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TV Program Description
Original PBS Broadcast Date: May 4, 2004


Battle Plan Under Fire homepage

Never before has a nation dominated the conventional battlefield the way the United States has during the past two years in Afghanistan and Iraq. But with U.S. troops now embroiled in unconventional warfare against insurgents in Iraq, skeptics are saying that America's high-tech advantage is no longer decisive. Yet Pentagon planners are placing a multibillion-dollar bet that the critics are wrong. In this program, NOVA, in collaboration with the reporting staff of The New York Times, probes the rapidly evolving science of war.

NOVA was given unprecedented access to top military officials and defense contractors to tell the story of how "smart" weapons became "brilliant"—accurate to within two meters of their target. The program also reveals the inside story of how those "brilliant" weapons worked yet ultimately failed to prevent a guerrilla war.

The program's producer investigates the laboratories of American weapon designers, witnessing their scramble to create systems built to counter threats from terrorists and guerrillas. Among the ingenious new products: weapons that automatically detect and return sniper fire within milliseconds, and robots that disarm the hundreds of handmade roadside bombs targeting Allied soldiers.

NOVA also goes deep inside the Pentagon, where the Combating Terrorism Technology Task Force meets. A working group of intelligence agencies and counterterrorism experts hastily convened in the aftermath of September 11th, this task force has a mandate to fast-track technologies that can immediately help the war on terror. Dr. Ron Sega, a former astronaut, oversees $60 billion of the Pentagon's annual research budget. He briefs NOVA on the group's strategy and activities.

As remarkable as these new weapon systems are, their real value may come from a transformed military culture, as NOVA learns from Adm. Arthur Cebrowski, head of the Pentagon's Office of Force Transformation. Cebrowski is a celebrated proponent of network-centric warfare, a new doctrine that enables commanders and soldiers to cut through the notorious "fog of war" by sharing all possible information about a conflict in real time—then using that information to overwhelm the enemy. (To hear Cebrowski tell it, see Transforming Warfare.) Among the intelligence-gathering organizations making this possible is the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency—also visited by NOVA—which assembles surveillance from satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles, and other sources to create multilayered maps for almost any point on Earth.

Despite the remarkable scale of this technological effort, its ultimate value in the war on terror is called into question by one of America's most respected historians and military strategists, Major General Robert Scales, Jr. Former Commandant of the Army War College and coauthor (with Williamson Murray) of the book The Iraq War (Read an excerpt.) Scales tells NOVA that "intelligence is not just about collecting and processing great amounts of information, it is about understanding the enemy as he is. Without political knowledge—immersion in the language, culture, and history of the region—data gathered by technological means may only reinforce preconceived, erroneous, sometimes disastrous notions."

NOVA examines how some of these preconceived notions may have been evident in Millennium Challenge 2002, an elaborate war-game simulation designed to test this new military doctrine in advance of the invasion of Iraq. The "enemy" commander for the simulation, retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper, describes how he was able to use unconventional tactics to challenge U.S. tactics—even to sink U.S. ships—despite the high-tech war machine arrayed against him. Van Riper claims it was a lesson that was ignored in the rush to implement this new way of fighting wars. (Hear more on this topic from Van Riper.)

Are critics right to charge that the United States is in danger of another Vietnam-style debacle? Or are Pentagon insiders correct in insisting that America knows its enemy better than ever and is well on the road to defeating it? "Battle Plan Under Fire" gives necessary background to frame a smart answer.

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Is the American military's reliance on advanced technology coming at the expense of a thorough understanding of the basic elements of warfare? A variety of military experts weigh in on this question in "Battle Plan Under Fire."

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Battle Plan Under Fire
Unconventional Combat

Unconventional Combat
An excerpt from The Iraq War on fighting the conflict's latest phase.

Transforming Warfare

Transforming Warfare
Arthur Cebrowski on how "network-centric warfare" is changing war.

The Immutable Nature of War

The Immutable Nature of War
Paul Van Riper on how technology will never alter the essence of war.

Time Line of UAVs

Time Line of UAVs
Explore the history of unmanned aerial vehicles.

Imaging with Radar

Imaging with Radar
See what synthetic aperture radar can "see" in this interactive.

Designing For Stealth

Designing For Stealth
How do you render a 15-ton hunk of flying metal nearly invisible?



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