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THE HIGH TECH FANTASY

Am I kidding myself?
Am I completely out of touch?

March 2002

My brother Jim, a major in the U.S. Army and the youngest of us six Brown siblings, has been exchanging some lively e-mails with me recently on the evolving state of the U.S. military.

[IMAGE] For Jim, these discussions are not just theoretical--he’s working on his thesis for Army Command Staff Officers School, one of the prerequisites for higher command positions--but professional: he’s a tanker by trade, a former tank company commander in the M1A1 Abrams main battle tank. As a future commander employing large numbers of these sixty-ton behemoths, he’s concerned about whether or not they are fit for the modern battlefield.

His argument is yes, they do have a place--that it’s not the machines that must change per se, but the mindset of the men and women employing them. The “graybeards,” as he calls the old guys in the Army, must think about using high-tech gadgets and learn about picking up the tempo of the modern battlefield: Speed Is Life. The younger troops must learn about maneuver warfare, think about four-dimensional levels of conflict.

Hidden in his arguments and special insights is another recurrent theme: that technology is not the savior everyone thinks it will be. The gadgets are important, he implies, but the soldiers on the ground with rifles in their hands still represent the cutting-edge of the modern U.S. military machine.

On the Discovery Channel, I watched a show on U.S. Navy SEALs, and the underlying message was the same: all the high-tech gadgets in the world will never replace the soldier on the ground, rifle in hand, planning his assault and taking on the enemy in a battle that is as much about strategy and tactics as it is about marksmanship and courage under fire.

So when I write about robot warplanes, satellite-guided bombs, global-range microtransceivers, electronic helmet-mounted sensors that can portray a “God’s-eye” view of the battle to a pilot or commander thousands of miles away--am I delusional? Am I simply writing science-fiction?

My answer is no. I watched that show on Navy SEALs blowing up a bridge and destroying an anti-aircraft gun emplacement, and I thought: I can think of a dozen ways to take out that gun and that bridge without risking the lives of a SEAL team. For the past ten years, the Joint STARS aircraft could detect, track, and target vehicles from hundreds of miles away. Unmanned aerial combat vehicles with low-light TV cameras, heat-seeking sensors, millimeter-wave radars, or ultrawide band sensors can detect vehicles at night or in bad weather, hidden under dense brush, or even hidden underground; some of those unmanned aircraft, steered by satellite-delivered commands, can even launch Maverick precision-guided missiles at the targets they spot.

Rather than turn away from the new age of technology sweeping over us, I choose to embrace it. The twenty-first century battlefield IS different. Fighting a war via satellite by robot aircraft may not be sexy or considered “real” warfighting--but I believe it is the future of combat. We shouldn’t shun it--rather, we should embrace it..

So every time my brother tried to emphasize the importance of the soldier to the success of the U.S. on the twenty-first century battlefield, the more I was convinced that I must portray the other side--the importance of modern technology on the battlefield. It may not be sexy, or glamorous--it may not even make an absolutely riveting novel. But it is real, and therefore it absolutely belongs in my work.

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