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High-Tech War
Special Report

The Technology That Changed War

By Phil Craig

In the summer of 2003, while standing with a PBS film crew in the middle of U.S. Space Command's Global Positioning System (GPS) control room, somewhere deep under the state of Colorado, I suddenly realized that one of the oldest journalistic clichés was, at this moment, entirely appropriate: I was witnessing history being made. The dozen or so young men and women sitting at their computer consoles were central players in one of the most important technological and military revolutions of all time.

Because of what takes place in this room, the U.S. military can today guide a weapon to within three metres of a chosen target anywhere in the world, at any time of the day or night and in any weather conditions. The weapon itself can be dropped from 50,000 feet or flown in from hundreds of miles away, at minimal risk to U.S. personnel. It is hard to imagine a technological change that has had a similar impact on international affairs. The development of the tank? The first flight of a military aircraft? The invention of gunpowder? It is somewhere at that level.

The weapon is called the Joint Direct Attack Munition or JDAM. Its guidance system is driven by GPS. The story of the JDAM is a story of the relationship between technology, politics and war. It illustrates how a scientific breakthrough can have spin-off effects far beyond those first imagined. It also highlights the role played by a government agency called DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) in linking the military, scientific and commercial communities. Many of the latest hi-tech weapons and systems began with DARPA support.

In the early 1990s, the Pentagon was planning what it called a "Revolution in Military Affairs" (RMA). The plan was to exploit the many technological advances of the 1980s and offer the Department of Defense new ways of fighting war that would also limit U.S. casualties. The Vietnam war had demonstrated to the U.S. military that the nation had a low tolerance for "body bags" and for inflicting civilian casualties on its enemies. Thus political pressure (keep the death toll down, avoid collateral damage) merged with technological opportunity, mediated by DARPA.

Finding a reliable precision weapon was at the heart of the RMA; indeed, it had been the military's Holy Grail for decades. The first one to be perfected was the laser-guided bomb, which had been under development since Vietnam. Laser weapons burst into the public consciousness in the 1991 Gulf War, as amazed TV viewers saw grainy video images of flashing dots over targets followed by huge explosions. But the public did not see the many near misses and outright failures, nor did it know that the laser-guided weapon did not work reliably in poor light conditions, especially during the sandstorms that regularly lashed the Iraqi and Kuwaiti deserts.

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weaponry and warfare

Era: The Bronze Age
Years: 3500 to 1000 B.C.
Details: During this time wooden, stone, and bone weapons were replaced by axes, spears, swords, daggers, and shields using bronze and copper.

Era: The Roman Empire
Years: 1st Century B.C. to 4th Century A.D.

Era: The Post-Roman Age
Years: 7th Century to 15th Century

Era: Modern Age
Years: 1800 to Today

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