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Monday, April 7, 2003

Weapons of hi-tech war
Roopinder Singh

It’s all in the grains of sand. Silicone chips that are at the heart of every "smart" electronic device have their origin in the very sand that got into the eyes of the mightiest military machine in the world, even as sandstorms and scorching sun gave tense moments to the US military planners. What an irony!

Technology and war have been bed mates for long. We often forget that the Internet was actually designed for the US military to protect lines of communication in case of a nuclear attack on one or more major military centres. It is another story that the Internet was eventually hijacked by academics for civilian purposes. However, it has remained a significant part of the US military communications/information network.

NASA and Micky Mouse

Cutting-edge technology has always been associated with war, especially for the Americans who use their technological edge to make up for their lack of numbers under arms. While the Internet and GPS (global positioning system) are good examples of military hardware with civilian applications, there are interesting reverses also.

Silicone Graphics, known for its graphic capabilities most often associated with Hollywood movies, is also the US Navy’s weatherman, and is capable of displaying an entire theatre of war, each missile and so on, for battlefield planners. In fact, when it started 20 years ago, its first customer was NASA, and second Walt Disney, the creator of comic character Mickey Mouse.

Smart bombs & UAVs

The latest war in Iraq is a technology testing ground of sorts with most of the weapons being smart, i.e., being able to chose specific targets and hit only them. This is done with the aid of GPS as opposed to the laser devices used in the earlier war.

There are 25 GPS satellites (worth around $ 50 million each) that constantly beam radio signals to the earth and receivers on the ground or in air compare these signals to calculate their position precisely, within a few feet. It is a "dual use" technology, which is widely used for civilian purposes for all kinds of applications, including trekking and marine navigation.

Unmanned aerial vehicles are being extensively used by the Coalition forces. The Predator made its mark in the Afghanistan campaign and is now being supplemented by Global Hawk, which has much better capability and flying capacity, and, of course, they use GPS technology to navigate. However, there is no chance of any smart plane supplanting smart pilots—the human variety. The civilian uses of such planes include research and fire reconnaissance, basically going into harm’s way with minimal or no risk to humans.

Secure communications

In order to win a war you have to communicate and have the assurance that the enemy would not be able to tap into your messages.

This is an entirely hi-tech arena, and just days before the present war in Iraq started, a new communication satellite was launched as part of the 10-strong Defense Satellite Communications System that gives the US military secure high-speed voice and data transmissions.

An Internet-like communication system is also being tried out. It links tanks, aircraft, ships and command centres, and is a vast improvement on other traditional communications networks, where costly time lags were involved.

Before the war, the USA demonstrated its capabilities of intercepting messages and telephone transmissions within Iraq when it played recordings of such messages to the UN Security Council. However, when the actual war started, the command and control networks of the Iraqis withstood, at least initially, repeated targeting of various communications centres, including a main telephone exchange in Baghdad.

Many US soldiers have, for the first time, been equipped with a battlefield computer, a laptop-like system that allows the soldiers to see exactly where they are and the deployment of other friendly units, as well as intelligence on the enemy. This could, if it works well, lead to a hand-held device with similar capabilities, much like its civilian parallels.

TV and Websites

Propaganda is used by all sides in any war, and increasingly IT has played a major role in its creation and dissemination. The Americans "embedded" journalists with military units and for the first few days at least they seemed to have become part US military mouthpieces. Saddam Hussain has increasingly used Iraqi TV as a counter effect. It was CNN in the first Gulf War; in the second it is a hitherto obscure Arab network al-Jazeera, which has been providing a counterpoint to the largely US-led media. Al-Jazeera is manned by a core group of ex-BBC Arabic service journalists and is funded by the Government of Qatar, and other moderate Arab leaders.

Even as it was embroiled in controversies like showing American POWs on TV, its Website became hugely popular and the leading search engine, Google, said "al-Jazeera" was the term that showed the greatest increase in the week ending March 31. Lycos said "al-Jazeera" and variants of its spelling became its top search term last week. It was searched three times more than "sex," the old number one.


The English language Website of al-Jazeera (http://english.aljazeera.net) was hacked, through a denial-of-service attack, several times by pro-American hackers, but is still online. Hacktivism, the term for political hacking, is not something new. In fact, peaceniks hacked many US sites to protest against the war, including, incongruously enough, those of the US National Centre for Agricultural Utilization Research.

It is such incongruities that seem to highlight the Kafkaesque nature of war, hi-tech or low-tech. Yet technology is shaping our lives, be it peace or war. "Cry, ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war," said Shakespeare in Julius Caesar. There is no doubt that technology or not, the "dogs of war" define what war is, the ultimate failure of civilised conduct.