Learning To Fight A High-tech War
IN MANY WAYS, THE CONFLICT IN AFGHANISTAN IS THE FIRST WAR OF THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY, BUT SOME OF ITS MOST AMAZING TECHNOLOGIES CAN BE TRACED BACK TO WORLD WAR II AND BEFORE
LAST NOVEMBER 24, AT A FORTRESS IN THE NORTH OF AFGHAN istan, a group of Taliban prisoners rose in revolt against their captors. They had pretended to surrender but had not been searched, and when brought to the fort in trucks, they proved to be well armed. Overpowering their guards, they seized additional weapons and freed several hundred other Taliban prisoners who were Bbeing held in cells. They took control of much of the fort, forcing troops of the pro-American Northern Alliance to retreat to a corner.
Alliance forces fought back with rifle fire and two tanks but succeeded merely in holding their ground until the following afternoon, when 15 British and American commandos arrived in minivans and Land Rovers. Two U.S. fighter aircraft also appeared and began circling the area. An Alliance commander told his visitors that a white building in the Taliban area needed to be taken out. An American target spotter used a laser range finder to determine its precise location. A radio operator then talked to the pilots in the air.
“Thunder, Ranger,” he said. “The coordinates are: north 3639984, east 06658945, elevation 1299 feet.” He turned to his fellow spotters. “Four minutes.” He counted down the time: “Thirty seconds. Fifteen seconds.” A long missile dropped into view, took dead aim at the white structure, and streaked into it to detonate in a powerful explosion as Alliance soldiers burst into applause. More missiles followed. When the battle finally ended, only a few of the Taliban soldiers were still alive to surrender.
In this fashion the conflict in Afghanistan has been an entirely new type of war, even compared with the Gulf War of a decade earlier. It has included an unprecedented emphasis on real-time intelligence to pinpoint targets with dramatic swiftness. Missiles and bombs have reached those targets with similar precision. Together these developments constitute a revolution in weaponry—a revolution that started in World War II and has been overhyped at times but has finally reached fruition in the last few years.
Back in World War II, photoreconnaissance, an essential part of modern military intelligence, consisted of placing a camera in an airplane and hoping the target wasn’t hidden by clouds. Signal intelligence involved listening to enemy transmissions, which was easy, and then decoding them, which was hard. The work nonetheless scored a striking success when U.S. Navy cryptanalysts broke the Japanese naval code. The decrypts persuaded Adm. Chester Nimitz to concentrate his forces near Midway Island in June 1942, allowing the United States to win that battle and stop Japan’s advance in the Pacific.
In the air, bombers flew by the thousands. They were very good at knocking cities to the ground but poor at hitting specific targets. A force of 140 American heavy bombers attacked a plant in Norway that was producing heavy water for the German atomic-bomb program, dropping more than 700 bombs. None of them hit the main concentrating plant, though they did enough damage to persuade the Nazis to move the facility to Germany (a plan that was thwarted by sabotage). When the Royal Air Force carried out a night attack on the Nazi rocket development center at Peenemiinde, some of its bombs missed by two miles.
This kind of inaccuracy drew attention at the U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Ordnance. In response, BuOrd worked with Bell Labs and MIT to develop the Bat, an early guided missile. It took shape as a small, unpowered glider that used radar to home in on ships. Although the technology came along too late to do much damage, Bats did strike a fleet of Japanese vessels in a Borneo harbor in May 1945 and sank a destroyer at a range of 20 miles. This experience helped launch a big Navy push toward accurately guided missiles.
Few targets on land stood out on radar with the clarity of a ship at sea, so the Air Force turned to television. In early tests, remotely piloted, television-guided aircraft flew over American cities, controlled by airmen hundreds of miles away. “We picked out the city hall,” one controller declared in 1951. “We could have flown that plane right into the mayor’s office.”
Still, blue-suit pilots were not about to sit on the ground and fly their planes by remote control. Missiles guided by television proved to be expensive. Moreover, television cameras were useless at night, and the broadcast link invited jamming. The Air Force followed the Navy in the 1950s with its own guided-missile program, building air-to-air and ground-to-air weapons that used radar to home in on their targets with great precision. Some heat-seeking missiles actually flew up jet planes’ tail pipes. But nothing similar came along to improve the accuracy of the bombs and rockets fired at targets on the ground.
These developments brought a marked divergence between the strategic theater and the tactical battlefield, two arenas that had formerly been much more intimately related. Nuclear weapons completely transformed the prospects for World War III, bringing such radical innovations as intercontinental missiles, nuclear submarines, and reconnaissance satellites. Jet fighters and bombers seemed to share in these advances, being markedly larger and faster than their wartime counterparts. But when the Air Force went back to war, in Korea and then in Vietnam, its bombing methods, and often the bombs themselves, showed little change from those of World War II.
In photoreconnaissance the basic plan still consisted of placing a camera over a target and hoping for clear weather. The U-2 spy plane and Corona spacecraft did this with superb ingenuity, mapping the entire Soviet Union and disclosing its missile sites. Still, it could take a month for an image to make its way to a photoanalyst’s desk, which made Corona useless for showing rapidly changing events.
Two conflicts made this clear: The Middle East’s Six-Day War of 1967 and the surprise Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia a year later. Existing satellites retained their value for observing missile bases, which were permanent installations, but those wars sparked strong interest in real-time satellite observation. Television offered an obvious approach, but it could provide nowhere near enough resolution. Then, in 1969, two Bell Labs physicists, Willard Boyle and George Smith, invented the chargecoupled device (CCD).
It amounted to a microchip that could capture a view as if it were photographic film, with the image appearing as a stream of electronic bits. Such rapid flows of data were well suited for real-time transmission, as well as for computer processing that could bring out fine detail. What was more, a satellite with a CCD could stay up almost indefinitely, for there was no film to run out. The CCD also made unnecessary the various complicated schemes that had been devised to get film from satellites to CIA processing facilities, such as sending out planes to fetch the dropped canisters.
The reconnaissance satellite that resulted from the CCD revolution was first named Kennan and later Crystal. Its optical system used a telescope with a mirror 90 inches in diameter. The first one went up in December 1976 and remained active for two years, with later ones operating for as long as a decade. They indeed achieved real-time coverage, transmitting their images via Satellite Data System spacecraft, which acted as relays. Resolution was as sharp as six inches, and a set of leaked photos of a Soviet shipyard showed what this meant. The spacecraft was 500 miles away, yet the photos showed fine details of the construction cranes at dockside.
Along with these advances in photoreconnaissance, the CIA also sought to intercept other countries’ radio transmissions by building “ferret” spacecraft. The first of these satellites flew during the 1960s. They followed low orbits, 250 to 300 miles above the earth, which meant that a given craft visited a particular site only twice each day, for a few minutes at a time. Even so, they were able to catalogue the characteristics of Soviet air-defense radars, whose powerful beams made them easy to detect.
This success sharpened interest in real-time interception of radio communications. The task demanded both large and sensitive antennas and high orbits that could keep transmitters in view for a long time. Geosynchronous spacecraft orbit the earth at exactly the same rate as the turning planet. This was particularly desirable, for it allows a satellite to hover continuously over one location on the equator. The Canyon program used “quasi-stationary” orbits, which were similar to geosynchronous but were inclined a few degrees relative to the equator. Canyon launched its first spacecraft in 1968. A complementary program, Jumpseat, used orbits that were highly inclined relative to the equator. This let Jumpseat’s antennas look straight down on Soviet transmitters, even in the far northern latitudes.
As these space initiatives opened an era of real-time reconnaissance, the first weapons for precision warfare began to reach the tactical battlefield. They took form as laser-guided bombs, which first saw action late in the Vietnam War. Since the start of that conflict, bridges near Hanoi had been prime military objectives. The communists defended them heavily with antiaircraft weapons, forcing American jets to fly high. That made their bombs miss. Between 1965 and 1972 the Air Force and Navy flew more than 800 strike missions against the Paul Doumer and Thanh Hoa bridges but did little damage. Then, in May 1972, F-4 fighters attacked the bridges with laserguided munitions. Fewer than 30 such bombs destroyed both spans.
Even so, those early smart weapons had limitations. They still required pilots to fly in harm’s way, while the use of a laser demanded an operator who could keep its beam on target. The answer lay in cruise missiles, which flew with wings and could be fired from a safe distance. The Air Force already had its Hound Dog, but it was unsuited for tactical warfare. It compensated for its lack of accuracy by carrying a nuclear warhead, and the jet engine it used gave it the size and thrust of a fighter plane, which made it costly and unavailable for use in large numbers.
It took not one breakthrough but two before anyone could develop cruise missiles that were small, affordable, and highly accurate. The first came in the late 1960s, when Williams Research and then Teledyne CAE developed lightweight jet engines with only a few hundred pounds of thrust. A Williams engine, selected by the Navy and the Air Force in separate missile programs, weighed 144 pounds and delivered more than 600 pounds of thrust, compared with 7,500 pounds of thrust for Hound Dog.
The second breakthrough, a few years later, took advantage of the growing power of microelectronics to introduce a new guidance system. At McDonnell Douglas, researchers began with digitized maps that showed terrain elevations. A radar altimeter, carried within a cruise missile, made measurements of the topography along the flight path. An onboard computer matched the succession of measurements to the digital maps, thereby determining the missile’s location. The computer then generated commands that steered the missile on its proper course.
During the mid-1970s the Navy’s Tomahawk missile, which became the star of the Gulf War, took shape as a flying torpedo. A small charge of rocket propellant boosted it into the air, where wings, tail surfaces, and an inlet for the jet engine snapped out like knife blades. Inertial guidance kept it on course to landfall; then the McDonnell Douglas terrain-matching system took over. Near the aim point a digital camera gave views of the ground that the computer compared with stored images prepared from reconnaissance photos of the target.
All these assets —smart weapons plus real-time photographic, radar, and ferret satellites—were on hand for the Gulf War in 1991. Even so, the photo and radar spacecraft were in low orbits and gave no more than highly intermittent coverage. When combat began, the fluid nature of the fighting created a need for quick-response battlefield images, particularly at night, as well as enhanced signal intelligence.
Rivet Joint and Joint Stars were there to supply them. These two heavily modified versions of the Boeing 707 used the basic airframe but crammed the fuselage full of advanced electronics. Rivet Joint, with a crew of 24, was the latest ver- sion of the RC-135, a reconnaissance aircraft that had flown in Vietnam. Aerial refueling enabled it to stay on the scene for hours at a time. It served as an airborne ferret, intercepting Iraqi communications.
Joint Stars was new; in fact it was still in development. It used radar to form sharp images through signal processing. An onboard Moving Target Indicator picked out enemy tanks as well as wheeled vehicles as far as 150 miles away. Because Joint Stars was not yet ready for day-to-day service, it flew only a limited number of missions. Still, it was on hand for a battle near the town of Khafji, where it observed a group of 80 Iraqi tanks and other vehicles. American fighters destroyed them, protecting a force of Marines that took the town. Later, when Iraqis tried to make a hasty retreat from Kuwait, Joint Stars caught them in the open. It provided real-time information that guided American commanders as they struck anew at the retreating foe.
The Gulf War planes flew in large numbers. One Air Force captain recalled a night strike by F-15s: “The arming areas were full. The taxi ways were full. The trail of airplanes back to their parking areas was all lined up with airplanes with their lights on…. It was [F-15C] Eagle after Eagle after Eagle.” A retired Marine officer who was on the scene as a journalist described it as “an awesome sight. The thunder of afterburners rolled across the desert stillness continuously for a good 30 minutes as the planes took off at 20-second intervals. As I stood near the end of the runway, the sound waves slapped against my chest and the ground shook. There was a feeling of immense physical power as those heavily laden planes labored into the night sky.”
There also was power on the ground, as American tanks rolled into what Saddam Hussein called “the mother of all battles.” This armored force used the Global Positioning System, a satellite-based arrangement that gave highly accurate determinations of location. The Navy had begun research into satellite-based positioning in the late 1950s with its Transit system, which measured the Doppler shift of radio signals broadcast from satellites as they passed overhead. The other services began developing systems of their own, and in 1973 these satellite-navigation programs were all combined into what became GPS.
GPS relied on a constellation of spacecraft in orbit 11,000 miles above the earth, each carrying an atomic clock that kept track of time with exquisite precision. Every one of them broadcast continually, giving its local time along with data that enabled a microprocessor to determine that satellite’s location in space with similar accuracy. These signals were available all over the world. A small receiver used data from the satellites to calculate its own position by triangulation. In battle, every American tank had a GPS receiver and constantly reported its location over a secure radio link, preventing friendly armor from firing at it by mistake.
With Allied aircraft flying up to 3,000 sorties per day, it was essential to prevent American and British airmen from hitting each other. Pilots and commanders also needed to know where enemy fighters might be flying. The solution to both problems lay with AWACS, the Airborne Warning and Control System. It flew as another heavily modified Boeing 707 with a big radar on top in the shape of a disk. By keeping track of all aircraft within a wide area, AWACS eliminated “fratricide.” It also guided fighters to intercepts that shot down 38 of the 40 Iraqi warplanes that fell in air-to-air combat.
Tomahawk cruise missiles fulfilled their sponsors’ hopes. They flew from surface ships, including battleships, as well as from submarines. In Baghdad reporters watched with astonishment as a missile flew along a street and then made a crisp turn to follow a cross street. Targets included the presidential palace, the ministry of defense, and a central communications building. Miss distances averaged around 20 feet, with the range being several hundred miles. This was like kicking a football in Boston and having it sail through the uprights for a field goal in Washington, D.C., and it was all the more impressive because much Iraqi terrain was flat desert that offered few good topographic reference points.
Yet while the American forces won a sweeping victory over Iraq, their arms and electronics still needed improvement. Of 88,500 tons of bombs dropped during the Gulf War, only 7 percent—6,500 tons—were smart weapons. The rest were “iron bombs” that might as well have been left over from the Battle of the Bulge. GPS was also less than perfect. The system of 1991 had only 16 of the planned 24 satellites in place. It gave accurate locations on the two dimensions of the Iraqi desert floor (which required only three satellites over the affected area), but it lacked the three-dimensional capability needed by aircraft (which would have required four). Since the military did not have enough GPS receivers on hand, it had to buy less precise models aimed at outdoorsmen and hobbyists from commercial suppliers. And guidance for the Tomahawk was cumbersome. Sailors had to obtain digitized terrain maps and target photos in advance, load this data on computer hard disks, and carry the disks to sea along with the missiles. Hence it was not possible to retarget them on short notice.
But in Afghanistan, a decade later, all three of these deficiencies have been overcome. Much of the reason lies with GPS, which now has its full array of 24 satellites (actually 28, since replacements have been launched before some of the older ones have worn out) and can report positions in the air as well as on the ground. Indeed, commanders in some cases have been able to target their strikes with particular precision by relying on specific GPS spacecraft that have been shown to give the highest accuracy.
GPS has brought new flexibility to the Tomahawk by supporting an advanced guidance system based on an onboard GPS receiver. Choosing new targets no longer requires weeks of waiting until maps and photos are in hand; all the missile needs are the coordinates of the aim point. In flight the GPS receiver provides position corrections to an onboard inertial guidance system, and the missile’s computer does the rest.
GPS supports new guidance packages that can be attached to conventional bombs to turn them into precision weapons. The Air Force’s Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) is a 2,000-pound bomb that can be dropped while its aircraft is still 15 miles from the target. In a test, a B-IB bomber released a JDAM from 24,000 feet. It struck within 22 feet of dead center. “The accuracy has proven to be remarkably good and remarkably consistent,” says Gen. John Jumper, the Air Force’s chief of staff, who notes that only 3 of nearly 4,000 JDAMs dropped on Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 went off target. A similar weapon, the Wind Corrected Munitions Dispenser, uses GPS guidance to compensate for crosswinds and has a reported accuracy of 16 feet or less.
The burgeoning use of GPS, along with the low cost of munitions such as JDAM, has dramatically enhanced the power of individual aircraft. Many fighters and fighter-bombers in Afghanistan were veterans of the Gulf War; the B-52s were participating in their third war. Yet in Afghanistan the proportion of smart weapons has risen from the 7 percent of the Gulf War to 60 percent. Gulf War commanders had to deploy 10 aircraft armed with dumb bombs to be sure of taking out a target. With smart weapons, their Afghanistan counterparts budget two targets per airplane. Lt. Gen. Charles WaId, commanding the air war, told Time that during B-52 strikes “we can get a bomb from 37,000 feet to land within the length of the bomb—these bombs are 10 feet long—nearly 100 percent of the time.”
Assets used for intelligence show similar acuity. The Air Force orbited a new Crystal reconnaissance satellite in October 2001, just before the start of the air war. It joined two others that had been launched in 1995 and 1996. All three carry infrared sensors that can detect individual campfires at night. Their photos show small groups of people walking across the ground. In the air, Joint Stars and Rivet Joint provide battlefield surveillance as a matter of routine, with the latter being not merely a test, as it was in the Gulf War, but a fully operational ferret plane. AWACS has also appeared anew.
In the fight against the Taliban, the war of electronics took a new form. Air attacks knocked out the country’s telephone landlines, forcing Taliban troops to rely on radio communications, which were easy to intercept. The Taliban carried selfcontained walkie-talkies, but they also made use of cell phones. These remained in service without interruption. Telecommunications antennas and transmitters were left undamaged by air strikes to encourage their continued use. Navy Prowler aircraft jammed some frequencies, reducing the message traffic while forcing the enemy to use other frequencies that remained open—and provided interesting listening for Rivet Joint.
On the ground Army commandos operated at night and used laser range finders to locate targets. “We own the night; that’s the Army’s motto,” said an official. Their night-vision goggles worked not merely in starlight but even under a low overcast. But it wasn’t all twenty-first century. They rode horses; when requesting supplies, they sometimes asked for oats and saddles along with rifle rounds. In the field a GPS receiver enabled each combat team to know its location, with the laser giving distance to a target. “They’re down there with this high-tech stuff, riding a horse, with satellite communications giving target coordinates to a B-2 [bomber],” says a senior official. “Talk about the extremes of war.”
The Afghanistan conflict has also dramatically emphasized the value of small, pilotless drones called Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. Large versions have served for decades as antiaircraft practice targets, but whereas these have generally been obsolete warplanes, the new UAVs are purpose-built for drone duty. They include the Gnat and the somewhat larger Predator from General Atomics as well as the Global Hawk, built by Northrop Grumman. Their range and endurance are surprising: A Gnat can stay in the air for two days without refueling, while a Global Hawk has flown nonstop across the Pacific.
Using piston engines, Gnat and Predator fly not much faster than a car on an open freeway. This conserves fuel to help them stay aloft longer. Their small size makes them hard to see with radar; their low-power motors emit little heat that would show up on an infrared sensor. UAVs first saw extensive action during the 1994-96 war in Bosnia, and they returned in the 1999 action in Kosovo, where their low cost and lack of a pilot made them ideal for dangerous missions. In one instance they were sent to photograph the mass graves of murdered civilians. “The target was considered so important they sent them in knowing they might be lost,” said an officer. Some indeed were shot down, but they were regarded as expendable.
In Afghanistan an improved Gnat has carried a miniaturized radar that sees details as small as four inches from as high as 65,000 feet. These could include tire tracks in sand or footprints in snow. Global Hawk carries a ton of instruments to similar altitudes, making it particularly hard to shoot down. Predator deploys a digital camera and provides stream- ing video to low-flying AC-130 gunships, helping find targets for their machine guns.
Today’s Predator is armed. It can now carry and launch the Hellfire missile, which homes in on a spot from a laser, like the smart bombs of Vietnam. Hellfire was originally an antitank missile, fired by soldiers from Apache helicopter gunships. When used with Predator, it amounts to fighting the enemy with robots.
In one test, a Predator allowed a ground controller to see a tank from an altitude of 2,000 feet. The controller pointed the Predator’s laser at the target before launching the Hellfire. An Air Force project manager said that it “struck the tank turret about six inches to the right of dead center.”
The armed Predator has shown its deadliness anew in Afghanistan. In mid-November one of these drones pinpointed a house where senior Al Qaeda officials had gathered. These included Mohammed Atef, one of Osama bin Laden’s closest assistants. The Predator returned live video images to commanders, who sent in a strike by Navy F/A-18s. The Predator then launched its Hellfires and circled over the area to assess the damage. The dead included Atef, whose loss was a severe blow to Al Qaeda.
President Bush has emphasized the importance of these drones. Speaking in December at the Citadel, he declared that “it is clear the military does not have enough unmanned vehicles. We’re entering an era in which unmanned vehicles of all kinds will take on greater importance…. When all of our military can continuously locate and track moving targets—with surveillance from air and space—warfare will be truly revolutionized.”
The President added, “The conflict in Afghanistan has taught us more about the future of our military than a decade of blue-ribbon panels and think-tank symposiums.” Indeed, the lessons of Afghanistan today complement those of the Gulf War. A highly important conclusion is that America’s overwhelming technical advantages have brought remarkably one-sided victories with little loss of American lives. In the Gulf War a deployed force of half a million people experienced 207 accidental deaths and only 124 battle fatalities. In Afghanistan, America had lost fewer than two dozen military personnel in battle by midApril. Indeed, the biggest sign of how far we have come from past wars is that the combat deaths of half a dozen soldiers—or the unintended killing of a similar number of civilians—can be considered front-page news.
These wars have also shown the continuing value of Cold War-era weapons and tactics. The Navy, with its carriers and missile-armed surface ships, can project power even in remote Central Asia, with no need to worry about overseas bases. Air Force B-52s and B-IBs, built originally to deliver nuclear weapons, today carry smart bombs and precision-guided munitions. Army tanks and helicopters, crafted for use against a Soviet invasion of Germany, proved deadly against Saddam Hussein. And of course the oldest military technology of all—men on the ground—was indispensable in directing all the information and weaponry toward achieving the Northern Alliance’s objective: seizing territory and overthrowing the Taliban.
Space-based assets continue to grow in importance. In Afghanistan close to 50 orbiting satellites provide a host of valuable services by intercepting radio signals; giving sharp reconnaissance images at visible, infrared, and radar wavelengths; gathering meteorological data; and supporting communications, navigation, and global positioning. Closer to the ground, new electronics packages extend the useful life of airframes that date to the mid-1950s. These include the U-2 spy plane, the C-130 transport, the B-52, and the Boeing 707, which flies today as AWACS, Rivet Joint, and Joint Stars.
Afghanistan has driven home the need for quick decision making to maximize the value of today’s real-time intelligence. A senior Air Force official notes that when watching Taliban and Al Qaeda commanders, “the information is very perishable and has to be acted on within minutes, sometimes seconds.” That was not always possible at the start of this war, as became clear on October 7, the first night of the bombing.
Near the city of Kandahar a Predator drone spotted a large number of vehicles leaving the airport. The convoy was big enough to convince intelligence analysts that it was carrying top enemy officials. The vehicles drove into the city and stopped in a populous area, which raised the prospect of civilian casualties. Therefore, the rules of engagement mandated that an air strike needed approval not only from the commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Tommy Franks, but from civilian leaders in Washington.
Franks, commanding on the scene, gave his concurrence. He then put in a request for confirming authorization that went from the Army’s operations center in Saudi Arabia to Franks’s headquarters in Tampa, Florida, and onward to the Pentagon. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld confirmed the order to strike and called President Bush to advise him of this new development. However, by the time the approval of Franks’s order reached the battle area, part of the convoy had driven off. The Air Force responded to this episode by placing a general in the air over Afghanistan, with the authority to order strikes under similar circumstances. This change in the command arrangements paid off a month later with the killing of Mohammed Atef.
The care taken to protect civilians reflects the fact that missiles sometimes go astray, particularly when launched using incorrect intelligence. “A precision-guided bomb can hit the wrong target with great precision,” warns Robert Sherman, a former arms-control negotiator. During the 1999 Kosovo war one bomb fell with high accuracy on a building that proved to be the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. In Afghanistan an F/A-18 dropped a 1,000-pound laser-guided bomb onto a warehouse with a roof that showed the symbol of the Red Cross. In the counterattack that crushed the Taliban revolt at the fortress in November, a missile struck near the Northern Alliance command post because a soldier on the ground gave the wrong coordinates.
Because today’s guidance systems are highly reliable, such accidents are no longer tolerated as ordinary errors of war. Instead they are viewed as avoidable and therefore unacceptable. High accuracy, both in bombing and in target selection, thus becomes not merely an option but a requirement. This places new demands on intelligence, which now must show that, for example, a mosque destroyed by bombing concealed explosives and ammunition.
As long as America stands ready to fight, its victories over Saddam Hussein and the Taliban should give pause to potential enemies. In the Middle East people remember that Iraq and Iran battled through much of the 1980s, with neither nation able to win a significant advantage. The Americans came, built an expeditionary force from scratch in a matter of months, and crushed the vaunted tank army of Saddam in a few weeks. The American victories in Afghanistan have been similarly impressive. With help from American air power, the Northern Alliance, which had been little more than a ragtag group of mountain guerrillas, succeeded in routing the well-armed Taliban and its Al Qaeda allies.
Does this mean, then, that America has ushered in a new era of warfare, one in which this nation will rout all its enemies swiftly and at little cost? Leaders in Washington would be unwise to think so. Pundits continue to invoke the “lessons of Vietnam,” one of which surely is that without specific goals like seizing territory or taking the capital of a foe, a military force can easily lose its way—especially if it is barred from striking against the enemy in neighboring countries. In Vietnam, moreover, unlike Afghanistan, the enemy had well-armed foreign backers and lacked an indigenous opposition army.
Someday another nation in the same situation—particularly one fighting in a jungle, where the eyes of reconnaissance cannot see—may defeat the technology of a too-confident America. To win future wars, America must be realistic about how much time and money, what degree of operational freedom, and how many lives will be required to succeed. It must also understand not only the capabilities but also the limitations of its up-to-the minute military technology.