The widening military technology gap between the U.S. and its allies

From August 1945 until January 1991, the definition of a superpower was a nation with sufficient nuclear weapons and delivery capability to obliterate any similarly armed nation.

May 1st, 2002

By J.R. Wilson, senior editor Military & Aerospace Electronics

From August 1945 until January 1991, the definition of a superpower was a nation with sufficient nuclear weapons and delivery capability to obliterate any similarly armed nation. Thus there were only two superpowers — the United States and the Soviet Union — with the remaining members of the nuclear "club" ranking as "great powers".

It has often been said, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, that America emerged from the Cold War as the world's only true super power. That, however, ignores Russia's continued possession of sufficient nuclear weapons and missiles to destroy the United States, should it launch a full-scale attack.

What changed was not Russia's nuclear capability, but America's conventional capability.

The Persian Gulf War clearly demonstrated U.S. advanced conventional weaponry that cut through the best the Soviet Union and its allies and client states could throw against the U.S. military. Iraq was well armed with advanced Soviet weaponry, yet the Gulf War lasted only 100 hours. What hit the Iraqi forces was a blitzkrieg that showcased a U.S. capability so far beyond what Iraqi defenses could meet that it overshadowed even the degree of superiority Germany held over its neighbors in the late 1930s.

A decade later, the U.S. military has climbed onto an entirely new plateau. U.S. forces that went into Afghanistan were so technologically superior those of the Gulf War era that clearly the U.S. is alone at the start of the 21st Century as the world's only technopower. Programs to advance U.S. military technology even further will only increase the divide separating it from both adversaries and allies.

"We are witnessing a revolution in the technology of war," notes President George W. Bush. "Power is increasingly defined not by size, but by mobility and swiftness. The advantage increasingly comes from information."

This technological gulf raises serious questions about the future of U.S. efforts to build coalitions similar to those that fought in the Gulf or even in Afghanistan, as well as about the future of alliances such as NATO.

A major tenant for those seeking to join NATO in the 1990s was the compatibility and interoperability of weapons and communications systems. The new members had to cast off their old Soviet equipment and re-arm themselves with NATO systems. The question today is whether NATO allies will be able to keep up with the U.S.

Will NATO and other coalition efforts become little more than political adjuncts to U.S. military power in the future? Will allied forces be support mechanisms that will play little, if any, substantial role in initial military campaigns, and come in largely after the fact for cleanup and peacekeeping?

The answers to these questions were previewed in the Balkans; the answers already can be seen in Afghanistan. And it almost certainly will be seen in even greater degrees as the U.S. pursues the war on terrorism — probably into Iraq, as a major theater of operations, and to a lesser degree in more limited campaigns elsewhere in the world.

U.S. military commanders no longer have the luxury of forward military bases such as Subic Bay in the Philippines. Furthermore, they are facing increasing pressures to cut back or abandon their remaining bases in such places as Okinawa, South Korea, Europe, and the Middle East. As a result, the U.S. is focusing on long-range strike capabilities with the B-2 stealth bomber, fast and flexible global transport with the C-17 airlifter, precision weaponry such as cruise missiles, unattended reconnaissance with satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles, a new generation of light, fast armor such as the Future Combat Systems, an information and communications system that stretches from the forward-most foxhole to the White House Situation Room, and soldiers equipped with body armor, sensors, and personal weapons previously relegated to science fiction, such as Land Warrior, Objective Force Warrior, and Future Warrior.

The future will see more of the same, with the thousands of manned fighter aircraft of wars past being replaced by thousands of less expensive, more agile unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs). The precursors were the newly armed Predator UAVs in Afghanistan, which fired missiles against ground targets the UAVs themselves had located and identified. Robots also will take to the field to do the dirty work of dealing with land mines, scouting enemy positions (in concert with UAVs), breeching barricades, and hunting hostile forces in buildings and caves. The same will happen at sea, with unmanned underwater vehicles locating and destroying mines, sensors, enemy vessels, and port facilities.

Already U.S. forces alone can land major transport aircraft at night on unlit airfields, unload and reload them with personnel wearing night-vision goggles and take off again — still in the dark. Indeed, the U.S. military today prefers to fight at night, not only because NVGs enable foot soldiers and helicopter pilots to operate in the dark, but also because UAVs and other resources can pinpoint the enemy in the dark as easily as in daylight.

All of this is possible because the United States has the economic strength to support a military budget that, as its opponents often point out, is larger than the next several largest defense budgets combined.

That is, indeed, the point; no other nation, nor even likely combination of nations such as the European Union, has the combination of money, technology, and the requirement to develop such a broad range of new systems, much less field them in quantity.

The result is growing U.S. dominance across the board — rapid and global power projection, conventional and special operations, precision strike, as well as command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR).

President Bush has broken with the heavy-force tactics of past wars as well as the limited precision-strike strategy of his immediate predecessor. He prefers instead to redefine and redesign the U.S. military for what he terms "decisive power".

"Our war on terror cannot be used to justify obsolete bases, obsolete programs, or obsolete weapon systems," Bush said recently. "Every dollar of defense spending must meet a single test: It must help us build the decisive power we will need to win the wars of the future."

Interoperability challenges
What that also means, however, is a U.S. arsenal so advanced that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to coordinate full-scale military operations with even the most advanced allied force. Short of training foreign military personnel to operate U.S. equipment as part of a U.S. force, of what practical use will allied air, sea, or ground forces be to a U.S. commander in the full pursuit of combat?

"The U.S. military should continue to do a majority of the heavy lifting in areas such as rapid power projection and combat operations, while other nations do the bulk of the work in areas such as peacekeeping," suggest Michael P. Noonan and John Hillen of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

This is not to say the U.S. is or ever will be invulnerable, as a handful of terrorists armed with nothing but box-cutters and suicidal commitment demonstrated on September 11th. Nor does it mean unmanned systems and long-range precision weaponry will eliminate the need for warriors on the ground, in the air, and at sea who will become inevitable casualties of war. It does mean the U.S. is likely to be the only nation with the ability not only to tailor a response but also to act preemptively, as necessary.

"Safety is gained in stealth and force is projected on the long arc of precision-guided weapons," Bush said in a speech at the NATO headquarters of the Allied Command Atlantic (ACLANT) in Norfolk, Va., seven months before the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. "The best way to keep the peace is to redefine war on our terms. We did not prevail together in the Cold War only to go our separate ways, pursuing separate plans, with separate technologies."

But as the only nation with a truly global foreign policy and military role, it seems inevitable that the U.S. military's ongoing pursuit of advanced technology will make it more and more unlikely that U.S. allies will be able to function as partners on terms of war defined by the U.S.

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