Testing time in Iraq

That means that it's time to shift the focus from research and development to putting the weapons in the field — and finding out if they live up to their advance billing.

by John Rhea

WASHINGTON — As U.S. forces begin massing in the Persian Gulf — 60,000 as of last month and expected to double this month — it is becoming increasingly obvious that any war with Iraq will be a come-as-you-are affair.

That means that it's time to shift the focus from research and development to putting the weapons in the field — and finding out if they live up to their advance billing.

At the top of the list will be unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, which have become increasingly appealing to military planners since the successful use of the Predators in 1998 against targets in Kosovo and later to deliver Hellfire missiles in Afghanistan.

Now a new generation of UAVs is waiting in the wings to fulfill reconnaissance and ordnance delivery roles. They include the Shadow family of multi-mission UAVs in production for the U.S. Army by AAI in Hunt Valley, Md.; the Dragon Drone in service with the Marine Corps from BAI Aerosystems Inc. of Easton, Md.; and the Predator in production for the Air Force at General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Division in San Diego.

Cruise missiles, which played a stellar role in the Persian Gulf War of 1991, will also face severe tests in any future conflict. Heading this category is the AGM-158 Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missile (JASSAM) being produced for the Air Force and Navy by Lockheed Martin Integrated Systems in Orlando, Fla.

JASSAM, in particular, fits well into the new strategy by enabling allied forces to launch the missiles from aircraft well beyond the range of enemy surface-to-air missiles. The turbojet-powered JASSAM operates autonomously to deliver 2,000-pound bombs capable of taking out reinforced sites.

The underlying question that is likely to be answered in the next few months is whether this advanced technology can compensate for a downsized American military force. In the 11 years since the Persian Gulf War the Army has declined from 2 million active-duty soldiers to 1.4 million, the Navy from 550 to 315 ships, and the Air Force from 25 fighter wings to 13.

Timing is critical. The prevalent surmise around the Pentagon is that military action will have to get under way before the desert heat becomes an ally of Saddam Hussein's forces. That probably means next month at the latest.

Moreover, any war in Iraq would be the first to be conducted since Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld scrapped the once-sacrosanct requirement of being able to concurrently engage in two major regional conflicts, known as the 2MRC policy. Kim Jong Il in North Korea reads U.S. newspapers, too (or more likely has somebody to read them for him) and can logically be expected to be biding his time to see which way the wind is blowing before deciding whether to join the party.

Another critical consideration is that these new weapons must minimize collateral damage (the euphemism for dead civilians) and fatalities due to friendly fire (the euphemism for allied soldiers mistakenly shooting each other). These were major problems during the Persian Gulf conflict.

Thus these new weapons now emerging from the laboratories are likely to face a severe test in the coming months.

In a way, they have already failed one test: discouraging military adventures by rogue states because of the overwhelming capabilities of the weapons. This, of course, is more a matter of perception than reality, and I think President Bush has done an admirable job of brandishing these weapons in an attempt to intimidate Saddam Hussein.

I think Hussein would be well advised to accept asylum in some country like Russia and reconcile himself to a relatively uneventful old age. Failing that, I'd prefer to have him sleeping with the fishes or adjoining Jimmy Hoffa under Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., than to have him precipitate another conflict of Persian Gulf proportions. As someone once said sarcastically of that war, we wouldn't have gone to all the bother if the principal export product of Kuwait had been soybeans.

There's another downside of this looming conflict. As John Keller, the editor of this magazine, pointed out last October, when the bullets begin flying the defense budget gets sidetracked from investment in supporting technology base and shifted to expendable items.

That money is going to have to be found after the conflict is over, and a lengthy period of occupation and nation building will strain a federal budget that has already slipped into the red.

Any conflict in Iraq is going to test more than hardware. The whole Islamic world is in turmoil, and the ball could bounce either way: toward even greater repression (not limited to Iraq) or toward a rebirth leading to greater personal freedom and participation in the global economy.

Also in John Keller's commentary last October, he raised the possibility of Iraqis (and perhaps other Arabs) getting off their bicycles and driving their own cars. Henry Ford understood that intuitively, that a country in which autoworkers walked to their jobs was not a country with a viable auto industry. It seems logical that Arab countries could have viable industries if they had the necessary socioeconomic climate.

Several years ago The Economist of London analyzed the problems of the Arab countries and concluded that Islam, founded roughly 600 years after Christianity, had yet to undergo its equivalent of the Protestant Reformation. Particularly troubling was the subordinate role of women in Islamic countries, which effectively cuts productivity in half, and the prohibition of lending money at interest, which rules out a modern banking system.

The efforts of such Protestant revolutionaries as Martin Luther and John Calvin are now widely accepted in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox communities, and Christianity is strengthened by its multiculturalism.

These efforts weren't implemented in a placid academic environment. Neither will the necessary reforms of Islam. Much will be at stake in the coming months, and the new generation of weapons to be unveiled in Iraq will play a key role in determining what kind of future we all will have.

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