Young and old, high-tekkies are fascinated by military's precisely accurate arsenal


January 24, 1991|By Jean Marbella

Jeremy Sibold, 16 years old and a Baltimore Polytechnic Institute student, is talking about the war. And, unconsciously, his hands start working an imaginary joystick.

Perhaps his flight of fancy has placed him in an F-15 sortie over Baghdad or an A-10 rescue mission over endless desert. Or perhaps he is just in his Roland Park home, playing an advanced flight trainer computer game.

For the technologically attuned like Jeremy -- the technoscenti, you might call them -- the war in the Persian Gulf so far has been their kind of war. The sleek fighter planes, the pinpoint-accurate bombs, the laser-guided missiles -- this is a war that seems to have leapt from their drafting tables, computer screens and imaginations.

"It's been a vindication of high technology," says Bill Stealey, a former Air Force officer and founder of MicroProse Software of Hunt Valley. "It's a vindication when you have a missile on your backside and it doesn't get you. Somebody's got to be doing something right."

Mr. Stealey, whose company sells combat simulation games featuring the F-15 Eagle and the Stealth fighter (two stars of the current U.S air war), is a member of a sort of subculture that has emerged since high-tech became a pervasive part of our lives.

These are the people at the opposite end of the techno-continuum from the types who can't even program their own VCRs. They include everyone from scientists and students in the high-tech fields, to readers who have made techno-thriller authors like Tom Clancy so popular, to boys and girls fighting Nintendo battles and board game wars in their homes.

For such people, the Gulf war has been fascinating because of the techno-wizardry.

"Our last real war was Vietnam, and since then we have all these new toys to play with," said one Westinghouse engineer, who asked not to be named. "You can imagine some general just dying to use the Tomahawk . . . and finally getting to."

Like the rest of us, he and his co-workers find themselves talking every day about the war. But unlike the rest of us, their discussion is peppered with such things as back-of-the-envelope calculations on just how fast those Scud missiles fly.

Yet understanding throw weights and payloads hasn't made those in the tech-know less dazzled than the rest of us by the military's successful bombing raids. In fact, knowing what they know makes the military's feats that much more amazing, they said.

"I'm surprised the technology has worked so well because the technology is so complicated," said Roger Westgate, chairman of the electrical and computer engineering department of Johns Hopkins University.

While many have called the gulf war a "Tom Clancy war" because of the starring role played by high-tech weapons, Mr. Clancy himself denies that machinery is fueling this fight.

"People are so damned fascinated by the technology. The story is the people," said Mr. Clancy, whose novels, however, are perhaps better known for the former than the latter. "Machines don't fight wars; people fight wars."

Mr. Clancy, a sort of author laureate to the techno-set, says the media has overplayed the so-called Nintendo aspect of the war. While a "wizzo," or weapons systems operator, uses a joystick to fire a laser-guided bomb, it's hardly comparable to using a joystick to play a computerized game,Mr. Clancy said.

"You're at a bar, you have a beer on the side, and you think it's easy to do," said Mr. Clancy, who lives in Calvert County. "It's not like that. [The pilot's] sitting in an airplane that's going more than 400 miles an hour, that's continuously changing speed and direction, and he's moving the joystick through all that."

Jeremy Sibold, who plays a flight simulation game on his personal computer, can attest to the difficulty of flying -- even if you never really get off the ground.

"I always end up crashing," said Jeremy, who hopes to attend the U.S. Naval Academy.

He and his friend, Michael McGlynn, also a 16-year-old Poly student, have been riveted to the media coverage of the war and, as science aficionados, find it particularly fascinating.

"It's like something you see in 'Star Trek,' " said Michael, who lives in Highlandtown. "When it comes on TV, I have a hard time studying."

"We've never seen this before -- this is our first war," Jeremy explained. "And having the cameras in the planes -- that's amazing. The precision of the bombing . . . it really surprised me how accurate we were."

This stunning accuracy, as demonstrated by bombs going through doors and chimneys, is a point of pride among those in high-tech fields, who have had to listen as people speculated that America has lost its edge in such matters to other countries.

"It is pretty incredible what we can do," said Priscilla McKerracher, a physicist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. "Look at all the great equipment we developed that the Japanese had nothing to do with."

And because they have such an understanding of the technology involved, scientists are perhaps less caught up in the elation of the first few days of war -- the "techno-euphoria," as one physicist has called it -- than the rest of us.

"This is not all that war is about," said Mark Herman, a defense consultant and military historian, who designed the Monarch Avalon "Gulf Strike" board game that has sold out in stores as the real war intensified.

"We've always excelled at air power. Right now you're watching us do the air game," he said. "The ground game, it'll be much more even. [Saddam] Hussein has some very good artillery pieces."

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