Gulf, Vietnam are wars apart Technology is big difference PERSIAN GULF SHOWDOWN DL : Dhahran, Saudia Arabia

January 23, 1991

DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- High technology is one thing -- the biggest thing, perhaps -- that sets this war apart from Vietnam.

Technology in aerial combat between attack and defensive missiles, guiding Patriots to their destructive rendezvous with Scuds. Technology for pilots, enabling them to skim the ground, juke to avoid flak and perform other jazzy maneuvers, all at night or in the clouds.

Technology that guides cruise missiles so precisely that one fired from a battleship in the Red Sea clipped a communications tower in Baghdad neatly in two, according to witnesses in the Iraqi capital.

Technology that makes this a real-time war, with a speech by Saddam Hussein or a briefing at the Pentagon or even a Scud-vs.-Patriot duel over Saudi Arabia visible in Baghdad and Washington and London at the same time.

Technology that links reporters in Dhahran instantly with editors in New York or Los Angeles, commanders and staff officers in Riyadh continuously with the Pentagon and the White House.

Pilots in Vietnam could do little more than find their way from one airstrip to another after sunset, worrying all the while about running into a mountain. The enemy owned the night, except for a few sniper scopes and an old plane fitted with a Gatling gun, known as Puff the Magic Dragon.

This time, if the new-fangled scopes and gadgets work as they're supposed to work -- and that's still a large "if," though early evidence is highly encouraging -- allied infantrymen and tank crews will have the upper hand in the dark, as the allied pilots already do.

Comparing the endearing little UH-1 Huey helicopter, which saved so many lives and seemed like such a piece of technical wizardry, to the fearsome Apache attack helicopters here is like comparing a Model T to a Lamborghini.

Only 25 years ago, well within the working lifetimes of many of the combatants and some of the correspondents in the war in the Persian Gulf, reporters sent their dispatches from Vietnam by radio telegraph, which was sometimes interrupted by sunspots, and television cameramen had to ship combat footage to Hong Kong or Tokyo, and then on to the United States, by plane.

A newspaper reporter who spent almost three years in Saigon talked more times to his editors on his first day in Saudi Arabia than he did in the entire time he was in Vietnam. Stories are written on computers now, not on typewriters, and they are transmitted by satellite.

There are problems with all of this, of course. Greater and greater complexity means more and more glitches and more and more repairs. Modems and lasers are a lot more temperamental than notebooks and hand grenades.

Then there is the tendency to believe, after a time, that the machines -- "systems," as the military calls them -- are somehow magical and final, when of course they are not.

A runway cratered or a bridge dropped or a transmitter damaged by a sophisticated missile is no more and no less replaceable or repairable than a similar target damaged by an old iron bomb.

Finally, the effect of the communications revolution is to speed things up so much that time for decision-making is minimized and time for reflection is often eliminated.

A hundred stories and a thousand pictures have testified already to the presence of women in the ranks in unprecedented numbers, but there has been less comment about another major change: the much larger numbers of black officers involved here, starting at the top with Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and spreading down through the ranks.

Col. Daniel James, an air ace in Vietnam, was one of relatively few black pilots. Black naval officers were more unusual. That has all changed, a result, like the presence of so many women so close to the front, of the social revolution that followed and was partly caused by the Vietnam War.

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