Weapons of war from the computer store

The U.S. military is relying more on traditional computer technology than on its own developments

There is no doubt that the high-tech weapons and equipment currently being deployed by the U.S. in the Persian Gulf are unprecedented in military history. "There has never been a time in human history when opponents of war have been so clearly informed about where their own people are, where the enemies are and how they can best control the situation", so Loren Thompson, Militarexperte am Lexington Institute in Arlington. Dauerte es im ersten Golfkrieg "Desert Storm" Whereas it used to take several hours or even days for the main command to learn of the position of an enemy mobile missile launch site and initiate an appropriate countermeasure, today’s militaries can instantly locate any object moving on land or in the air and destroy it with pinpoint accuracy using a missile within minutes.

Predator drone before deployment in "Operation Iraqi Freedom". Photo: U.S. Air Force

The otherwise struggling military owes these capabilities to advances in digital computing and networking technology and to a shift in the Department of Defense, which since the 1991 Gulf War no longer insists on developing and manufacturing its own equipment specifically for military needs, but is increasingly using equipment already commercially available on the market. "This has accelerated the development of AWACS, Joint Stars and the Predator, and kept costs down", explains Glenn Goodmann, editor of the Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance Journal.

For example, Boeing uses a GPS system to precisely guide its JDAM bombs, which is also used by a sailor to determine his position at sea. And GPS coordinates are fed into the same microprocessor used in Apple Macintosh computers back in 1995 to maneuver the missiles. Joint Stars also increased its computing power tenfold by upgrading to Hewlett-Packard servers, while reducing the cost of computer equipment from $19.5 million to $4.5 million. "If you want, you can buy the computer equipment behind Joint Stars on the Internet with your credit card", quips Dale Burton of technology supplier Northrop.

The decision to allow commercial technology was the only way the U.S. military could also participate in Moore’s Law, which is to double computing speed every 18 months, says military specialist John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org. "Da gab es einfach eine fundamentale anderung weg vom Selbermachen hin zum Kaufen." The steadily falling prices coupled with the increasing stability and suitability for everyday use of digital technologies were decisive factors. Until a few years ago, computer technology in the military sector was considered to be very expensive and difficult to use, but today it is suitable even for use on the battlefield, and it is cheap to boot.

And only with it is it possible to network sensors, communication devices and weapons with each other and to achieve unprecedented efficiency. Even before the actual start of the war, digital images from surveillance satellites, U2 aircraft or the unmanned Global Hawk spy plane were correlated with radar and telephone radiation from 7.000 bunkers, government buildings and military installations selected for later bombing. Only now, during the war phase, manned and unmanned aircraft are searching the ground and airspace and sending imagery to headquarters in Qatar.

This includes the AWACS reconnaissance aircraft manned by German soldiers, a Boeing 707 that scans the airspace at a height of ten kilometers above the ground for enemies and fired missiles. In addition, Joint Stars, a Boeing 707 modified with a special radar antenna, scans the ground for moving objects. Flying at a height of just five kilometers, the unmanned Predator drones provide more precise details about the objects detected by Joint Stars to the command station, which then informs fighter and tank pilots online about which objects are hostile and which are friendly, where they are located and how to target a missile based on the precise GPS coordinates. This real-time access to current data not only allows the crew to act quickly, but also protects against friendly-fire accidents, since the pilots of the fighter jets and tanks can still receive corrected information up to the last minute. ()

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