive use of high-tech weapons. This war has been a bizarre amalgam of ancient and futuristic: Northern Alliance horse cavalry and the Internet; 100-year-old rifles, 30-year-old airplanes, and satellite-guided homing devices.

Even for the United States, the biggest workhorses have been the B-1 and B-52 bombers, all older than the pilots flying them. According to Arkin, the B-1s, which were designed in the 1970s to carry nuclear bombs against the Soviet Union, have dropped 70 percent of the JDAMs on Afghanistan.

Nor does this war demonstrate that victory can be had through air power alone. Robert Pape, professor of political science at the University of Chicago and author of "Bombing to Win," said: "You still need troops on the ground. You need a hammer-and-anvil strategy. Air power is the hammer. Ground power is the anvil."

Ground troops, he explained, force an enemy commander to make a decision. If he wants to hold on to territory, he has to concentrate his own troops. Once he does that, air power comes down on those troops like a hammer. The alternative to concentrating troops is to flee.

This is why, after the first few encounters with the combined might of Northern Alliance soldiers and US air power, Taliban troops chose to flee.

However, Pape added, the Afghan war does show that air power now is by far the more important player. "Before, ground power was the dominant element and air power was supporting," he said. "Now air power is dominant, while ground power is the support."

Finally, it is unclear - it is already the subject of lively debate inside the Pentagon - how broadly the lessons of Afghanistan apply to wars of the future.

Spinney said the quick surrender of so many Taliban soldiers may have a "political-cultural context" - the long history of Afghan wars in which one tribe or another switches sides to avoid slaughter. A more cohesive enemy might be harder to defeat.

Posen, though impressed with the new technology and its clever application, cautioned: "The Taliban don't know much about deception or camouflage. They don't have electronic jammers or air defense.

"Against a more sophisticated enemy, things might have gone differently."

GRAPHIC: PHOTO, The US military's success against Taliban forces is attributed in part to recent advances in weaponry and surveillance technology, military strategists say. A Taliban commander had to borrow a reporter's satellite phone last month. / AP PHOTO

LOAD-DATE: December 11, 2001