The evolving response to Sept. 11

Nov. 1, 2001
The good news for the industry in that new weapons systems almost invariably have a higher electronics content.

John Rhea

The good news for the industry in that new weapons systems almost invariably have a higher electronics content.

WASHINGTON — Now that life is beginning to return to normal after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, this may be a good time to lay the groundwork for a long-term solution.

On one point everyone is agreed: patience will be essential. The terrorists were patient, carefully lining up all their ducks before they struck, and you can bet they're still lining up ducks. We're looking at several more years of vulnerability.

The military strikes against Afghanistan to date — aerial bombardment and cruise missile attacks, soon to be followed by the insertion of special forces and other ground units — are an obvious near-term response.

That's all they are. They won't get the whole job done. Given the dispersed and shadowy nature of the al-Qaeda terrorist network, as one observer noted, "this is not a target-rich environment."

And while it's true that the world has drastically changed since Sept. 11, it's also true that this country's military leaders were already placing increased emphasis on nonconventional warfare ever since the Cold War ended more than a decade ago.

The new Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), released at the Pentagon Sept. 30 and based principally on studies conducted before the terrorist attacks, anticipated the threats from groups within states against the open societies of the United States and other industrialized countries. However, much of that report (particularly the executive summary) was rewritten at the last minute, and any new directions in defense policy aren't likely to surface until the fiscal 2003 budget goes to Congress next January.

The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said that no man ever stands twice in the same stream. Of course. Streams are by their nature dynamic. At any given moment something different will be floating down them.

Nonetheless streams are still all generically streams. In this metaphorical stream of defense policy there has been a series of events floating past the policy makers: the Persian Gulf War, Bosnia, Kosovo, and now a still largely undefined terrorist threat. It seems obvious that the policy makers will have to keep their eyes open for the next flotsam.

The predictable initial response by the Bush administration, in addition to the air strikes, was to ramp up defense spending. This has taken on the nature of a political sacred cow, and all the partisan squabbling over government spending has become decidedly muted. Throwing money at the terrorist problem has become a sort of national security blanket.

The administration is seeking $25 billion in additional discretionary spending for fiscal 2002, which began Oct. 1, and this request breaks down into $18.4 billion for defense purposes, $2.2 billion for storm and wildfire emergency spending, and $4 billion for education (including tightening security of computer networks).

Most of that money will go to big-ticket weapon systems, only a few of which can be linked directly to the anti-terrorist effort. More Predator and Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) probably qualify under that category, and a similar case can be made for the Marine Corps' V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor tactical aircraft and maybe the Army's mobile Crusader artillery system. Even the Joint Strike Fighter, for which a contractor selection has been imminent, may play an anti-terrorist role.

While all of these systems will represent healthy markets for electronic subsystems, particularly the UAVs, there seems to be little urgency in sponsoring the development of new technology. The system architectures have been determined long ago, and now it's time to begin supplying the commodity electronic components.

The good news for the industry is that new weapon systems almost invariably have a higher electronics content. The bad news is that in times of war the defense budget also has to accommodate increased demand for such expendables as bombs, bullets, fuel, and food.

Even more discouraging is that in this climate of greater tolerance for defense spending many weapon systems with marginal — at best — value for countering the military challenges anticipated in the QDR may sail through the budget process. It seems far-fetched to me to use the terrorist threat to justify an F-22 fighter aircraft designed to maintain air superiority over non-existent Russian aircraft and a National Missile Defense system to intercept nuclear warheads when the terrorists are more likely to bring them into the country in trucks or ships.

John Pike, a consistent Pentagon critic as head of the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists and now as an analyst at in Alexandria, Va., contends that very little has changed since Sept. 11. The information technology revolution within the military had been well under way between the Persian Gulf conflict and the peacekeeping operations in Kosovo, he maintains, adding that he is "virtually certain" that all the new defense expenditures will go into areas not related to counter terrorism.

"What we really need is metal detectors and bomb sniffers in shopping malls and airports," Pike says. Here is where an innovative electronics industry can make a valuable contribution, and the new cabinet-level homeland security office may become a focal point of that effort.

Along those lines it might also be useful to reexamine an idea that originally surfaced during the Eisenhower administration: dispersing federal offices so they don't represent such inviting targets. The idea at the time was to move the offices out of Washington to locations in suburban Maryland and Virginia on the grounds that they would be less vulnerable to a nuclear attack.

Given the increasing yields of nuclear weapons, this proved to be a short-lived effort and was only partially implemented. In the new threat environment, however, it might be worth considering greater use of telecommuting built on advances in telecommunications technology in order to create a less vulnerable virtual government.

In the long run, the American response to terrorism may depend as much on what is not done as what is done. The legendary Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music, once said that his music was based more on what was omitted (percussion instruments and electronic amplification) than what was included. Any workable response to the current situation will have to take necessary omissions into account.

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